by Garry Bryant/Garaidh Ó Briain
Far into the mists of time is the origin of the world's largest breed of dog the Irish Wolfhound. The Irish word for this breed is 'Cú' (translated to mean hound, war hound, war dog, wolf dog, etc.).
In ancient Ireland only society's nobility and royalty were allowed to possess this large hound. However Ireland was divided into five provinces with a ruling king, and the entire island held 150 sub-kingdoms. So no short supply of this breed of dog. [http://www.irishwolfhoundsociety.co.uk/breedhistory.htm, hereafter referred to as IWS]
The ancient Irish laws known as the Brehon Laws which predate Christianity, and also found in Old Irish literature from 500 A.D. - 900 A.D, treat the subject too. Julius Caesar writes about his encounter with them during the Gallic Wars. In fact depending on one's station in life depended on how many hounds one was allowed to own. The 'Filid' (professional class of singers, composers of poetry, bards, musicians, and historians) were entitled to two such hounds.
Originally the big hound was used in the hunting of wolves, deer, boar and elk, but were also trained as a war dog with the job of knocking horse soldiers from their saddles to the ground or out of chariots. Wars were fought using wolf hounds, and even a few wars were fought over the possessing of such animals.
During the second century A.D., began the rise of an elite band was warriors called the 'Fianna,' who were allowed each to own two hounds. The chief of the Fianna is a warrior named Fionn mac Cumhall (Finn MacCool) who had himself a puppy mill operation of three hundred grown Wolf Hounds and two hundred puppies. The chief's favorite hound was named 'Bran,' when the hound was in battle it always killed more men or beasts then his master.
The works of Arrian (ca.87 B.C. - ca. 160 A.D., Greek historian & senator), give's a description of the Irish hound: "There is nothing more beautiful to see, whether their eyes, or their whole body, or their coat and colour". "The neck should be long, round, and flexible. Wide chests are better than narrow ones. The legs should be long, straight, and well-knit, the ribs strong, the back wide and firm without being fat, the belly well drawn up, the thighs hollow, the tail narrow, hairy, long and flexible with thicker hairs adorning the tip. The feet should be round and firm. These hounds may be of any colour."
In 1210 A.D. an Irish hound was sent as a gift to Llywelyn 'the Great,' Prince of Gwynedd, Wales, by Prince (later King) John of England. This hound was named Gelert, slain by Llewellyn under the misap-prehension that the hound had killed his baby son when, in fact, the hound had killed a wolf that had got into the baby's room. As the dying dog gave a final cry, a baby's cry answered it. The prince found his son unharmed, lying near the body of a dead wolf, which Gelert had killed in defense of the prince's heir. Filled with remorse and guilt, it is said that Prince Llywelyn never smiled again. He buried his beloved dog in the town that is now known as Beddgelert, which means "Gelert's Grave." Gelert's burial place is known as Beddgelert. [http://www.mickhudson.co.uk/gelert/gelert.html] [http://mom.me/pets/dogs/19422-cool-facts-about-irish-wolfhounds/item/irish-wolfhound5/]
It was common occurrence for the Wolf Hound to be given as gifts to visiting dignitaries, etc.. During the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries these gifts of hounds increased greatly. Some of the recipients were the Great Mogul, The Emperor Jehangier, the Shah of Persia, and Cardinal Richelieu. Large numbers were sent to Spain and King John of Poland is said to have contributed to their near extinction in Ireland by procuring as many as he could lay hands on. In 1652 a declaration was issued banning the exportation of hounds from Ireland on account of their scarcity. [IWS.]
The last wolf in Ireland is said to have been killed by a Mr. Watson in County Carlow in 1786 and, once their prey was gone, the Irish wolfhound went into decline with only a few families keeping them "more for ornament than for use" and complaints abounded that they were reduced in size, made coarse through being crossed with Great Danes, or so crossed that two were hardly seen alike. [IWS.]
In the mid 19th century a Major H.D. Richardson (a Scot living in Dublin) wrote a book (entitled The Dog: Its Origin, Natural History, and Varieties) in which he asserted that the Irish wolfdog and the Highland deerhound were one and the same breed, although much degenerated in the latter. Richardson wrote several articles on the wolfhound, exhorting gentlemen to save the breed before it was too late. Eventually he began breeding, basing much of his efforts on the Glengarry deerhounds which were noted for their size and heavy build. Glengarry appeared to have had the object of producing a strain of hounds, one brace of which (dog and bitch) should be sufficient to track, follow, and pull down a deer, and he bred the bitches almost as large as the dogs. [IWS.]
By the end of the 1939-45 war just about every hound was by Clonboy of Ouborough or his sons or out of his daughters and it was for this reason that the Amercian Irish Wolfhound Club gave the U.K. Club Rory of Kihone. Rory went to Sanctuary kennels and was extensively used, doing a great deal to help the breed out of the doldrums. Another American dog that came to this country at about the same time was Barney O'Shea of Riverlawn, but unfortunately he died quite soon after and only sired a few litters. [IWS.]
Most who encounter an Irish Wolfhound are intimidated by its size, in some cases the size of a small pony. On its hind legs the hound can stand as tall as 7 feet. Huge they are, and a heart to go with it for instead of being vicious, it is a sweet-tempered, generous, dignified, thoughtful, and patient animal that is loyal to its pack or family. Belonging to the sight hound breed it is not keen with scent tracking, nor is it one of the brightest of the caine breed, just above average. Sadly it does not have a long lifespan due to health problems of bone cancer and heart problems. Six to ten years is the average lifespan. The Wolfhound is not a working dog such as the German Sheppard or the Retriever breeds, and requires only moderate exercise, but can eat up to 25 pounds of quality dog food a week.
My name is Garry Eugene Bryant, or in Irish, Garaidh Eóghan Ó Briain. My O'Bryan family emigrated from Ireland to Canada around 1830. They were devout Catholics and my 2nd great-grandfather, William, was informed by his parents that he was to become a priest like his two older bro-thers. He ran away changed his name by dropping the O' and adding a 't,' and ended up at Black Hawk, Col-orado about 1861. But this story was family tradition, no paper doc-ument to that gives the name change. To the rescue came Family Tree DNA and the O'Brien Surname Project which confirmed that I was not only of the Dál gCais Tribe with the R-L226 & FGC5659 snp marker's, but a distant cousin to Sir Conor M. E. O'Brien, Chief of the O'Brien Clan. So I'm not an English Bryant, but an Irish O'Brien! I have three children, all grown and married, and two grandchildren. I'm a retired photojournalist, am passionate about family history and heraldry.