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Home Uncategorized A Canine Resurrection

A Canine Resurrection

David Blake Knox

Ireland has one of the highest rates of dog ownership in Europe, and our small island is now home to canine breeds from all over the world. At present, there are hundreds of pedigree dog shows in Ireland every year, with over two hundred clubs, associations and societies that are dedicated to preserving and promoting different types and classes of dog. Among all the varieties, there are nine breeds that can be claimed as native to Ireland. Four of these are terriers: the Irish Soft-Coated Wheaten, the Kerry Blue, the Irish Terrier and the Glen of Imaal. There are three gun dogs: the Irish Red and White Setter, the Irish Red Setter, and the Irish Water Spaniel. Two of Ireland’s native breeds are hounds: the Kerry Beagle and the Irish Wolfhound.

The modern dog-breeding industry was created in England in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the first dog show taking place in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1859. It had been intended as an adjunct to a poultry exhibition, but unexpectedly proved hugely popular. Within a few years, dog shows were being staged all over the UK – including Ireland – and before long they were also established in continental Europe and North America.

From an early stage, there was a marked tendency to claim that each purebred dog was the rightful heir to an ancient dynasty whose origins were obscured by the swirling mists of antiquity. Irish dogs were – and are – no exception to that rule. Indeed they seem to have been particularly prone to attracting such beliefs. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, political ideology played a significant role in shaping popular understanding of the nine breeds of dog deemed native to Ireland. However, none of these breeds have enjoyed quite such a complex and contradictory relationship with this country as the dog that has become one of our most recognisable symbols: the Irish Wolfhound.

There are many accounts of great hounds in Irish mythology. In Celtic Ireland, ownership of dogs was governed by social status, and Wolfhounds were only permitted to be kept by the aristocracy. Fionn mac Cumhail, the leader of the mythical Fianna warrior caste, was clearly near the top of that social ladder, since he was said to be the master of more than three hundred Wolfhounds. Perhaps the best-known Irish legend that involves a great hound is that of Cú Chulainn. The boy Setanta arrived at a feast attended by the king of Ulster , but before he could enter he was attacked by a massive hound that was keeping guard. Setanta killed the dog, and to compensate its owner, Culann, for the loss, he offered to take its place. He also took the name Cú Chulainn: “the hound of Culann”.

The war dogs used by Celtic tribes acquired an international reputation for their ferocity as well as their size. But there are also many Irish stories that relate to the gentler side of their character and the breed seems to have made something of a habit of befriending Irish saints. It was even claimed that Ireland’s national saint had a special connection with the Wolfhound. It appears that Saint Patrick once came unexpectedly upon a pagan Irish prince who was hunting with his favourite dog. The Wolfhound’s first instinct was to attack the saint, but when Patrick muttered a blessing, the dog fell to the ground and licked his outstretched hand. The prince was so impressed that he immediately converted to Christianity – and Patrick sealed the deal by promising that the Wolfhound would be waiting faithfully for him when he arrived at the gates of Heaven.

One of the first reliable descriptions of an Irish Wolfhound comes from a Jesuit priest. In the history of Ireland that he wrote in 1570, Saint Edmund Campion identified the dog as an “Irish Greyhound”, and described it as “bigger in bone and limb” than a young colt. The Wolfhound was also identified as a “Wolf-dog”, and the different nomenclature can sometimes lead to confusion. What is clear is that the animal we now call the Wolfhound belonged to the group of dogs that are known as Sight Hounds. As the name suggests, these breeds – which include Borzoi, Deerhounds, Salukis, Afghans, and Greyhounds – use sight, rather than scent, to find and follow their prey. Typically, they possess a lean body, deep chest and long legs. They are distinct from other breeds of hunting dog, and subdue their quarry by their speed, stamina and strength. Put simply, a Wolfhound had to be fast enough to overtake a wolf, and powerful enough to kill one.

Despite the extensive hunting of Irish wolves, they survived well into the seventeenth century. As late as 1652, a large wolf hunt took place at Castleknock – now a leafy Dublin suburb. Nonetheless, by then the fate of Irish wolves was already sealed, and the person most responsible for their ultimate demise was Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell and his Model Army arrived in Ireland, they were taken aback to find how many wolf packs that still roamed the country, since wolves had been extinct in England for more than a century. Cromwell’s government placed a bounty on wolf pelts that was far in excess of their previous value – and which soon attracted bounty hunters who went about their business with a new sense of urgency, purpose and ruthlessness. The settlers that Cromwell planted in Ireland also engaged in the large-scale destruction of Ireland’s forests – chopping down large swathes of what had been the principal habitat of Ireland’s wolf population. Within a few years, the number of wolves began to decline rapidly and dramatically. There is some disagreement as to when the last surviving Irish wolf was hunted down, but by the end of the eighteenth century the species had become extinct.

