The History of the Great Hounds of Kings, Poets, & Legend

The Irish Wolfhound: The great dog of Kings, Poets, & Legend 

Being the tallest and largest of all dogs, Irish Wolfhounds are known as the “gentle giants” of the canine world. The breed slogan, “Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked” which also appears with a hound on the coat of arms of early Irish kings as a revered symbol of Ireland, basically sums up the finest defining qualities of this unique breed.

Irish Wolfhounds are one of the oldest breeds of dogs recorded in the history of man. They were first known as “Cu” as mentioned in Irish laws which predate Christianity and in Irish Literature which dates from the 5th century or in the case of early tales and Sagas from the old Irish period 600-900 AD. Later they were referred to as the Irish wolf dog, Irish greyhound, or Irish war dog as they earned their reputation for being fierce hunters and warriors fighting along side the Celts protecting them in battles. Their prey was the gigantic (6 foot at the shoulder) Irish elk and the overpopulated wolves that had overrun Ireland at the time. Of great strength and stamina, the wolfhound would lead the hunt, kill the prey, and amazingly carry the quarry back for its masters. The word “Cu” often became an added respected prefix on the names of warriors as well as kings denoting that they were worthy of the respect and loyalty of a Cu (see section on legends). The Irish wolfhounds had attained a legendary status for their strength and bravery as well as their loyal and gentle nature as an incomparable companion for man.

Ancient wood cuts and writings have placed them in existence as a breed by 273 BC. However there is indication that they existed even as early as 600 BC when the Celts sacked Delphi. Survivors left accounts of the fierce Celts and the huge dogs who fought with them and at their side. They were mentioned by Julius Caesar in his treatise, the Gallic Wars, and by 391 BC, they were written about by Roman Consul, Quintus Aurelius, who received seven of them as a gift to be used for fighting lions and bears, that in his words, “all Rome viewed with wonder.” Wolfhounds, like the Gladiators, were often put to service for the pleasure of the crowds in the Circus Maximus. When the Celts were eventually driven back to the British Isles, their prized giant hounds, fierce fighters and gentle companions, retreated with them.

However, Irish Wolfhounds were still held in such high esteem worldwide that individual combats as well as actual wars were fought over them. The right to possess them was an esteemed honor only bestowed upon emperors and kings, the nobility and poets. Like the nobility they served, the hounds were often bejeweled with chains and collars studded with precious gem stones and metals. Ownership of hounds became restricted as they became coveted gifts to royalty and persons of note. An individual’s worth and prestige could be reckoned in the number of wolfhounds that they were allowed to possess (The professional class of composers of Sagas and other tales,aka the Filid, who were of the lesser nobility were entitled to only two hounds).

It is an interesting side note that a decree of William the Conqueror after his conquest of England in 1066 allowed gentlemen/landowners to own bloodhounds(tracking hounds), but only men with “degrees”…the term for a title…could own a coursing breed, thus the coursing breeds became known as “degreehounds.” This later evolved into “greehound,” then lastly into Greyhound. Thus the Irish Wolfhound also became known as the Irish Greyhound.

The Icelandic Saga of Nial memorialized the wolfhounds as the gift of honor with these words:

“I will give thee a dog which I got in Ireland. He is huge of limb, and a follower equal to an able man. Moreover, he hath a man’s wit and will bark at thine enemies but never at thy friends. And he will see by each man’s face whether he be ill or well disposed to thee. And he will lay down his life for thee.”

The courage and strength and the kind gentleness of these dogs had become so legendary, they were subjects of sagas and poems. From a 16th century poem, “And all their manners do confess that courage dwells in gentleness.”

Soon, too many hounds had been exported to various royalty which included the likes of The great Mogul, The Emperor Jehangier, the Shah of Persia and Cardinal Richelieu. Spain also had acquired large numbers, and the Polish King John supposedly contributed greatly to the near extinction of these noble hounds when he procured as many as he could lay hands upon. By 1652 the wolf population had increased significantly and wolves had become problematic in Ireland where the wolfhounds had become scarce in their own land. Total extinction became close at hand. Finally, that year, Cromwell set forth a proclamation banning all exportation.

18th century writer, Oliver Goldsmith wrote in his 1770 Animated Nature, …. “The last variety and most wonderful of all that I shall mention is the great Irish Wolf dog, that may be considered as the first of the canine species…bred up to the houses of the great…he is extremely beautiful and majestic in appearance, being the greatest of the dog kind to be seen in the world….they are now almost worn away and very rarely to be met with…”

It was only through the efforts of first Major H.D. Richardson and then later Captain George Augustus Graham that the breed rallied and survived. The Irish Wolfhound Club was founded in 1885.

