Howling Against the Moon: The Last Wolves of Ireland
The man followed the tracks through the snow. His hound sniffed eagerly, almost pulling the leash from the man’s grasp. The wolf was not far ahead of them.
Through a break in the clouds a full moon appeared momentarily.
The man shivered and shook his shoulder, allowing the strap of his gun to come loose.
He released the hound and raised the barrel pointing it towards the furthest trees.
From the darkness of the woods came a terrible howl.
Was that my dog or the wolf, the man wondered, slowly stepping into the shadow of the forest .
Although we can’t be certain, records show that the last wolf in Ireland was killed by a farmer, John Watson, and his wolfhound on Mount Leinster in County Carlow. Surprisingly, this took place in the year 1786, almost five hundred years after the last English wolf and over one hundred years since the last wolf was shot in Scotland.
Wolves at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust. (Flickr/ CC BY-ND 2.0 )
For people today it can be a surprise to learn that wolves were so prominent in Ireland up until so recently. Yet Ireland has a long relationship with wolves, with these creatures having been there since at least 34,000 BC, according to the latest carbon dating on remains.
When the last ice age ended, Ireland’s landscape was the perfect environment for wolves to thrive. There were mountains and forests and regions of tundra to roam, and which provided a wide variety of animals for the wolves to prey upon such as deer, wild boar and, for a time, the Giant Elk.
A wolf at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust. (Flickr/ CC BY-ND 2.0 )
It is estimated that the first people arrived in Ireland around 8000 BC, although there is more recent evidence of a possible settlement dating back another 5,000 years. For these people the wolves must have been a constant danger as well as competitor for food.
Indeed, up until the middle ages Ireland was often referred to as Wolfland because of how many wolves there were. This would also be part of the reason for the many barricaded ring forts which acted as a defence against the wolves who would roam the country in large packs.
Ireland’s wolves were so well known in the middle ages that even William Shakespeare, in his play As You Like It , had a character remark, “ Pray you, no more of this; ‘Tis like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon. ”
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In Brehon Law, Ireland’s early law system, a landowner or livestock keeper was required to keep wolfhounds, such was the threat of wolves.
Legendary Wolf Tales
Having such a presence ensured that Irish myth and folklore often referred to wolves and sometimes to a more supernatural incarnation, the werewolf.
Legend of Priest and Were-Wolves from Gerald de Barri's "Topographia Hibernica". 13th century. ( Public Domain )
Ireland’s most famous legendary High King, Cormac Mac Airt, was said to have been raised by wolves. Cormac’s mother was also supposedly of the line of Ocl, which is the reflex of the Indo-European word for ‘wolf’.
In one of Ireland’s most famous mythological texts, The Tain Bo Cuailnge , The Morrigan, Ireland’s dark Goddess, turns into a wolf in order to stampede cattle.
In Lady Speranza Wilde’s collection of folk tales, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland , a farmer discovers that a young wolf he once rescued belongs to a family of werewolves living in a nearby forest.
There are also the stories of the legendary Laignach Faelad, who were supposedly a tribe of warriors who were half-man and half-wolf. They are mentioned in the Medieval Irish text the Cóir Anmann . These were mercenary fighters who would take the side of any king willing to pay their price. Approaching them to ask for their help was dangerous enough, but the price they demanded was even more terrifying. According to legend, these wolf warriors would only fight if they were being paid with the flesh of new-born babies!
Woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1512, of a werewolf savaging a town and carrying off babies. ( Public Domain )
In George Henderson’s Survival in Belief among the Celts, in the chapter: Soul in Wolf-form , he writes,