Why are all things ancient and Irish always so complicated? For the giant Irish Elk turns out to be neither exclusively Irish, nor an elk. He was a species of Megaloceros, and was the largest deer that ever walked this planet. He actually roamed across the plains and lowlands of Europe, Africa and Asia, but became known as the Irish Elk due to the large number of skeletons found in Irish bogs.
The average male stood about 2 metres tall at the shoulders (that’s nearly 7ft!), and his antlers would have extended up to 4 metres across (12ft), and weighed up to 40 kgs (88lbs)…that’s huge! His antlers were palm-like in structure, much like those of a fallow deer. It is quite likely that they would have been shed every year, just like those of the modern deer. Despite its great size, its skeleton suggests that it was built for long distance running, so it would have been able to outrun predators without tiring.
It was always assumed that the Irish Elk became extinct during the last ice age, along with the woolly mammoth, however, new evidence has come to light in recent years that would indicate otherwise…for both species. Mammoth remains discovered on an island just off the Arctic Siberian coast during the 1990’s were carbon dated to only 3600 years ago. Similarly, new analyses of elk bones and teeth lead experts to believe that the Irish Elk may also have survived beyond the last ice age up until 5000 BC.
This is where it gets interesting for me, because there are several references to the giant deer (known in Irish as Fiadh Mór, literally the ‘great deer’) in Irish mythology, particularly around the stories of Fionn mac Cumhall. Fionn was reputed to have owned 500 Irish wolf hounds, his favourites being the magical pair, Bran and Sceolán. These hounds were used in battle to pull enemy warriors from their horses and chariots. They were also used for hunting deer and boar, and were said to be more than capable of bringing down a giant deer.
In a C12th manuscript called the ‘Agallamh na Seanórach’ (the Colloquy of the Ancients, or Tales of the Elders), which tells many stories of Fionn and the Fianna, it mentions that Diarmuid killed a giant deer so large, that when he rested one of its antlers on his foot, it extended way above his head, even though he was exceptionally tall.
Despite this, no remains have been found in Ireland which date later than 11000 years ago, which means they probably died out long before Fionn and his men were hunting the hills of Ireland. I would like to stress, though, that just because they have not been found, does not mean that they weren’t around; it simply means that it cannot be proved.
Undoubtedly, they would have been a popular source of food with early hunter gatherers, due to the large amount of meat found on just one animal. Cave paintings of the Irish Elk have been found in France, and across Europe, suggesting its importance to early man. It is probable that the size of its antlers restricted it to more open pastures, and would have made it easy for potential hunters to spot. It’s possible also, that this factor prevented it from escaping predators by taking cover in woodland, for risk of entanglement.
So just why did the great Irish Elk become extinct, if not because of the last ice age? It’s not really known for sure. Climate change would certainly have had an impact, as food became increasingly scarce, with more competition from other animals. The rapid advancement of mankind could also be blamed, not just in terms of hunting, but also the destruction of habitat due to farming and settlements. After all, it wouldn’t be for the first time, would it?