The Cromwellian Plantation, which had spelled doom for Ireland’s wolves, initially boosted the number of Irish Wolfhounds, since Cromwell reckoned they would help him exterminate the Irish wolf, and in April of 1652 his government in Kilkenny decreed that it was an offence to export “wolfe dogges” from Ireland. However, the extinction of Irish wolves had obvious and ominous implications for the future of the dog that had been bred primarily in order to hunt and kill them. As the eighteenth century progressed, the decline in the number of Irish Wolfhounds began to reflect that of their former prey. References to the Wolfhound still pay tribute to its size and graceful shape but, increasingly, they also refer to its scarcity.

In 1774 the Irish novelist, poet and playwright Oliver Goldsmith published his wonderful compendium A History of the Earth and Animated Nature. In its eight volumes, Goldsmith covers a great deal of ground – from “mines and mineral vapours” to “winds, irregular and regular” – seeking to combine detailed biological descriptions with complex emotional responses to the natural world. The section entitled A History of Animals includes a lengthy and deeply ambivalent discussion of the “great Irish Wolfdog”, which he regarded as the “most wonderful” breed, and “the first of the canine species”.

Goldsmith declared a personal connection with this dog, since he claimed his mother’s life had once been saved by a Wolfhound. He describes the breed as “extremely beautiful and majestic as to appearance”. However, Goldsmith also acknowledges that the dog is “very rare even in the only country in the world where it is to be found”. According to Goldsmith, the ancient Irish hound was now “kept for show [rather] than use”, and this was because there are “neither wolves nor any other formidable beasts of prey in Ireland that seem to require so powerful an antagonist”. Goldsmith suggests that the animal has merely become a kind of “curiosity” that is “bred up in the houses of the great”. This theme of a redundant purpose is reinforced by Goldsmith’s assertion that the Wolfhound is “neither good for hunting the hare, the fox, nor the stag, and equally unserviceable as a house dog”.

Goldsmith claimed to have seen around a dozen purebred Wolfhounds in his lifetime, and it is clear that he regarded their decline as one that involved more than mere numbers. He believed that Wolfhounds had “been bred up to a size beyond [their] nature”. He conceded that the dog’s owners had taken “the greatest pains to enlarge the breed, both by food and matching”. They had achieved their goal, he believed, “at the expense of the animal”. Goldsmith saw little future for the breed: “They were once employed in clearing the island of wolves, which infested it in great plenty; but these being destroyed, the dogs are also wearing away, as if nature meant to blot out the species, when they had no longer any services to perform.”

By the early nineteenth century, the few remaining dogs that were identified as genuine Irish Wolfhounds were invariably said to be “the last of their race”. Yet it seems unlikely that many of these could have been purebred Wolfhounds. Given the very small numbers, it appears inevitable that some cross-breeding must have occurred. As early as 1750, Lord Chesterfield had complained that he had been trying for several years to obtain “those large dogs of Ireland”. When he finally managed to secure two, he discovered to his dismay that “a mixture of the Danish breed” had compromised their bloodlines.

By the middle of the nineteenth century it was generally accepted that the Wolfhound breed had been extinct for many years. However, it was then that a new champion of the dog emerged, and he was determined to restore it to its former glory. Captain George Augustus Graham was to devote the next half-century of his life to that mission, and he may be considered, with good reason, to be the founder of the modern Irish Wolfhound breed.

As a young man, Graham had joined the East India Company’s Bengal Infantry, and had helped to suppress the great mutiny of 1857. Graham was clearly of a romantic disposition. Although he was born and raised in England, his family was of Scottish origin, and he liked to dress in the full Highland regalia of the Graham clan. He had begun by collecting the pedigrees of Scottish Deerhounds. However, when he retired from active military service, Graham turned his attention to the Irish Wolfhound, buying a large estate in rural Gloucestershire to provide sufficient room for his ambitious breeding plans.

For the next half-century, Graham followed the lifestyle of a typical Victorian country gentleman. He served on the bench as a magistrate. He was chairman of the parish council. He was a stalwart of the Conservative Party. He contributed to local charities, and he supported the village cricket team. But, through all those years, he maintained one constant and overriding passion: to resurrect an ancient breed and bring the Irish Wolfhound back to life.

