In 1770, Oliver Goldsmith wrote: “The last variety, and the most wonderful of all that I shall mention, is the great Irish wolf-dog, that may be considered as the first of the canine species…Nevertheless, he is extremely beautiful and majestic in appearance, begin the greatest of the dog kind to be seen in the world.”
This ancient native Irish breed, although noted in literature as early as the first century A.D. and prized by Romans in the fourth, nearly died out during famine times. But through the efforts of Captain George Augustus Graham, a Scotsman born in 1833, and others, today the Irish wolfhound flourishes in many countries, including the United States.
Graham devised the standard for the breed still used by kennel clubs around the world, with minor variations. Irish wolfhounds were first shown as a recognized breed in 1879 in Dublin, and then again in 1881 at the Kennel Club show.
Introduced to the U.S. early in the 20th century with dogs from Graham, a few big kennels like Ambleside and Sulhamstead dominated the scene in the 1920s and 1930s. Even in 1966, the national specialty show for Irish wolfhounds attracted only five dozen dogs. Now, more than 500 wolfhounds regularly compete. The tallest dog breed recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), wolfhounds meeting the standard measure between 28-35 inches at the shoulder and weigh 90-150 pounds.
“Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked,” is accepted as the wolfhound motto — a motto shared by the “Fighting 69th,” one of the most famous regiments in American history. Two wolfhounds adorn the 69th’s crest, and each year, two wolfhounds walk with the soldiers in New York’s fabled St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Those who love this national dog of Ireland do so with the ferocity attributed to the dog itself when it accompanied Irish kings into battle, but the flip side of the dog’s reputation as a loving pet travels far back through time.
The Icelandic Sagas describe the gift of a wolfhound made by Olaf (the son of an Irish princess) to his friend Gunnar: “He is big and no worse than a stout man. Besides, it is part of his nature that he has man’s wit, and he will bay at every man whom he knows to be thy foe, but never at thy friends.
“He can see, too, in any man’s face whether he means thee well or ill, and he will lay down his life to be true to thee.”
Jill Bregy of Weston, Connecticut, a wolfhound breeder, judge and author of a handbook on Irish wolfhounds, said experience with her own dogs illustrates the truth of the sagas.
“They are not a guard dog now, but they have this incredible sensitivity,” said Bregy. “You would trust your life to them.”
Bregy became a breeder soon after acquiring her first Irish wolfhound in 1966. “She was only the seventh wolfhound in the history of the breed to get the American Kennel Club’s CDX-obedience designation. The other six had all been awarded to the dogs of Alfred DeQuoy, a brigadier general in charge of war games at the Pentagon.”
DeQuoy who wrote two well-known books about the wolfhound, bred a couple of his dogs to Bregy’s, producing her biggest champion, Wildisle Warlock. Whelped in 1973, Warlock remains the top specialty winner of all time, with 11 wins. He was also a “prepotent stud dog,” said Bregy, which has little to do with his champion status.
“A prepotent stud dog is one whose ability to reproduce himself can be predicted,” said Bregy. Decades after Warlock’s death, Bregy says the dogs in his bloodline still resemble the champion.
Two of her current winners, Lionheart and Firebird, descend directly from Warlock, as does a young bitch, Tessagh, she shares with Barbara Whitney.
Lois Thomasson fell in love with Irish wolfhounds when she was a little girl, inspired by a children’s book by J. Allen Dunne, Gone Wild, the story of a dog named Boru. Also in her childhood, she attended a Los Angeles dog show where she saw her first pair of wolfhounds and “the die was cast,” said Thomasson.
The acknowledged current doyenne of Irish wolfhounds, Thomasson started as a kennel girl under the famous Alma Starbuck of Ambleside, and became a breeder 50 years ago.
Her Fleetwind Kennel is on California’s Monterey Peninsula, where she has bred more than 70 champions and best-in-show winners. “I didn’t set out to do that, but I just basically enjoy the wolfhounds.” She writes a regular column for the AKC Gazette and her books, In Search of Graham’s Hound and Irish Wolfhound Odyssey are still in print. She has two more books on the way and “fifty years of fodder, clippings in a cabinet!”
For Thomasson, a dog’s temperament is paramount. “It’s a characteristic of the breed. They have a uniform gentleness of manner, so they’re an ideal children’s companion. They gentle down immediately when they see children. They gravitate toward babies and strollers,” she said.
