The Irish Wolfhound is the world's largest breed of dog. The name is quite a recent one but the hound itself goes back far into the mists of time. The name it was given in ancient Ireland was "Cu" (variously translated as hound, Irish hound, war dog, wolf dog, etc.) and it is mentioned in Irish laws, which predate Christianity, and in Irish literature which dates from the 5th century or, in the case of the Sagas, from the Old Irish period A.D. 600-900.
The Great Irish Hound was only permitted to be owned by kings and the nobility but there were plenty of them as there were 150 kingdoms in Ancient Ireland as the country was divided into Fifths, each with a king, and each Fifth comprised numerous kingdoms, each of which had a lesser king subject to the kings of the Fifths.
The number of hounds each person was permitted to own depended on his position. For example, the Filid (the professional class of composers of Sagas and other tales, who were of the lesser nobility) were entitled to two hounds.
The hounds were used as war dogs to haul men off horseback and out of chariots and there are many tales in Irish mythology of their ferocity and bravery in battle. They were also used as guards of property and herds and for hunting Irish elk as well as deer, boar, and wolves and were held in such high esteem that battles were fought over them.
The second century A.D. saw the rise of the Fianna, who were foot soldiers. Each Fian had two hounds, while the greatest of their chiefs, Fionn Mac Cumall, had three hundred full-grown hounds and puppy hounds two hundred. Fionn's favourite hound was Bran, who always killed more men or beasts than Fionn.
Dating from the middle of the 4th century, we have the description of Celtic hounds in the works of Arrian: "There is nothing more beautiful to see, whether their eyes, or their whole body, or their coat and colour". "The neck should be long, round, and flexible. Wide chests are better than narrow ones. The legs should be long, straight, and well-knit, the ribs strong, the back wide and firm without being fat, the belly well drawn up, the thighs hollow, the tail narrow, hairy, long and flexible with thicker hairs adorning the tip. The feet should be round and firm. These hounds may be of any colour."
They were much coveted and were frequently given as gifts to important personages and foreign nobles. Often the hounds' collars and chains were of precious metal: There were seven hounds held with silver chains with a ball of gold between each of them, and with a long chain of antique silver he held in leash two hounds of the chase.
In 1210 A.D. an Irish Hound was send as a gift to Llewellyn, King of Wales, by Prince (later King) John of England. This hound was probably Gelert, slain by Llewellyn under the misapprehension that the hound had killed his baby son when, in fact, the hound had killed a wolf that had got into the baby's room. Gelert's burial place is known as Beddgelert.
During the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries these gifts of hounds increased greatly. Some of the recipients were the Great Mogul, The Emperor Jehangier, the Shah of Persia, and Cardinal Richelieu. Large numbers were sent to Spain and King John of Poland is said to have contributed to their near extinction in Ireland by procuring as many as he could lay hands on. In 1652 a declaration was issued banning the exportation of hounds from Ireland on account of their scarcity.
In 1770 Goldsmith wrote: The last variety and the most wonderful of all that I shall mention, is the Great Irish wolfdog, that may be considered as the first of the canine species…….Nevertheless he is extremely beautiful and majestic in appearance, being the greatest of the dog kind to be seen in the world.
The last wolf in Ireland is said to have been killed by a Mr. Watson in County Carlow in 1786 and, once their prey was gone, the Irish wolfhound went into decline with only a few families keeping them "more for ornament than for use" and complaints abounded that they were reduced in size, made coarse through being crossed with Great Danes, or so crossed that two were hardly seen alike.
In the mid 19th century a Major H.D. Richardson (a Scot living in Dublin) wrote a book (entitled The Dog: Its Origin, Natural History, and Varieties) in which he asserted that the Irish wolfdog and the Highland deerhound were one and the same breed, although much degenerated in the latter. Richardson wrote several articles on the wolfhound, exhorting gentlemen to save the breed before it was too late. Eventually he began breeding, basing much of his efforts on the Glengarry deerhounds which were noted for their size and heavy build. Glengarry appeared to have had the object of producing a strain of hounds, one brace of which (dog and bitch) should be sufficient to track, follow, and pull down a deer, and he bred the bitches almost as large as the dogs.
Little is known of Richardson's breeding programme but it is probable he used some outcrosses, including one to a Pyrenean. It has also been said that Glengarry used a Pyrenean, but that was a different type to the breed we know today, being taller and less heavy, with prick ears, and resembling the ancient Spanish hounds from which it was descended.
The next to appear on the scene was Captain George Augustus Graham, determined to bring the Irish wolfhound back to its former glory. Not only were there very few specimens available of the old blood lines, but some of them were not able to breed and others were very delicate. He complained that death and disease robbed him of his finest specimens. Capt. Graham made no secret of his use of outcrosses, mainly Glengarry deerhounds, but some Borzoi and one Tibetan. He did not himself use a Great Dane but he did acquire the progeny of such crosses, mainly from the Earl of Caledon who used a Harlequin Dane called "Earl of Warwick". Crosses with Gt. Danes were carried out well into the 1930s.
The breed had problems during both of the World Wars. In the 1914-18 war, the progeny of Hindhead Mollie kept the breed going. Her sire was Hy Niall, which was bought as a puppy from a tramp and registered as an Irish wolfhound with a made-up pedigree. The sire which did most to help at this time was Sulhamstead Pedlar.
By the end of the 1939-45 war just about every hound was by Clonboy of Ouborough or his sons or out of his daughters and it was for this reason that the Amercian Irish Wolfhound Club gave the U.K. Club Rory of Kihone. Rory went to Sanctuary kennels and was extensively used, doing a great deal to help the breed out of the doldrums. Another American dog that came to this country at about the same time was Barney O'Shea of Riverlawn, but unfortunately he died quite soon after and only sired a few litters.
Captain Graham and other breeders founded the Irish Wolfhound Club in 1885. The Kennel Club recognised the Irish wolfhound as a sporting breed in 1925. In 1902 a hound was first presented to the Irish Guards as a mascot.
The Irish Wolfhound Society was founded in 1981.