The Wolf and Ireland
Once the Wolf ranged right across the northern hemisphere in all terrain. The Wolf was once widespread in Ireland. In fact Ireland was once nicknamed “Wolf Land” as the Wolf was so common here.
The Irish People respected and revered the Wolf. They feature very strongly in our ancient stories and mythology.
The Wolf is now extinct in Ireland due to persecution by humans. The European Wolf is still found in the wild in mainland Europe . The Wolf is persecuted all over its range. The European Wolf’s future remains uncertain.
The Irish countryside today bears little resemblance to the wilderness it was just a few hundred years ago. Formerly clothed with a thick forest, that created a haven for Wolves, it was only when this forest was cleared that the Wolf became an endangered species in Ireland.
Wolves hold a place in Irish legend, “Conall Cairnech”, a contemporary of Cúchullain was hunted by “Three red wolves of the Martini”. The Earliest record of wolves in Ireland was by Augustin in 655 AD. Even Shakespeare alludes to the wolf in Ireland in “As you like it” when Rosalind likens lovers plaints to the “Howling of Irish wolves against the moon”.
The arrival of Oliver Cromwell in Ireland spelled the end for the Irish wolf. Cromwell made an order on the 27th April 1652 to prevent the export of Wolfhounds from Ireland, as they were getting rare and the Wolves too common. The dogs because of their great size were in high demand in Rome to protect the estates of noble men. A bounty was placed on the head of the Wolf. Cromwell issued a declaration
“for every bitch wolfe, six pounds; for every dogg wolfe, five pounds; for every cubb which prayeth for himself, forty shillings; for every suckling cubb, ten shillings; and no woolfe after the last of September until the 10th of January be accounted a young woolfe, and the commissioners of the revenue shall cause the same equallie assessed within their precincts.”
The Last Wolf in Ireland was killed in 1786, it had been hunted down from Mount Leinster in County Carlow where it had allegedly been killing sheep. The last Irish wolf met its end at the edge of a stream. The last of it’s kind.
The memory of the wolf lives on in Irish place names. There are several words in the Irish language to describe the Wolf. The old Irish name for Wolf is Fael or Faelcu. It appears in ‘Feltrim’ (Faeldruim) Hill near Swords in Co. Dublin. A popular Irish name Faolán meaning wolf echos from the past.
Mac-tire meaning ‘son of the land’ which makes reference to the lonely habitation of the wolf. There is ‘Knockaunvicteera’ (Little Hill of the Wolf) in Co. Clare and ‘Isknamacteera’ (Water of the Wolves) a small lake in Co. Kerry. The Word Breach another common name appears in place names such as ‘Aughnabrack’ (the hill of the wolf) in Belfast bare such a title. Here in County Donegal several Anglicizations of Bréachmhaigh (Breachy) meaning ‘Wolf Plain’ or ‘Wolf Field’ can be found in the parishes of Clondahorky, Conwal, Donaghmore and Tullyfern.
Evidence of the wolf’s presence in our lands still exists. Large ring forts like Grianan Aileach were built to protect livestock from packs of wolves. Our native Irish Wolfhound, the largest breed of dog in the world, was originally bred to hunt wolves, The Old Irish Goat grows magnificent horns which would have been a great defence against a hungry wolf.