Ireland cherishes its animals and of them all, the wolfhound is revered as the greatest symbol of Irish Heritage. The visage of the wolfhound not only can be found on the coat of arms of early Irish kings, but it has also graced all things Irish from coins, to postage stamps to Balleek china.

In the United States, there is a poignant statue sculpted by W.R. O.Donovan with Irish Wolfhounds (as the ultimate symbol of bravery in war) in the Gettysburg National Battlefield in Pennsylvania commemorating the fallen soldiers of the Irish Brigade (63rd, 69th, and 88th New York infantry).


The inscription just below the front paws of the wolfhound reads,
“This, in the matter of size and structure, truthfully represents the Irish wolf-hound,
a dog which has been extinct for more than a hundred years.”
William Rudolph O’Donovan”

The Legends

A well-known Irish epic is the legend of CuChulainn (koo-hoo-lin), perhaps the most famous of the old Irish heroes. As the story goes, he, as a young man named Setanta, came to the castle of a King, but his entrance was barred by a huge hound. He battled with the dog for a day and a night before he was finally able to kill it.

However, he was filled with remorse that he had been forced to slay so fine and noble a beast. The King was full of despair over the loss of his hound and declared: “My life is a waste, and my household like a desert, with the loss of my hound! He guarded my life and my honour, a valued servant, my hound, taken from me. He was shield and shelter for our goods and herds. He guarded our beasts, at home or out in the field.” To make it up to the King, he resolved to act as the King’s hound for a year and a day, and so he came to be known as CuChulainn, “Hound of Cullain”.

The most famous story involving the Irish Wolfhound, The story of Gelert,  took place in the 13th century. King John of England had presented a large hound to Prince Llewellyn of Wales in 1205 AD. The prince resided in his palace in Beddgelert. He named his new hound Gelert, and the hound soon became his favorite. One day he went hunting without the faithful hound, who was unaccountably absent. On Llewelyn’s return, the hound was stained and smeared with blood; joyfully, he sprang to meet his master. Alarmed, the Prince, hastened to check on his infant son. The cradle was empty and the bed clothes and floor were splattered with blood.

The frantic father assuming the worst, plunged his sword into the hound’s side, believing the hound had killed his beloved son. The Wolfhound’s dying call was answered by the child’s cry. Llewelyn searched and discovered his son, unharmed. But nearby the child, lay the bodies of several wolves, slain by Gelert. It’s said that the Prince was so consumed by remorse and shame, he never smiled again. However, the prince supposedly erected a church on the site in memory of his gallant hound.

A more modern true legend is the World War I Story of Bally Shannon. It has been told that he fought in France and dragged many many wounded men out of the fray to the medics and thereby saving their lives. He was a soldier and then one day, Bally Shannon and his master were both wounded at the same time which earned them both a passage on the hospital ship back home. However a smooth passage it was not as the hospital ship was torpedoed by a German submarine. It is told that only 3 men survived including Bally Shannon’s master as they found a piece of wreckage on which to get on top. However there was no room for Bally Shannon since the floating debris could not hold the weight of one more. With non judgmental understanding, Bally Shannon despite his own wounds and exhaustion, swam through the night next to his master’s make shift raft only occasionally resting his chin upon the wreckage in order to grab a little rest to feed his strength. They were picked up in the morning, and ultimately brought to a hospital where Bally Shannon survived and got well, but his poor master succumbed to his wounds and the exposure.

Walter A. Dyer wrote upon meeting Bally Shannon, “He came to the edge of the enclosure and raised himself to his full height, resting his forepaws on the top of the fence. His head was level with mine.

I thought I had never seen so magnificent an animal. All sinew and brawn, powerful, built on lines of speed, he stood there and received my homage. I placed my hand reverently on his broad, shaggy head and let it slide down his muzzle. He took it for an instant in his mouth with the utmost gentleness. I was a stranger to Bally Shannon, but he was the friend of man.

And I looked into his eyes – great, honest, intelligent eyes, utterly human. “I know what you did, Bally Shannon,” said I. “‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.'”

I saw in those eyes the devotion and unquestioning courage that had upheld him that dark night in the Channel water. I saw in them the heritage of his noble race, the spirit of Bran and Luath, of peerless Gelert and the faithful dog of Aughrim. I saw in them, too, the mystery of the dog’s wonderful gift for attaching himself to humankind.

There are people who do not like dogs. I wish they might see noble Bally Shannon and might have the courage frankly to approach him. I know not why God gave the dog this spark of divinity that has made him kin to man. I only know this – that when we shall have learned from the dog the beauty of his virtues of honesty, fidelity, and courage, the world will be a better place for us all, and Hun and savage and Turk will be driven off the face of the earth as the wolves were driven out of Ireland.” From the Story of Bally Shannon Originally printed in Country Life, November 1918.

From Le Mirror, French newspaper

Bally Shannon 1918