There was no general agreement about how Wolfhounds had once looked, so Graham claimed to have studied old books, drawings and paintings. It has to be said that early depictions of the Wolfhound resemble a large Greyhound and do not show much similarity to the specimens that Graham eventually bred. Nonetheless, he did arrive at a firm idea of how he conceived the ideal Wolfhound, and he even had a life-size model of the dog made which corresponded to his vision. He then began his own attempt to reproduce that image in flesh and bone: a remarkable example of life literally imitating art. Graham was convinced that there were still some specimens of the old bloodlines available in Ireland, and, from 1863, he set about advertising for them. At first, he did not meet with much success, but, eventually, he believed that he had acquired some, and was able to claim exultantly that “their blood is now in my possession”.

However, Graham was not fully satisfied with the dogs he had obtained. Some of them proved to be infertile, and he was disappointed by the size and shape of most of the pups that the others produced. Graham wanted to breed authentic Irish Wolfhounds, but given the very small number of dogs that could claim any degree of genuine ancestry it was clearly necessary for him to outcross his specimens. He drew primarily upon Scottish Deerhounds and Russian Borzois, but it seems that English Mastiffs, Great Danes and even a Tibetan Kyi Apso also contributed to the gene pool. In order to fix the standard features of the breed, Graham felt compelled to practise some very close breeding, and to mate dogs and bitches from the same litter. This degree of in-breeding may explain why Graham later acknowledged that “death and disease” had taken most of his “finest specimens”.

Despite the setbacks Graham persevered, and in 1879 he persuaded the Kennel Club to include a class of Wolfhounds in its annual Dublin show. However, the name of the class in which they were exhibited revealed a considerable degree of caution on the part of the show’s organisers – it bore the awkward title of the “Nearest Approach to the Old Irish Wolfhound”. Graham, who acted as judge, was disappointed by the quality of the dogs entered, and by the considerable variations in their appearance. However, by then, he felt sufficiently confident of the progress he had made in his own breeding programme to publish a monograph, The Irish Wolfhound, in which he set out his understanding of the origin and development of the dog that he regarded as the “king of the canine race”.

He began by admitting that the Wolfhounds he had bred did not embody the dog “in its original integrity”. However, he claimed that the Scottish Deerhound was a direct descendant of the Irish Wolfhound, and that this breed had allowed him to re-create its ancestor. He also referred to the recent archaeological discoveries of canine skulls by “Surgeon Wylde” – Oscar Wilde’s father – which appeared to support that view. Graham acknowledged that, due to endemic disease, he had already “lost all the finest” of his Wolfhounds. Yet his convictions remained unshaken, and he declared that he was secure in “the very certain knowledge” that it was still “perfectly possible to breed the correct type of dog”. Graham’s monograph concluded with a stirring exhortation to his readers: “Of all dogs the monarch and the most majestic – shall he be allowed to drop from our supine grasp? Irishmen! – Englishmen! – all ye who love the canine race – let it not be so.”

The monograph was revised and reprinted in 1885 – to coincide with Graham’s foundation of the Irish Wolfhound Club. On this occasion his pamphlet attracted some adverse comment in the pages of The Field illustrated magazine. The Field was then – and remains – the world’s oldest country and field sports magazine. It had been founded in 1853, and had taken advantage of the growing market for the type of “gentleman’s literature” that featured articles about field sports, dog trials and gun reviews. It also gave extensive and vivid coverage to Britain’s colonial wars – which it usually treated as if they too were sporting events. From the start, the magazine proved a huge success, and was highly influential.

In an editorial of June 1885, The Field damned Graham’s monograph with faint praise. It recognised the “considerable pains” that the author of the work had taken, and acknowledged that it contained some “interesting, if not original” information. However, it could discern no basis for Graham’s claim that any of the Wolfhound’s original bloodlines had survived. “So far as our impressions went,” it commented, “this [breed has] been extinct for some time, probably a century.” Graham had included photographs of his two favourite Wolfhounds in his pamphlet. The Field’s wounding verdict was that “the appearance of neither is elegant”, and the magazine predicted that the new Wolfhound Club, which Graham had just founded, would fail since there were so many genuinely purebred dogs that were “more handsome, and quite as useful”.

