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 ( ). 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
Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine and Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine
University of Manchester

A Royal Love Affair

Today Buckingham Palace sadly announced the death of Monty, one of the Queen’s beloved corgis. It’s well known that the Queen has a particular affection for the Welsh corgi but her predecessors had a fondness for much more exotic breeds.

Both the Pekingese and borzoi are two of the focus breeds featured in our forthcoming exhibition Breed: The British and their Dogs, and their patronisation by the royal family is well documented. Queen Victoria’s Pekingese Looty was presented to her by Lieutenant Dunne in the late 19th century. Dunne, along with other British and French troops, had captured the dog following the defeat of China in the Second Opium War in 1860. Prior to this the Pekingese had belonged exclusively to the Chinese imperial household.

Pekingese figure made by Carl Fabergé. UK, 1907, precious stone. The Royal Collection © 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The borzoi had equally impressive imperial connections. This breed, originally used for hunting wolves, was a favourite of the Russian imperial family, and the Tsar’s kennels were globally renowned. This imperial proximity and luxurious association made it the target of Russian revolutionaries in 1917. The Tsar’s kennels were closed and the dogs destroyed. In Britain breeders mobilised to prevent the borzoi’s extinction, this action was dominated by aristocratic women including Queen Alexandra.

Borzoi figure made by Carl Fabergé. UK, 1907, precious stone. The Royal Collection © 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The Royal Collection have very kindly loaned us several objects which illustrate this royal love affair, two of which you can see above.

Over the next several weeks I will reveal the remaining three focus breeds and more of the wonderful objects we’ll have on display.

A Very British Bark

Over the past several months I’ve been working closely with colleagues from the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, the University of Manchester, to produce our latest temporary exhibition Breed: The British and their Dogs. This fascinating exhibition is a cultural exploration of  pedigree dog breeding, a phenomenon which began in 19th century Britain, and focuses on the captivating histories of six specific breeds.

With only four weeks to go before we open on Saturday 6th October objects are beginning to arrive from a whole host of generous lenders including museums, libraries, and dog breeding clubs. The exhibition combines a wonderful array of objects including decorative art, social history and natural science. There will be over one hundred objects on display, each of which illustrate the enduring and affectionate relationship between Britons and their dogs.

The bulldog holds a particularly prominent place in British history and is one of the six focus breeds. It has been portrayed as both sinner and saint over the past several centuries and the exhibition charts this variable status. Salford Museum has very kindly loaned us a  late 19th century jug  which depicts the rather disturbing role of the bulldog as used in bear-bating. The use of the bulldog in this now illegal blood sport earned it a fearsome and ferocious reputation.

Bear-baiting jug. UK, 19th century, porcelain. Salford Museum.

Over the next several weeks I’ll share more of the fantastic objects destined for display with you and reveal more about the remaining five focus breeds!