Part one of an occasional series by Patricia M. Jenkins
Nothing symbolises the spirit of Irish freedom better than the splendid sight of an Irish wolfhound running free across the green fields of the Emerald Isle.
This inbred desire for the chase lies at the basis of the breed standard. As the largest of the sighthounds, the Irish wolfhound should be “of great size and commanding appearance, very muscular, strongly though gracefully built, movements easy and active.”
Their graceful, yet vigorous strides, combining both speed and power, are the attributes that attracted royalty and later sportsmen to them.
Like their Russian sighthound relatives, the Borzois, they were once only pets for royalty and the nobility. The Celtic chieftains often gave them as diplomatic gifts to visiting dignitaries.
In 1210, the English King John gave one to Llewllyn, Prince of Wales, as a tribute to his noble status. Indeed many poets have remarked upon the noble qualities of the breed. Here is W.R. Spencer on Galert, a famous hound who hunted wolves and saved a child’s life: “A flower of the race, So true, so brave, A lamb at home, A Lion in the chase.” In 1770 the Irish writer, Oliver Goldsmith praised them as “extremely beautiful, the greatest dog of its kind to be seen in the world.”
Originally bred to hunt and take down wolves, by the seventeenth century their numbers in Ireland had been heavily depleted due to export overseas. In the 1650s when Ireland was overrun by wolves, Oliver Cromwell barred their export in 1652.