Graham responded to The Field’s comments in the following edition. He pointed out that he had never claimed that a “true strain” of the Wolfhound was still in existence but, at the same time, he remained convinced that “more or less true and authentic blood” could be found. That may seem like a fine distinction – and an obvious contradiction – but Graham remained resolute in his belief that he could identify a genuine Wolfhound bloodline, and this would be the foundation on which the old breed might be rebuilt in its “correct form”.

Graham was not only dedicated to his breeding programme, he was also skilful at publicising his work, and he was able to recruit a number of enthusiastic disciples to his cause. Some of his fervent supporters seem to have viewed the breeding of Wolfhounds in mystical or quasi-religious terms – as a form of resurrection, in both literal and metaphoric ways. The Wolfhound, one wrote, is “supreme among the canine races for intelligence and an almost uncanny sense of good and evil, sublime in his devotion, the joy of his master’s heart, and faithful unto death”. Graham also had influential social connections, which helped to ensure that the standards which he had written for the Wolfhound breed were quickly ratified by the British Kennel Club. When the Irish Wolfhound Club was founded, its first president was Lord Arthur Cecil – son of the Marquess of Salisbury, and uncle of a future British prime minister. Graham also persuaded the Kennel Club that Irish Wolfhounds should be given their own registration rights, and in July 1886 twenty-four Irish Wolfhounds were registered in a new section.

Graham served as the honorary secretary and treasurer of the Wolfhound Club, and the other club officers were largely drawn from the Irish gentry and landowning classes. A high proportion of these were Protestant in religion and unionist in politics. For such people an interest in Ireland’s native dogs, and the remote Celtic past with which they were associated, provided an opportunity to express their own sense of Irish identity without having to abandon their political or religious beliefs. The poet Patrick Kavanagh later took a more sceptical – not to say, harsh – view of their position. “A great many Protestants,” he wrote, “seeking roots in this country have attempted to build a national myth into a spiritual realty.” Kavanagh believed that their apparent interest in “Irish horses [and] Irish dogs” was contrived, and only an “empty distraction”.

As it happened, the Irish Wolfhound Club seemed to have been launched at an opportune time. It coincided with the growth of those creative and cultural movements that came to be known collectively as the Celtic Revival. The overall goal of this Revival was to link Ireland’s national identity more explicitly to its Celtic past – though in some cases this involved restoring alleged traditions that were every bit as suspect as the bloodlines of Captain Graham’s dogs.

According to Douglas Hyde, who later became the first president of the independent Irish state, the cultural goal of Irish nationalists should be to “cultivate everything that is most racial, most smacking of the soil, [and] most Irish”. Against that revivalist background, it may not seem surprising that there should also be an attempt to revive an ancient Celtic dog, or that WB Yeats, Lady Gregory and JM Synge would choose the Wolfhound to be an emblem of the Abbey, Ireland’s new national theatre. The emblematic significance of the dog continued into the twentieth century: when the nationalist militia the Irish Volunteers was formed in 1913, the Wolfhound was chosen as its mascot.

Given the practical and financial demands involved in breeding and keeping Wolfhounds, it is understandable that Graham’s club established only a relatively modest, yet fairly affluent, following. By the start of the twentieth century, the club membership was running low. Indeed, one of its supporters grew indignant at the lack of interest that had been generated for the breed within Ireland. “The natives of the Emerald Isle have refused to answer the call,” he complained. “In the national emblem of Erin,” he continued, “an Irish wolfhound is seen lying beside the Harp,” but, he claimed, even at dog shows in Dublin, the top prizes “for the national breeds are swept away by the Saxon”. Clearly, it was time for Graham to take remedial action, and to consider ways in which he might renew Ireland’s public awareness of his club. There was one idea, in particular, that appealed to him.

On October 11th, 1899, the South African Republic, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State declared war on the United Kingdom. In the following months, intense sympathy for the rebellious Boers swept over nationalist Ireland. Large demonstrations in favour of Afrikaner independence were held in Dublin; British soldiers were attacked in the streets; and the Vierkleur, the flag of the Transvaal Republic, was carried through many Irish towns and flown from Irish buildings. Before long, Irish immigrants to South Africa had formed two brigades of volunteers to fight alongside the Boer militias against the British army.

Irish enthusiasm for the Boer cause needs to be seen in perspective. The number of Irishmen who joined the South African brigades can be counted in hundreds while the number who fought in South Africa as part of the British army can be reckoned in many thousands. When the war was over, there had been almost 4,500 casualties in the ranks of the Irish Fusiliers, the Irish Regiment, the Irish Lancers and the Dublin Fusiliers. That compared with a total of just ninety-one casualties in the Irish brigades that had fought with the Boers.