Her daughter, as a youngster, would hook the family’s wolfhound, Fleetwind Roonagh, (a three-time specialty winner) to her skateboard. “He would pull her and she would just fly over those back country roads.”
Wolfhounds “don’t need acreage, but they do like to stretch their legs. They’ll be happy anywhere so long as they are with their people,” she says.
Thomasson’s dog Finn MacCool used to go to a local pub with her husband, Norman. When they neared the pub, the dog would trot on ahead, push through the swinging doors, bound into the pub and put his paws on the bar. “They’d give him cashews. They loved him.”
She often takes one of her dogs out to lunch. “There’s a pub on a nearby wharf. I’ll get an extra-large plate of calamari and french fries and share.”
The dogs come in many colors, all acceptable under the AKC standard. Many are gray with white markings, but their coat can also be solid gray, pure white, a pale blond “wheaton,” red, fawn, dark, or brindle. “Some people have a color preference,” said Thomasson. “I don’t. I think there’s nothing like a dark dog and a light dog running together.”
Eileen M. Flanagan of Carrickaneena Kennels in Hackettstown, New Jersey, a breeder and judge, inherited her love of the Irish wolfhound. Her father, William Kehoe, owned a few that he imported from Sheelagh Seale’s Ballykelly Kennels in Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow.
“Until her death in 1992, Sheelagh was a great breeder and friend to all who loved the Irish wolfhound,” said Flanagan, whose kennel is named for her father’s family farm, Carrickaneena, in County Louth.
“All my life I’ve loved these dogs,” said Flanagan. She’s been breeding them for nearly 40 years, starting with dogs from Ballykelly. She still goes to Dublin’s Nuttstown Kennel for pups from the old Ballykelly line.
“The Irish lines have done well by me,” said Flanagan, whose kennel has produced many Breed, Field, Dual and Triple champions, as well as many dogs ranked in the top 10 in the country in conformation and field (lure coursing).
Carolyn Smith, owner of Blackthorn Kennels in Brownville, Maine, also brings dogs over from Ireland. Her first wolfhound was bred in the U.S. from two dogs brought from Ireland, one from Killykeen Kennel, owned by breeder and judge Tony Doyle in County Cavan.
Smith and Flanagan bred two of their wolfhounds and produced a litter three years ago, all named for the singing Clancy family. “Paddy Clancy is doing quite well in the show ring,” said Smith.
“I like the Irish lines for their extended longevity,” said Smith. “I think they have more depth, because when you bring dogs to the U.S. and breed only from them, you’re cutting back on the number of dogs you can breed to.
“Eventually you have problems with recessive genes. Tony’s dogs usually live to be 10 or 12 years old. He had probably the oldest bitch on record, 16 years.”
She chose the kennel name Blackthorn because the blackthorn bush produces lovely delicate white flowers, but the wood, used to make shillelaghs, is hard, “just as the wolfhounds have a gentle spirit, but they’re very strong.” She tries to keep the number of dogs she owns to nine or below because they all live in the house. “I have leather furniture,” she laughs.
While breeders must go to shows to prove the quality of their dogs to interested buyers. Many, like Smith, would just as soon stay home. She really just wants to hang out with her dogs.
“These magnificent creatures are the love of my life,” said Flanagan. And when the Fighting 69th walks two wolfhounds through Manhattan on March 17, they are her dogs.
The Fighting 69(th) is immortalized in a movie starting Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney.
Founded by Irish immigrants in 1851, the New York State Volunteer Regiment served with distinction in every major Civil War campaign from Bull Run to Appomattox.
The Irish Brigade Monument at Gettysburg, dedicated on July 2, 1888, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Irish Brigade’s fight in the Wheatfield, is of a carved Celtic cross with a life-sized Irish wolfhound lying at the base mourning its lost masters.
The first pair of Carrickaneena mascots to march with the Fighting 69th were named Paddy and Mike, and the tradition remains — whichever dogs parade with the soldiers are called Paddy and Mike for the day. Two other Carrickaneena dogs also serve as escorts to the governor of New York at the Governor’s Breakfast held at the Waldorf Astoria on St. Patrick’s Day.
“I could never tire of them. Each one has its own individual personality,” said Eileen Flanagan. “When I watch them marching on St. Patrick’s Day, my heart just swells with pride as I recall the history of these dogs and of the Fighting 69th. They love you with every fiber of their being and would lay down their life for you in a moment.” ♦