The Irish Wolfhound

The Irish Wolfhound, known as Cú Faoil in Irish (pronounced Koo-Fil), is the tallest breed of dog in the world. Originally, it was used in battle to pull enemy warriors from horse-back or chariot, and also for hunting wolves, after which it is named, wild boar, deer and some stories even say, the Giant Irish Elk.

It is a sight hound, which means it hunts by speed and sight rather than scent, as the bloodhound does. It is said that the Irish Wolfhound is the only dog fast enough to catch a wolf, and strong enough to kill it.

Apart from its great size, it has a distinctive shaggy rough coat, most commonly grey, but also brindle, red, black, white or wheaten. Its build is much like that of a greyhound, with a broad, deep chest, long lean powerful limbs, and a long neck with head held high, essential for its role as a sight hound.

When standing on its hind legs, it can reach over 7ft tall. It is said to be intelligent, easy-going and quiet-natured, and extremely loyal. Sadly, however, this gentle giant has a short life-span, averaging only 6-8 years.

Hunting wolves in ancient Ireland with the Cú Faoil. Wikimedia Commons.

The Cú Faoil has a long history, believed to have been brought to Ireland around 7000BC. When the Celts attacked Delphi in C3rd BC, survivors told fearful stories of the great hounds which fought alongside their masters.

Julius Caesar wrote of them in his account of the Gallic Wars. The Roman citizen Flavianus gifted seven of the hounds to his brother, the Roman Consul Symmachus, to fight bears and lions in the Games of AD391, and later wrote of them in a letter, ‘All Rome viewed them with wonder.”

In his History of Ireland, published in 1571, Edmund Campion describes the hounds used to hunt the wolves of Dublin and the Wicklow Mountains as ‘bigger of bone and limb than a colt’ (for those who don’t know, a colt is a young horse, sort of the teenager of the equine world).

So many of the hounds had been exported overseas to meet the demand of foreign nobles and royalty, that stocks in Ireland became seriously depleted, and Oliver Cromwell published a declaration in April 1652 to ensure sufficient numbers be maintained in Ireland to cope with the wolf population.

The last wolf in Ireland was said to have been killed in Co Carlow in 1786 by a pack of wolfhounds belonging to a Mr. Watson of Ballydarton. Whilst the wolf posed a serious problem to the safety of livestock, it’s shocking to think they could have been so wantonly hunted into extinction.

With the demise of the wolf, the need for the wolfhound itself decreased, and the breed was only revived in the mid 1800’s by Captain George Augustus, when he cross-bred the few remaining descendants with Deerhounds, Great Danes and mastiffs.

According to ancient Brehon law, ownership of the Cú Faoil was governed by status. Only the nobility were permitted to own the hounds; the Fili, a classification of bard and poet, was limited to the possession of only two hounds, for example. Contrast this with the legendary hero of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall, who famously loved the Irish Wolfhound; he was said to have owned in excess of five hundred!

There are many stories of the Irish Wolfhound in mythology. The most famous hounds are, without doubt, Fionn’s two favourites, Bran and Sceolán. They were brother and sister, of human descent, their poor mother, Tuirrean, (Fionn’s aunt) having been turned into a hound whilst she was pregnant by jealous Uchtdealb, woman of the Sidhe, and lover of Tuirrean’s husband.

They were said to have been so tall, that their heads reached chest height to a man. Bran was described as ‘ferocious, white-breasted, sleek-haunched, with fiery deep black eyes that swim  in sockets of blood’. Sceolán was slightly smaller, ‘small-headed, with the eyes of a dragon, claws of a wolf, vigour of a lion, and the venom of a serpent’. They feature as prominently in the exploits of the Fianna as do the warriors themselves.

Equally well known, is the story of Cú Chulain. As the boy Setanta, Cú Chulain is set upon by Chulain’s favourite hound, and kills him by smashing his head against a rock. Chulain is distraught by the loss of his favourite hound, and Setanta offers to serve for a year in the hound’s place as faithful companion, guard, and hunter. He is known forever after as Cú Chulain, ‘the hound of Chulain’, and goes on to become one of Ireland’s most best-loved heroes.