During the South African War, an Irish general had requested that Irish regiments be allowed to wear shamrock on St Patrick’s Day. His request was granted, and his original proposal grew into the idea of creating a new regiment of Irish Guards within the British army. Graham saw an opportunity, and proposed to the club that a Wolfhound should be presented to the new regiment “with a view to increasing the popularity of the breed”. The club authorised him to organise a competition with a prize of thirty guineas for the winning dog. Graham’s offer was accepted by the guards, and a special class was created at the Kennel Club Show at Crystal Palace in London in 1902. There were eight entries, and the principal judge was Graham. He awarded the prize to a two-year-old called “Rajah of Kidnal” – whose unIrish name was promptly changed to “Brian Boru”.

The gift of the Wolfhound generated a good deal of publicity, as Graham had anticipated, and it proved very popular with members of the Wolfhound Club. However, it did not play so well with radical or “advanced” Irish nationalists, who tended to view the Wolfhound as the kind of dog that only members of a privileged elite could afford to own. They were also inclined to presume that such people were probably “West Brits”, or unionist in their political sympathies. Nationalist disapproval of Graham’s initiative became even more pronounced when the First Battalion of the Irish Guards was sent to fight for Great Britain in South Africa.

Some of the issues arising from these disputes were satirised by James Joyce in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses. Most of this rich and complex episode takes place in Barney Kiernan’s pub in the centre of Dublin. The unnamed narrator talks in the racy vernacular of the city streets, but his voice is interrupted repeatedly by parodies of other forms of language and styles of writing. These include the overblown sort that Celtic Revivalists often used to translate – or imitate – the ancient Irish sagas. In Kiernan’s pub, we meet a radical Irish nationalist called The Citizen who is also a virulent racist, and who is accompanied by his equally malevolent dog, Garryowen.

This was the name of a famous Irish Red Setter – a champion show dog, who was owned by a breeder called James Giltrap. His daughter, Josephine, had married Joyce’s uncle, which means that Joyce was related to the Giltraps by marriage and was more than likely aware of both Garryowen and his owner. This might suggest that Giltrap’s dog is the real-life model for the dog that appears in this episode. But that interpretation may be too literal-minded, and risks missing the point of Joyce’s satire. There are other and, I think, more telling ways of understanding what is, for me, the most remarkable dog in modern fiction.

Garryowen is described by Joyce in the inflated and mock-heroic idiom which he uses to parody the Celtic Revivalists. However, he is also described by the unnamed narrator in this episode in much less reverential terms. Indeed, Garryowen is dismissed both as a “bloody mangy mongrel” and as “the famous old red setter wolf dog” – suggesting that his bloodline is, to say the least, far from pure. It is true that the name of Garryowen was attached to a real champion Setter. But this was also the title of a drinking song, as well as a musical air that was closely connected with Irish regiments of the British Army. The same air was also commonly used by Orange bands, although their lyrics included lines such as “We’ll kick the Pope before us”, which were rather different from those found in the original. Against that background, Joyce is clearly satirising the confused and contradictory legacy of Irish history.

Viewed from this perspective, the “national dog” of Ireland is, in reality, nothing more (or less) than a mongrel, and the progeny of many different and unknown breeds. In other words, the dog’s alleged origins in the mists of Celtic Ireland represent a confused and confusing fantasy, and a doomed attempt to recreate a lost pedigree. The same, it may be inferred, applies to the grandiose ambitions of the Revivalists – as well as the nonsensical and racist claims about Irish history that are spewed out by the Citizen. As Sam Slote has pointed out, for Joyce, dogs are always mongrels, but it is “precisely in this mongrelization that they might have some affinity to the Irish”.

There are two obvious questions to be asked when assessing what Captain Graham achieved in almost fifty years of relentless and dedicated commitment to this breed of dog. The first is: did he succeed in resuscitating the ancient Irish Wolfhound? The second is: does it matter?

For me, the answer to the first question must be a reluctant “no”. I think it most unlikely that many – if any – of the ancient Irish bloodlines can be found in today’s Wolfhounds. Although Graham kept detailed records of his breeding programmes, they are based on the assumption that some of the dogs he obtained were genuine descendants of the original breed. Sadly, there seems to be negligible evidence of that. As long ago as 1906, the verdict of one respected show judge was that there was “little or no connection with the past in the wolfhounds now being shown”. In fact, given Graham’s extensive use of outcrosses, it seems possible that there is more of the original bloodline in some of Ireland’s other native breeds – such as the Wheaten Terrier – than in the modern Wolfhound.

