Irish Wolfhound Lore: A Trio of Tales to Celebrate an Irish Icon
photo: The Irish Wolfhound has been celebrated through legend and lore as one of the Emerald Isle’s greatest symbols.
The printed word came to Ireland in the 5th century as an adjunct of Christianity. Prior to St. Patrick’s arrival in 432 A.D., literature ¾ and history ¾ was the exclusive domain of the ruling classes. The filid or “seers” passed down sagas and geneologies through an oral tradition that remains part of the Irish character to this day. Notwithstanding biblical accounts of antiquity, centuries of Irish bards with the “gift of gab” introduced fantastic stories of giants, fairies and leprachauns based, at least in part, on real life historical figures. No part of Irish cultural identity has been immune to this hyperbole, including the recorded histories of the islands’s native dog breeds. In fact, the foundations of Éire’s homegrown hounds are built as much on revere as they are in reality. In the case of the Irish Wolfhound, the breed’s iconic status in the nation’s mythological record is simply a matter for the faithful to decide.
Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Culann
According to the Táin Bó Cúailgne, an Irish epic that dates from the first century B.C., Cú Chulainn was a 17-year-old boy who single-handedly (with help from a series of supernatural figures) defended the province of Ulster from attack by the Connacht queen Medb and her husband Ailill. However, before he found himself the central figure in the Heroic cycle of Irish literature, the young man was known by his given name, Sétanta. While still a child, he left his parents’ home in Muirthemne Plain to join up with a troop of boys in service to Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster. In short order, the new recruit demanded that the entire troop fall under his protection. Apparently, they all agreed. One day, while playing a game of hurling with his subordinates, Sétanta caught the attention of the king and received an invitation to accompany him at a feast being prepared by a smith named Culann. As the story goes, Sétanta promised to join the king at the conclusion of the game. When he arrived late, he was unaware that the king had neglected to inform his host of his impending arrival. As a result, Culann had already released his most savage of hounds to guard the premises. (According to legend, the beast required the control of three men using three separate chains.) When the hound came upon a young stranger trespassing on the property, it launched into a ferocious attack. In response, Sétanta thwacked his sliotat, or hurling ball, with perfect aim toward the animal’s head. The hound was killed instantly. When he learned that he’d just destroyed his host’s most trusted guard, Sétanta offered to protect Culann ‘s property himself until a new hound could be reared for the task. Impressed with the boy’s offer, the guests at the feast agreed that Sétanta should be given a new name in honor of his altruism and bravery. Cú Chulainn, or the “Hound of Culann,” was chosen and it is by this moniker that Ireland’s earliest hero is still known today.
Conbec of Perfect Symmetry
Celtic authorities claim that Fionn mac Cumhaill was Master of the King’s Hounds under King Cormac mac Airt in the third or fourth centuries. So valued was his position that Fionn (also known as Finn MacCool) was considered the king’s chieftain or “right-hand man.” Poems from the Fenian cycle of Irish literature glorify the battles fought by the king’s men and the prowess of Fionn’s hounds in the field ¾ and on the battlefield. So beloved were these hounds that the poet Oisín wrote, “To the son of Cumhaill, and the chiefs of the Fiann, it is sweeter to hear the voice of hounds than to seek mercy.” To Fionn, his hounds made music as they bayed throughout the forest, their chains clinking in time to their cries. The sound must have terrified his enemies, since Fionn’s pack is said to have been comprised of 300 adults and 200 puppies. Hundreds of these hounds are mentioned in the historical record by name, including a pair called Bran and Sceolaun. When Bran died, Fionn is said to have lost his pleasure in the hunt. This melancholy did not go unnoticed by the chieftain’s stewards who acquired several hounds of the same type as replacements. Fionn responded to only one, a dog that resembled Bran and was thus permitted to sleep on his master’s bed. As noted on the Irish Wolfhound Club of America’s website, “Finn had a favorite Hound named Conbec, and not in all of Ireland might any stag whatsoever, at which he was slipped, find covert before Conbec would head him off and run him right back up to Finn’s main pack, and to their attendants.” When Conbec was drowned at Traig Chonbicce by a rival of Fionn’s called Goll, son of Morna, his passing was mourned by the poet Caílte mac Rónáin. The poem reads, in part, “Conbec of perfect symmetry, I have not seen a more expert of foot, in the wake of wild boar or stag.”
Saint Patrick and the Ship of Hounds
“My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.” So wrote the young man who would be known throughout the world as Ireland’s patron saint. Born in Roman Britain in the 5th century, the future Saint Patrick was given the name Maewyn Succat by his parents. At the age of 16, he was captured by a group of Irish mercenaries and sold into slavery in Ireland were he labored as a shepherd for six years and became fluent in the language. One day, encouraged by a dream in which his favorite sheepdog was transformed into an angel, Succat abandoned his servitude and made his way toward the coast where he encountered a ship commadeered by pirates. Unfortunately for unruly crew, the ship could not set sail since its cargo included 100 terrified and terrifying Irish Hounds. Bemused, the boy offered to calm the savage beasts in exchange for passage back to Britain. Various accounts of the voyage have the ship running aground or alternately reaching a foreign shore where the men search in vain for food to sustain them. (One legend places the ship in French waters where Succat is again captured and placed in captivity in Tours.) After several weeks stranded and nearing starvation, Succat is said to have made his way into the forest with a pack of hounds. The following day, he returned with wild boar the hounds had managed to kill. Saved from starvation, the pirates granted Succat his freedom whereupon he returned to his family in Britain. While home, he had another vision that encouraged him to return to Ireland where he was instructed to introduce Christianity to the people. How much of this account is fact or fiction remains for believers to decide. As for the Irish Wolfhound’s status alongside Saint Patrick as one of the Emerald Isle’s most iconic symbols, the evidence incontrovertable.
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