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63 Comments on “The Irish Wolfhound

  1. Following up on Aquileana’s post on dogs in mythology. I have always wanted an Irish wolfhound since reading the book Finn the Wolfhound but did not know much about the ancient stories surrounding them! Great insights !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for stopping by from Aquileana’s fantastic blog… she is amazing! I would love an Irish wolfhound too. Have you ever seen one? They are huge! I’ve only seen one once, he was a gentle giant, I was mesmerized! 😊🐕

      Liked by 1 person

        • You had an Irish red setter? Beautiful dogs! My nan had one, he was like an overgrown puppy, completely disobedient, and daft as a brush, but lots of fun. 😊


      • Our beloved Wolfhound just passed away at the grand old age of 14 years and 8 months our majestic Jess was the runt of the litter. Her mother Irish Wolfhound and Father Bull Mastiff, she was the gentlest soul with all who came across her path. Her speed agility were amazing, she greeted all of us at the end of our day. We were her pack her family and down to the youngest grandchild she knew us all. When she looked into your eyes she looked into your soul. Deeply sadly missed its only been two days since I held her noble head in my hands. I’ll never forget those dark yet loving eyes as I spoke the words ” it’s ok girl you can close your eyes and sleep now.” loved by many fearful of none she lived in Kurri Kurri NSW. Australia 14 year’s and 8 months.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hi Kathleen, thanks for sharing your story of Jess. She had a good long life, and judging by your beautiful elegy, it was a happy and loving one. Her passing must have left a huge hole in your heart, and I’m sorry for the pain of your grief. Lots of love to you, Ali.


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  3. I’ve just found your post on the Irish Wolfhound, Ali. It’s so interesting, they are fantastic dogs. A couple I knew some years back had one and he was huge. A gentle giant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know! They are mesmerising! I met one in the forest a couple of years back, I just couldn’t take my eyes off him. And so gentle and placid. I’d love one but husband said NO!!! Maybe I’ll get a cat instead. Except he’s allergic to cats. .. lol!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoyed visiting your site. I was looking for several legends depicting Irish Wolfhound. Would you know anything about 1) The Hound of Carragh, 2) Mesrodia, King of Leinsternien who had Aibe, 3)Hound of Aughrim that was owned by an Irish Knight and tragically killed defending his owner’s bones. I’m putting some visuals together for an Irish Fest booth featuring legend on Irish Wolfhounds and only found a bit of info and no pictures. Thanks, Ann


    • Hi Ann, thanks for stopping by. I’m really sorry, but I don’t know any of these stories. How have you heard of them? Such is the joy of research, isn’t it? It can be so frustrating at times, when you have something specific you’re looking for, as I find out so often myself. Good luck with your project, it sounds interesting, and I hope you manage to find the info that you need. All the best, Ali.


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  6. Hi, I know some bloggers here… LBeth for example. I used to teach Greek mythology, and I still teach history, so we have that in common.
    Thank you for visiting my site, Reflections. I’m glad you liked my post “9 Proven Ways to Skyrocket Your Traffic.”
    Nice to meet you.


    • Hi Janice, thank you very much for stopping by my blog! Your post was very interesting, and I’m sure I’ll be spending more time on your blog in the future. Greek mythology is a very specialised subject to teach. In fact, living on a Greek island as a child was where my love of ancient history and mythology all began.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Believe it or not, I’m more of a cat person! But I don’t have a cat right now, just my lovely labradoodle cross Indi(ana Bones). He’s a great overgrown puppy, but I love him!


        • Sorry for your loss. I lost both my cats some years ago. I’d had them since they were kitties and they travelled with me everywhere I went with my work. I found their deaths very upsetting, and havent owned one since… not that you ever really ‘own’ a cat, but you know what I mean!


    • It is… but it’s worth it! Better a short lifetime together than none at all, I think. One dog in the family at a time is about all I can manage, but when Indi climbs that rainbow, I may be tempted to get an Irish wolfhound… my hubby will be delighted… not! He’s not an animal lover like me!


  7. Ali, wonderful post – thank you. Both your description grand Cu Faoil and your involvment of the great heroes of Ireland past grabbed me quite strongly. I have forgotten much more of the mythology (?) of the land of my forebears – I learned it so long ago.

    I have had the privilege to be acquainted with several Wolfhounds over the years and admired them all – so gentle, but an obvious force to be reckoned with if crossed. I would have gotten one (perhaps a rescue – it amazes me that they would even exist!) but couldn’t imagine dealing with my grief at the loss of one of my of the family so young.




