Wolf in Book of Kells

On a cold winter’s night four hundred years ago the howl of the wolf could be heard throughout Ireland. The wolf was very common in Ireland with an estimated population of 1000 wolves roaming Ireland in the 1600s. They were the last major big predator to be removed from the landscape. You would imagine the wolves lived in the uplands and mountains of Ireland avoiding the plains and forests of Meath however you would be wrong, wolves thrived in Meath and even on the outskirts of Dublin until the 1600s. Deer would have been their preferred prey – cattle and sheep were too well guarded.

Wolves roamed in packs across pre-historic Ireland. Wolves may have migrated to Ireland following the herbivores which crossed over the land bridge to Ireland before sea levels rose and cut off the island of Ireland. Alternatively they may have been introduced by man. Man may not have brought a full grow wolf with him in a dug-out canoe but he could have brought a cub as a pet.  There is a prey gap for the larger carnivores in Ireland – there were very few large prey for carnivores such as wolves. It is suggested that the pig or migratory birds were the prey of such hunters.

Wolf bones uncovered at Castlepook Cave, north of Doneraile in  Co. Cork, were carbon-dated to 34,000 B.C. Wolf bones have been discovered in other caves in Waterford and Clare.

Wolf bones have been reported in a number of excavations but it is difficult to differentiate between the bones of domestic dogs and wild wolves. Ring forts  and stockade were erected to protect stock from wolves. Crannogs served a similar purpose. Bones of wolves were uncovered during excavation of Lagore Crannog, Dunshaughlin in 1934-6 by Harvard University. The remains of seven canines were uncovered during archaeological excavation at Lagore crannog. As the dividing line between dog and wolf is uncertain, some of the canine remains may be wolf. Canine remains which could be wolf bones were also uncovered at Moynagh Lough and Knowth.

Wolves feature in Irish mythology. The high king of Tara, Cormac Mc Airt, was said to have been raised by wolves. Four wolves accompanied him on his military campaigns. Young men in Celtic society would often live wild like wolves as a rite of passage. Some people believed that the young men actually changed into wolves. Perhaps this is the origin of the werewolf stories. Bregia, the kingdom centred at Knowth, may take its name from the wolf. Dogstown, Trim, may also have a connection to the wolf. The Irish for wolf is mactire meaning son of the country or cu-allaidh i.e. ‘wild-hound.’ Bawnbreaky in Moybologue parish could mean the enclosure of the wolves while Ballinabrackey  could mean the plains of the wolves. A depiction of a wolf appears in the Book of Kells which was written in the 9th century.

From Giraldus Cambrensis

In 1182 Gerald Barry (or Giraldus Cambrensis) recorded the story of a priest travelling from Ulster into Meath. Passing the night in a wood, he was sitting by the fire when a wolf accosted him in human speech. After the priest calmed down the wolf told him that he was actually from Ossory, and was from a race who was cursed, whereby every seven years a man and a woman were changed into wolves. At the end of seven years they recovered their human form, and two others suffered a like transformation. He and his wife were the present victims of the curse; his wife was at the point of death, and he prayed the priest to come and give her the last rites. The priest complied; and next morning the wolf gave him directions to put him in the right road, and took leave of him thanking him. Giraldus also noted the mildness of the Irish weather stating that wolves often whelped in December.

The wolf became a feature of medieval coat of arms. The Barry family of Kilcarn, Navan bore a wolf on their coat of arms. In Shakespeare’s “As you like” Rosalind described “lover’s plaints” as “like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon.”

Wolves were so common, they were even living on Dublin’s doorstep. The Lord Deputy, William Russell, went hunting wolves with his wife in Kilmainham, Dublin on 26 May 1596.  In the reign of James I an act was passed in 1611 for the killing of wolves and other vermin.

In the middle of the seventeenth century the new Cromwellian planters decided to eliminate the wolf from the areas they settled. Wolves had increased so rapidly, that the Irish officers who left Ireland for Spain, in 1652, were forbidden to take their dogs with them. In December of that year a public wolf hunt was organised at Castleknock on the very outskirts of Dublin.

In the Parliament held at Westminster in 1657, Major Morgan, M.P. for Wicklow, said, “We have three beasts to destroy that lay burdens upon us. The first is the wolf, on whom we lay £5 a head if a dog, and £10 if a bitch. The second beast is a priest, on whose head we lay £10; if he be eminent, more. The third beast is a Tory, (robber) on whose head, if he be a public Tory, we lay £20; and forty shillings on a private Tory.” “The Popish priests are the cause of every misery in Ireland; The wolves are a misery:

Therefore the priests are to blame for the existence of the wolves.”

In 1653 Captain Edward Pierce leased lands at Dunboyne for five years. One of the terms of the contract was the maintenance of a hunting establishment including three wolf hounds, two mastiffs, sixteen couples of hounds and four men. Hunts were to take place at least three times a month and he was expected to destroy at least fourteen wolves and sixty foxes in five years. The wolf had been eliminated in England by a similar process. People held land and commissions dependent on the destruction of wolves.

The clearing of woodlands for cultivation, for the production of charcoal and the harvesting of timber reduced the habitat of the wolf. The bounties also spurred on the hunters. Numbers were so reduced that it would appear that by the late 17th century the hunting of wolves had become a sport rather than a means of killing vermin.

The last wolf in Ireland was supposed to have been killed about 1786 by John Watson of Ballydarton, Co. Carlow. Dr. Kieran Hickey of Galway has produced a number of publications in relation to the Irish Wolf.

In October 1999 a series of stamps of extinct Irish animals including the wolf, was issued by An Post. There have been suggestions that the wolf be re-introduced to Ireland but nothing has happened. In Scotland a similar proposal has run into major controversy. 

The photo which illustrates this article is a real Irish wolf, the picture was taken at Dublin Zoo. Of course the dog in your home is also 99.9% wolf.