The Irish Wolfhound is an ancient breed, shrouded in myth and legend. Through old woodcuts, frescoes, paintings, and writings, historians have determined that the breed has existed since as early as 273 B.C. The first authentic mention was written by the Roman Consul, Quintus Aurelius, who had received seven of them as a gift that “all Rome viewed with wonder.”
The oldest known image of the original wolf-dog can be found in Johann Elias Ridinger’s 18th-century book of animal engravings, entitled Entwurf einiger Thiere. Literary references to the Irish Wolfhound of the era tell of its great size, strength, Greyhound shape, and scarcity. Writing in 1790, Thomas Bewick described it as, “the largest and most beautiful of the dog kind: about 36 inches high, generally of a white or cinnamon colour, and somewhat like the Greyhound but more robust. The aspect is mild, disposition peaceful, and strength so great that neither the Mastiff nor the Bulldog can equal him in combat.”
In the earliest times, the dogs were called “Cu,” meaning Irish hound or “Wolfe Dogges,” and only royalty or nobility owned them. They served their masters in war as “guard dogs” or as hunters of the wolves and Irish elk. Often, they were gifted to foreign royalty. Known for their hunting prowess, the “Big Dogs of Ireland” were so popular that many were exported. By the seventeenth century, the breed was reaching extinction, and in a 1652 effort to preserve them, Oliver Cromwell banned their export from Ireland. Ostensibly, in 1786, after the last wolf in Ireland met his end, the dogs soon followed suit. Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) reported that he could find no more than three wolf-dogs when he visited Ireland. During the 1836 meeting of the Geological Society of Dublin, Dr. John Scouler presented the “Notices of Animals which have disappeared from Ireland,” with the wolfdog mentioned.
Reviving the Irish Wolfhound
We owe the preservation of the breed to Scottish Deerhound breeder Captain George Augustus Graham (1833–1909), a Scottish officer in the British army who collected as many remaining specimens of the “true” Irish hounds as he could find, and began a breeding program that lasted 23 years. To resurrect the disappearing breed, he bred them with Deerhound, Borzoi, Tibetan Mastiff, and Great Dane crosses. In 1885, Graham founded the “Irish Wolfhound Club.” He served as the club’s first president and held office from 1885–1908. Major P.S. Shewell was president from 1910–1915, and J.W. Booth, Esq., from 1922–1925. Under Captain Graham’s supervision, The Kennel Club created and accepted the first breed standard, and the Irish Wolfhound began appearing in registered shows. However, the dogs that the Irish Wolfhound Club were promoting were surrounded by controversy regarding the purity of the dogs’ bloodlines. Many dog enthusiasts believed that the strain was too diluted from the original “Wolfe Dogges” of ancient times. Whether Captain Graham and his contemporaries revived the breed, or manufactured what they felt to be a representative dog of the ancient Irish hound, we have them to thank for the magnificent Wolfhounds we see today.
In 1902, The Irish Guards adopted Rajay of Kindna, a wolfhound, as their mascot. Since then, they have never been without one.
Irish Wolfhounds in Canada and the United States
In 1633, four Irish wolfhounds were shipped to John Winthrop Jr., in New England. He was the son and namesake of the founder and first governor of The Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The first literary mention of the Irish Wolfhound in North America is in the book Two Years in Canada, by Major Samuel Strickland, published in 1825. Then, in 1832, Fr. Edmund Hogan then reported that Mr. Wilmot Chetwode of England had given a pair of young hounds to his cousin, Mr. Henry N. Thompson, who took them home to Freeport, Armstrong County, in Pennsylvania.
In the early 1800s, Tiger and Lion were the best documented Irish Wolfhounds to arrive in America. They were sent from England to Mr. Henry Hastings Sibley (1811–1891), the first Governor of the State of Minnesota. The story of these hounds is recorded in Memoirs of My Life, a book by John Charles Freemont (1886). Governor Sibley had a life-size portrait of Lion painted in 1842.
In 1897 two hounds came to the United States, and it was not until 1908 that three more were registered, followed by another in 1909, and one in 1910. Then, there were no other registrations until 1920. One more joined the registry in that year, and in 1925, eleven wolfhounds were registered. The number of registrations remained very low for decades. There was a momentary upsurge of registrations in 1935, with nine registries, but again the numbers slid downhill, until, in 1950, there were none. The first Irish Wolfhound registered with the American Kennel Club was Ailbe, in 1897. In 1926, The Irish Wolfhound Club of America was founded. The first Irish Wolfhound registered in Canada was Leprichaun (sic), in 1889. He was bred and owned by a Miss Hendrie of Hamilton, Ontario. From 1898 until 1950, there were only 125 registries in Canada.
Irish Wolfhound Facts for Kids — Kiddle Encyclopedia
History of Ireland — by Edmund Champion
The Magnificent Irish Wolfhound — by Mary McBryde, published by Ring Press Books in Gloucestershire, the UK, in 1998. This book contains extensive IW historical information.
Irish Greyhounds and Wolfhounds from the Past — Phyllis & Delphis Gardner