My answer to whether this matters is also “no” – though this time the answer is given with less reluctance. George Graham was not the sole breeder of Wolfhounds in the course of the nineteenth century, but he was, by far, the dominant one, and in many respects it was his personal aesthetic tastes that determined the final standards of the breed. Until the nineteenth century, the vast bulk of dogs were bred for specific purposes. However, the Wolfhounds bred by Graham were never intended to hunt wolves, or to fulfil any function other than to look like Wolfhounds – or, at least, like Wolfhounds as they had been imagined by Graham. The standards he set have barely changed in all the decades that have passed since his death, which is, in itself, a tribute to his founding vision. Graham may not have resurrected the original Wolfhound, but he still managed to design and create a distinctive and very beautiful breed of dog, and one that has now established itself across the world. It is questionable if any sort of Irish Wolfhound would exist today without his extraordinary level of personal dedication and his unstinting commitment of personal resources.

It is only fair to mention that a price was paid for Graham’s determination to create, or recreate, the Wolfhound breed, and much of that price was paid by the dogs themselves. By Graham’s own admission, many of the animals that he bred died when they were still very young – probably as a result of his frequent use of extremely close in-breeding. Graham also systematically culled those pups which did not conform to his notion of the ideal Wolfhound. He decided, for example, that blue was impermissible as a breed colouring, and all affected pups were put down by him at birth, or as soon as that colour became obvious.

Captain Graham established a brand as well as a breed, and the image of the Wolfhound – as imagined by him – has featured on bottles of Irish whiskey, pieces of pottery, public monuments, army medals, tobacco tins, rugby jerseys, commemorative stamps, coins, bank notes, and much more besides. The dog has become a kind of visual shorthand for the entire island – and one that is accepted by all Irish traditions. When Van Morrison released Veedon Fleece, and its cover showed him sitting beside two Wolfhounds, the theme of his album could only be Ireland.

In November 2012, the Irish Kennel Club asked the Irish government to provide protection to the country’s native dog breeds – with a request that special attention be given to the Irish Wolfhound. In its submission to the Government, the club stated that this breed had been “kept by the Irish for centuries”; that it was “a symbol of our national heritage”; and that its origins “stretch back into the mists of Irish time”.

There is certainly a very strong case for recognizing the Wolfhound as a symbol of Ireland’s national heritage. Indeed, that is how it is already viewed in many parts of the world. It could also be argued that this symbol has its roots in the “mists of Irish time” (whatever that means). However, the origins of the contemporary Wolfhound lie a good deal closer to the present. In reality, the dog as it exists today is the product of a breeding programme that began in the 1860s on an estate in rural Gloucestershire, and was directed by a wealthy English gentleman who used a number of Russian, Danish, Scottish, English and Tibetan animals to help produce what is now regarded as the quintessential Irish dog.

Once again, the question might be posed: does that matter? For some, it seems to matter a great deal. One prominent critic of the breed, Michael Brandow, clearly regards the claims made by breeders of the “so-called Irish Wolfhound” as either the products of self-delusion or a transparent marketing ploy. I agree with him that modern Wolfhounds may have very little of their namesakes’ bloodlines, but I would also argue that, over time, they have become Irish – by adoption, if not by blood. “What race,” James Joyce wrote in 1907, “can boast of being pure today?” He went on to suggest that “no race has less right to utter such a boast than the race now living in Ireland”. In that respect, I regard the Wolfhound as a fitting symbol of the Irish people.

When Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins paid an official visit to the UK in 2012, he was greeted at Windsor Castle by the British royal family – and by Domhnail, the Wolfhound who is the current mascot of the Irish Guards. The mascot of the 3rd Infantry Battalion of Óglaigh na hÉireann – the Irish Army – is also a Wolfhound. Another Wolfhound is the mascot of the Royal Irish Regiment, which is largely recruited in Northern Ireland and is part of the British army. During the commemorations designed to mark the centenary of the Rising of 1916, Wolfhounds featured prominently as part of the official celebrations. Over the past two centuries, there have been – to say the least – few other figures, human or canine, able to transcend the religious and political animosities that have caused so much historic division and conflict in Ireland. And that is surely something to be celebrated.

David Blake Knox’s The Curious History of Irish Dogs has just been published by New Island.



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