ONE CONSEQUENCE of the extinction of the Irish wolf, about which we read earlier this week, was the near-extinction of his nemesis, the Irish wolfhound. Near-extinction is putting it mildly, perhaps. Some would say the real wolfhound has in fact gone the way of the dodo. And certainly it’s hard to equate the big, gentle, lolloping versions of today with the fast, ferocious hunting dogs of history and legend.
Is the modern show-dog, pet, and regimental mascot really a descendant of the packs that saw off Ireland’s wild wolves and boars? Or of the seven wolfhounds sent to Rome in AD 391 by Quintus Aurelius, transported in cages for the safety of an awestruck public, and deployed in gladiatorial arenas to fight “lions, bears, and captive saxons?” It seems even less likely that any latter-day wolfhound might contain the DNA of the mythical guard-dog killed in action by Setanta, in whose stead the latter became Cuchulainn.
But as coincidence would have it, last month marked the centenary of the death of a certain Captain George Augustus Graham: the man who did more than anyone else in modern times to revive the breed. A Scotsman whose earlier interest was in the Scottish deerhound, Graham acquired his first wolfhound in 1859, when he was 26, and it became the passion of his life. His last 50 years were spent researching, promoting, and propagating the breed.
Graham was adamant that the ancient wolfhound was not quite extinct by then. But he accepted it was a shadow of its former self, condemned to centuries of decline after the success of its original mission left it without a vocation. Indeed, generations of cross-breeding with deerhounds, greyhounds, and Great Danes had confused the picture of what exactly a wolfhound should look like.
A famous fifth-century description, in the writings of Oisín, son of Fingal, was more poetic than informative: “Eyes of sloe, with ears not low,/ A horse’s breast, with depth of chest,/ A breadth of loin, with curve of groin,/ And nape set far behind the head: Such were the dogs that Fingal bred.”
But modern writers were not always much help, either. Goldsmith wrote of having seen one that stood 48 inches tall: which would be a full foot higher than any modern breeder has managed. Dr Johnson, who was also known to exaggerate, claimed that during a tour of Ireland, he had seen a wolfhound’s skull as large as a donkey’s.
Even among aficionados, there was debate about whether the truest form of the animal had straight hair, like a greyhound, or curly. The Natural History Museum in Dublin has a stuffed version of the former type, although the rough-haired kind seems to have emerged triumphant from the argument. In any case, whatever genetic authenticity the latter-day wolfhound has is owed to Capt Graham’s assiduous work.
James Joyce was among the sceptics. In Ulysses , he satirised the attempts to revive this ancient canine race via “Garryowen,” the wolfhound belonging to “The Citizen” (Michael Cusack, the GAA founder). While crediting it with an ability to compose poetry, Joyce also portrays the dog as a mangy mongrel, comprising a bit of Red Setter and perhaps several other breeds.
But even without Joyce’s derision, the wolfhound’s reputation as Ireland’s national dog was, like its breeding, mixed. Yes, it became part of the logo of the National Theatre. And when the Free State introduced its first coinage in 1928 featuring a series of domestic and wild animals, the wolfhound (a straight-haired version, apparently, although this may have been an artistic compromise with the size of the coin) was allocated to the sixpence, where it stayed until decimalisation.
Many official monuments incorporate the dog also. Wolfhounds feature on the base of Daniel O’Connell’s statue in central Dublin; on top of the GPO; and in many other places. In popular culture too, the dogs have been used as a shorthand for Irishness, as on the cover of Van Morrison’s 1974 album Veedon Fleece, where a pair of shaggy wolfhounds flank the (also shaggy) singer.
But in Ireland, even dogs can be politicised, and the wolfhound did not escape this fate completely. From ancient times, when only the nobility could keep them, the hounds were associated with Ireland’s overlords. To some extent, this reputation continued under English rule. The Citizen’s mongrel notwithstanding, the wolfhound was seen in some quarters as an ascendancy dog, even before it became a mascot for the British army’s Irish regiments.
Michael Collins may have thought so anyway. A well-known dog enthusiast, he favoured another fighting Irish breed, the Kerry Blue. It is said that he planned to make this the official national dog of Ireland, before his death intervened. In any case, he was partly responsible for a vogue Blue Terriers enjoyed during Ireland’s revolutionary period.
While still on the run in 1920, he exhibited his own Kerry Blue, named “Convict 224,” at a Dublin dog show. A flavour of the period is suggested by some of the other names, including “Trotsky,” “Markavich” (sic), and “Dawn of Freedom.” Collins didn’t win the cup which, since it was presented by a British army captain, may have been just as well. But he later sponsored his own perpetual trophy for the breed, and Kerry Blue owners have been competing for it ever since.
Reprinted with permission by Frank McNally http://www.irishtimes.com