Known to the ancient Celts as Cú, Irish wolfhounds have been bred as warriors and hunters for more than 2,000 years. Wolfhounds played prominent parts in ancient Celtic sagas—notably, the myth of Cú Chulainn whose story first appeared in written form in the 7th century. Even the great Roman Consul Quintus Aurelius, upon receipt of several Irish wolfhounds as a gift from his brother Flavonius, wrote in 391 A.D. of the astonishment of the Roman people upon viewing them and their determination that animals of such size and strength should only enter Rome under guard and in iron cages.
Despite evidence of attempts in the 1st century A.D., the Romans never conquered Ireland, even as neighboring Britain fell to the Roman sword. The reason for this—whether a result of internal Roman politics, the geographical isolation of Ireland itself, or perhaps the ferocity of the Celts and their hounds—remains an open question.
Wolfhounds came to symbolize great size and strength, ferocity in battle, and loyalty such that the prefix Cú (hound) was bestowed upon the great warriors and kings of ancient Ireland. So prized was the wolfhound—“ferocious in battle, but a docile and trustworthy defender of hearth and home—that only kings, poets, and noblemen were permitted to own the breed.”
Not only warriors but also exceptional hunters, wolfhounds have a keen intelligence and the ability to think independently that made them effective even working at great distances from their masters. They were so effective at hunting the wolves that are their namesake that no wolves exist today in Ireland.
The tallest breed recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), today’s Irish wolfhounds retain the strength and loyalty of their forebears. They are described by the AKC as superb athletes and endurance runners. And an old Irish proverb tells us that the wolfhound is “Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked.” Anecdotes tell us that more than guard dogs, wolfhounds are true guardians, fearless when they perceive danger or aggression toward themselves or their loved ones. Joseph A. McAleenan, writing in 1920, describes the wolfhound thusly: A “giant in structure, a lamb in disposition, a lion in courage; affectionate and intelligent, thoroughly reliable and dependable at all times, as a companion and as a guard he is perfection.”