Ancient Irish dog breeds: Wolfhound and collie

The small isle of Éire boasts the world’s tallest dog…and the world’s most intelligent dog. The first is the wolfhound, and the second is the border collie.

Yes, there are many other breeds considered to be “Irish,” among them the Irish setter, water spaniel and varieties of terrier. Today, in the spirit of my blog, I want to talk about the two that we can trace to pre-Christian times, or at least (in the case of the collie) back to the time of the Viking invasions in roughly the 9th century AD.

No one is sure when the wolfhound “arrived” in Éire. Perhaps, like the giant elk, it developed because the sheer size of the elk required the evolution of a huge dog to pursue and bring it down. Scholars have argued for a date 3,000 years BC to around the 5th century AD, but there is no consensus.                      

The wolfhound is, in a word, humongous. Modern AKC size standards are a minimum of 32 inches at the shoulder. One man writing in 1790  referred to the dog as being 36 inches; even before that, Campion in 1571 said, “They (the Irish) are not without wolves and greyhounds to hunt them, bigger of bone and limb than a colt.”

Thus as big as they are now, the wolfhounds were no doubt even larger up until a few hundred years ago. When the wolves began to die out in Ireland, so too did the large hunters of wolves. Only after careful breeding did the wolfhound survive, and even thrive.

The coat is most often wiry. The animal is muscular and deep-chested, with an appearance often described as “commanding.”

In spite of its size and apparent ferocity, though, the wolfhound is a gentle dog, very attuned to its human companions. Some breeders feel that due to its sensitivity to humans, it makes a good guard dog because it can sense malicious intent (say, on the part of an attacker or burglar) and react swiftly.

Given the size and overall appearance, it is not surprising that the wolfhound became a byword in Irish folklore because of the exploits of a mythological god-warrior once called Sétanta. As a child, Sétanta was said to have killed the giant dog of Culann in self-defense. From that time on, he was called “Cú,” after the Gaelic word for “whelp” or “pup” and Chulainn after the name of Culann.                                                                                                               

There are some who  will argue that Irish collies are actually older than the wolfhounds. It is certain, however, that they were bred from the dogs that the monks used starting in the 6th century AD to tend their cattle and sheep. When the Vikings swept across Éire, plundering the monasteries, the monks fled to Scotland with their cattle, sheep and of course their dogs.

An author colleague, Kemberlee Shortland, has written to me of the derivation of the word “collie”:

“The Border Collie  . . . was first bred in Ireland! Not the Borders of Scotland. The word Collie is an Anglicized word from an ancient Irish word no longer in use that meant ‘helper’. The Irish word coileán means pup or puppy. That word stemmed from the ancient word for helper.”

“Over the centuries, those dogs moved into England, but because of the farming in the Scottish lowlands, the dogs thrived in the region and large scale breeding came about. Who didn’t want a dog who could fetch sheep from the side of a mountain while you stood in the valley whistling at it?! This is why they became known as the Border Collie, aka the Scottish Border Collie . . . a collie or helper dog bred in the Borders of Scotland. In reality, they should have been called Irish Collies.”

Regardless of which breed came first, few will argue that the working collie is on the genius scale of canine brains They have been bred for centuries to take care of errant cattle and sheep, and they seem to have an unerring way of knowing just what to do in every circumstance. Here is an amusing story Kemberlee wrote to me:                      

“Incredibly smart dogs. I think Daisie was about two when we took her to our friend’s farm to see if she had the aptitude for herding. She’d never seen a sheep before in her life and Robert said to just let her off the lead in the pasture. A small flock were at the top of the incline in this particular pasture. Daisie ran up the right flank of the field, circled the sheep and brought them down to us. She ran over to me with a look of ‘Man! Can I do that again?’”

I would like to end this article with a reference to another writer colleague, Miriam Newman, who is involved in dog rescue. If you go to her Blue Rose Blog (see my blogroll on the right side of this page), you will see why she has devoted hundreds of hours to the rescue of dogs of all breeds.

I’m sure Miriam and Kemberlee both would join me in urging you to hug a pup today! Sure an’ if it can’t be an Irish pup, or if ye have no pup, visit your local shelter and learn about unconditional love.

Slán, Erin O’Quinn

If you live in the New York area, follow this link to rescue an endangered pet:www.middlemutts.com
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25 thoughts on “Ancient Irish dog breeds: Wolfhound and collie

  1. Great post, Erin, and thanks for the plug. I have spent the morning involved with my latest rescue “child” when I should be writing, but she promised to lie beside my desk for the afternoon and let me work. Fair trade, wouldn’t you say? I don’t know that she’s an Irish lass, but I’m sure corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day will suit her just fine!

  2. Dear Miriam, I’ll find out the link from you for the rescue folks and post it at the end of the article. Sounds like the child is being good–or maybe she’s just sleepy right now….Slán, and sláinte to you for your rescue work! Erin

  3. Interesting, I hadn’t known that about the Border Collie, though I wonder which came frist the Border Collie or the standard or large Collie ( aka Lassie)? Though I love the Border Collies they really need something to herd to make them most happy and living in the city just doesn’t seem fair to the dog, so we have are the family of an English Labrador, Murphy who goes about 110 pounds and thinks hes a lap dog. The last dog we had was a Newfoundland which we loved and would have again if we had a bigger house. I love the Irish Wolfhounds that we see at Irish fest every year but I like the gracial Scottish Deerhound more. Great post.