    • Thank you Christopher! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, these gentle giants are the most incredible creatures. I’d love to have one in my life too, but we have a labradoodle at the moment, he’s lively enough for two, although I’m sure he’d love a doggy companion lol! Like all big breeds though, their lifespan is short, and its always so sad when a pet passes on. They become one of the family.


    • Cool! Looks like we have something in common… there are two Irish wolf hounds in my second book, Bran and Sceolán, Fionn mac Cumhall’s hounds.


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  9. Another great, in-depth post. I love wolfhounds, I studied dog breeds in my animal management course and found them fascinating. Though didn’t realise they were quite so large until I met one in person 😀


    • I know, it quite takes your breath away to see one in real life, doesn’t it? I’ve only met two, one was a puppy and as full of life as any pup would be, but the other was an adult, and so calm and placid, its hard to imagine they were used as fierce hunters and war dogs!


    • I know Karen its so sad. Thats half the expected life span of most mutts! My mum had a poodle which lived until she was twenty…mind you sbe was blind and all four legs were stiff with rheumatism but she and my mum were devoted to each other.


    • I know isn’t that amazing? Pity someone couldnt have done the same for the poor old wolf which they hunted into extinction with these hounds.


        • Hey Ed, do you live in Kildare? I was wondering if you have ever been to the tower on top of the Hill of Allen? I am planning a visit for research for my book, and I was wondering if it was near the statue of Fionn mac Cumhall that you photographed? If you have been, do you have any pics? I looked on your interactive maps (brilliant, btw!) but these was only the statue listed.


          • Ali,
            Have you been hacking my Diary???
            Yep i live in Kildare, Aylmer’s Folly is the tower you seek.I havent been yet and was actually planning a trip there this week. Its about a half hours drive from the Fionn Mac Cumhaill sculpture outside the Curragh, I live in between both sites.

            You can find it on my bucket list It can be explored at any time but as far as i am aware it is rarely opened to get inside. There is some great history and tales connected to the tower. When you planning on visiting my neck of the woods???


            • I’m not stalking you, honest, lol! Its just that you had so many more sites visited in Kildare, that I just assumed you must live thereabouts!

              Wow, you are right in the middle of it all if you live in between those two sites! I look forward to seeing your pics of Aylmer’s Folly if you are going there this week! I’m so envious!

              I don’t think I’ll get there for another week or two; my son is having his confirmation and has invited all the family from Uk who are descending on us over the next week. It means I have to put everything book related on hold for a while, which is so frustrating at this stage.

              I have seen some pics of the Hill where it looks like the whole side has been mined away only metres away from the folly itself. It would be great to get inside, though. Apparently, all the stone workers names are carved into the steps leading up to the top of the tower…nice!

              I believe as well that there is a mound somewhere at the top, possibly beneath the tower. The Hill of Allen is supposedly Almu, where Fionn mac Cumhall lived, but I’m sure you know all about that.

              Oh lucky you, enjoy!


    • You are so fortunate Laurie to have such a beautiful and noble pet! I’d LOVE one but even one dog in the house is one too ma y as far as my hubbie is concerned lol! Even though I live in Ireland I have only ever seen two and I must say I was mesmerised and completely smitten! Any chance of seeing a pic of Wbiz Bang Willie?


      • Let me see if I can tuck a photo of her on my actual website (as opposed to blog), and then send you a link. It may be later this afternoon, but I’ll be back 🙂


      • Ali – Ahha! There’s already one there on “The Color of Wellness page. Even though her name is “Whiz Bang Willie,” she’s a female. Her “given” name is “Wilhelmina,” but Whiz Bang Willie suits her oh-so-much better!

        When you follow the link, scroll all the way down to the bottom. I’m 5 foot, 8 inches tall to give you an idea of how tall she is. As a female, she’s smaller anyway. Further, we chose the “runt” of the litter.


        • Laurie, she is beautiful! And she may be on the smaller side of her breed, but she still looks pretty big to me! BTW, I really enjoyed your posts on colour, red and purple are my favourites, and although I don’t intend them to, I find them creeping into every room of the house!


          • Ali – You’re right, even though Whiz Bang Willie is small for an Irish Wolfhound, she’s still a very large dog. Our other dog (Alexis de la Luna) is a white Standard Poodle. They get along extremely well 🙂


            • Wonderful! An irish wolfhound and a poodle…from one extreme to the other! My friend has a Great Dane and a bulldog, lol! Now they make a funny pair when they’re out for a walk! My mother had a toy poodle (as in tiny, but very alive!) and she lived until she was 20!


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