Mythical Hound or Designer Dog? The Story of the Irish Wolfhound

On 4 November 2012 The Sunday Times reported that the Irish Kennel Club (IKC) wanted the Irish government to give special protection to the country’s native dog breeds (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/ireland/article1159270.ece ). Amongst the breeds mentioned were the Glen of Imaal terrier, the Irish beagle, the Kerry Blue terrier, but special attention was given to the Irish wolfhound.  Sean Delmar, the President of the IKC, stated that this breed had been ‘kept by the Irish for centuries’ and along with the other dogs should be ‘afforded protection as symbols of our national heritage’.  A recent issue of the IKC magazine stated that the origins of the dog ‘stretch back into the mists of Irish time’.

Irish wolfhound as displayed in the exhibition Breed: The British and their Dogs, Manchester Museum. The taxidermy specimen is on loan from the Natural History Museum, London. 2012.

 The Irish wolfhound is one of the breeds featured in Manchester Museum’s exhibition on Breed: The British and their Dogs which opened last month and runs until 14 April 2013.  The exhibition draws on a project on the history of modern dog breeds in the Victorian era and the display on the Irish wolfhound reveals that its origins are in England in the Victorian era.  It was certainly one of the most controversial breeds of the nineteenth century.  The history told then was that it once amongst the famous and sought after dogs in Europe, famed for its size and ability to hunt down wolves.  However, as the wolf population of Ireland declined, the last pair being killed in 1786, such hunting dogs went out of favour and had disappear altogether by the start of the nineteenth century.

Irish wolfhound display in the exhibition Breed: The British and their Dogs at Manchester Museum. 2012.

In the 1860s, George Augustus Graham, a Scot and ex-Indian Army officer who lived in Gloucestershire, decided to revive the Irish wolfhound.  He had heard that there some dogs in Ireland with wolfhound blood and he set out to find them.  He bought three dogs he was assured were of the right descent and took them back to his estate in England.  They were a motley lot and proved hard to breed from; one was infertile and the others produced weak dogs.  However, there was a question about what type and size of dog Graham should aim to revive.  No one alive remembered the dogs, so Graham turned to books, poems, travelogues and paintings.  No consistent type was represented.  Some descriptions emphasised size ( 4-5 feet in height!); others described a greyhound-like form, but this competed with views that it had been a mastiff or deerhound. There were also varying views on its colour, type of coat and character.

On this basis of his research Graham decided on a particular form, height, colour and coat, and a life size model was said to have been made;  although the only direct record we have is the ideal dog overdrawn on a photograph of Graham (see the image below).  A dog of the appropriate form was eventually produced, allegedly with Graham introducing blood from Scottish deerhounds (for shape), Great Dane (for size), borzois (for its greyhound shape) and Tibetans (for a rough coat).

Captain Graham and his ideal Irish wolfhound as featured in his annotated version of his own book the Irish Wolfhound. 1885.

Graham’s dog was challenged by H. W. Hickman, a breeder from Birmingham.  In a correspondence with Graham and others in the Livestock Journal and Fancier’s Gazette in 1879-80, he claimed that the true Irish wolfdog – not hound – was smooth-haired and more like a greyhound or Great Dane, not the rough coated animal that Graham had produced.  His grounds for this was his reading of sources on Irish mythology and history, plus the descriptions of George-Louis Comte de Buffon and above all challenging the authority of Major H.D. Richardson’s book The Dog: Its Origin, Natural History, and Varieties, published in 1842.  Hickman objected strongly to Richardson’s claim that the Irish wolfhound and the Scotch deerhound were the same breed, and that Scotch was a degenerate form of the Irish!  Hickman, a breeder of Scotch deerhounds, argued that Richardson was simply wrong and that Graham, who had followed Richardson’s plea to save the breed, had been misguided.  He wrote:

‘I am sorry to oppose Mr GRAHAM, whose patience and determination for so many years in the pursuit of his theory, are worthy of – as I take it – a better cause; but if we are to have a new manufacture, let us at least have it in accordance with the direct evidence we possess, and not encourage a dog which is a creature of inference, supposition and conjecture.’

However, Graham’s type proved popular and was recognised by the Kennel Club in 1897.

There is no doubt that as a cultural icon the Irish wolfhound has its origins in ‘the mists of Irish time’, however, the modern physical specimen originated in the 1860s in England, through the work of a Scotsman likely breeding with Scottish, Danish, Russian and Tibetan dogs. 

Professor Mick Worboys
Director
Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine and Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine
University of Manchester

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One thought on “Mythical Hound or Designer Dog? The Story of the Irish Wolfhound

  1. Thank you for the informative blog. I had an irish wolfhound – or so he was said to be – that I liberated from the Kenya Society for the Protection of Animals. Spock. A wonderful, huge, friendly dog that for years did exactly what he was supposed to do: Alternatively terrify and amuse friends and others here in burundi (central Africa).

    The several decades of virtually inventing dog ‘breeds’ in europe and the uk in late 19th.C. and early 20th.C. is indeed fascinating.

    dianabuja.

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