  4. Wonderful, Jody! I can just see Murphy trying to share the love seat. I don’t know about the standard collie, and I too was surprised to learn the origins of the border collie. If I find out from Kimberlee, I’ll post it here for you and others to see. Much appreciate your visit today. Warmest, Erin

  5. Dear Romy,
    I too had a collie mix when I was very young. My parents told me how that dog would herd me and my sisters out in the yard, never letting us get within ten feet of the street. Much cheaper than a baby-sitter. Thanks for visiting. Glad you found something to like. xErin

  6. Hey Erin,
    Great article. You know I just love both the Border/Irish Collie and the Wolfhound. Our two collies are rescues. Their beginnings quite horrific. But I look at them and see their intelligence and talents and can’t imagine them never walking the earth. Both are incredible dogs.

  7. Here’s my chance to thank you publicly for helping me write today’s blog. When I get enough questions I can’t answer (like which came first, the standard collie or the border variety), I’ll get the answers from you and post them here! I’m sure we’re all grateful for folks like you and Miriam who can see through the pain-filled eyes of a rescue dog to the loving companion it will be. Kind regards, Erin

  8. I’d better not (as part Scot) get into the border collie discussion. Wherever they come from, they are wonderful dogs, & good at herding small children as well. Didn’t the Irish wolfhound win at Westminster recently? They are sweet dogs. I had a wide variety of pets growing up, from ducks to a possum to assorted dogs, cats & rodents. Thanks for the post! M. S.

  9. ‘Morning, M.S., and you’re welcome here, even if you ‘re part Scot! Gaelic is Gaelic, lass (or laddie?). The writer who outlined the history of the border collie has a degree in animal husbandry (hope I’m close to accurate), and I’ve taken her words as “true,” as far as truth about animal ancestry can be established. Always, always, great to see you here, and thanks for the input. :-D Erin

    • Erin and Ms Spencer — I have a degree in canine and feline nutrition and was working toward one in behavior when a job injury forced me out of the business. I was also a dog trainer at the time.

      Included in my research into Border Collies, one of the most informative books about the history of the breed was in an OOP book called the History of Herding Dogs which recounts Irish monks fleeing to the Isle of Iona with their sheep dogs. It tells a wonderful story of how the collie got it’s name, as Erin quoted above, and how the breed became popular in the UK as a breed. The collie as a breed we know today originated from the Borders of Scotland. They’re a much finer breed, the UK standards by which are set. But they only vaguely resemble their ancestors. Even within Ireland, there are a variety of collie, including the Wicklow Collie and the Clare Collie, amongst others. A dear friend in Clare had a collie which lived to be 24! Her current dog is easily 20 now.

      I know it’s hard for any culture to feel protective over what’s said to be theirs, and to an extent, today’s Border Collie is a breed unto itself. But it did not originate in Scotland. Sorry. But the Irish and Scots are cousins, so we have that ;-)

      In my note to you, quoted above — “The word Collie is an Anglicized word from an ancient Irish word no longer in use that meant ‘helper’. The Irish word coileán means pup or puppy. That word stemmed from the ancient word for helper” I meant to also add that the Irish have a habit of adding ‘een’ or ‘ine’ on the end of names to indicate something small our young, such as Maude = Maudeen, Maura = Maureen, Paula = Pauleen, etc (Hispanics do it with ‘ito’ and ‘ita’). In the collie’s case, coileán means young dog or puppy. Take off the án at the end and the original old Irish word for helper was probably coile or coilí. You can see how collie would come out of that, as the í at the end would take on an E sound. Coile/coilí is the adult then coile or coileán would be the young dog or the puppy.

      I believe it was last year, the 2011 Westminster Dog Show, the Scottish Deerhound took Best in Show. The Irish Woldhound has never taken a best in show.

  10. Just so my readers know–Kemberlee Shortland is an author and publisher based in Ireland. And you can easily see, she has quite the scholarly bent, and I tend to take what she’s written to heart.

    And back to you, Kemberlee, you’re gracious to come back and set a few things to rights. I’m afraid my own knowledge is sketchy, and I was hoping that you and others would correct the content of the blog. Go raibh maith agat! Erin

  11. Hi DS, your border collie may be so smart that she’s playing dumb, ever think of that? Maybe she’s just lying low, waiting for the right opportunity to take over completely. Be careful.

    I’m so pleased that you followed a twitter trail to end up here! Hope you’ll make it a habit. Slán, Erin

  12. I’m purchasing my 3rd boarder collie. I raise sheep & they r my gates & fences. My old man is 14 yrs and still comes to the barn. New one is 5 mo. We r naming him “Franco” after my husband ‘ s wonderful cousin in Italy. My 2 Marremma guard dogs r Memo & Pino named after 2 other cousins in Italy. I’m Irish & my jack russel is Casey named after my cousin!!!! Livin the dream!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Great post, Erin! Not many people think of the collie when looking at Celtic breeds. I have been around the ‘regular’ collie all my life. They are larger than the Border Collie because they were more of a drover’s dog, used for moving cattle to market. Today I have 2 Pembroke Welsh Corgis. They are an ancient Celtic breed as well. They are stubborn but loving and will herd anything that moves across our yard.

    • Thanks for the comment, Cathy. I’m glad to be introduced, even briefly, to the Welsh Corgis. I have a story deep in my brain about ancient Wales, and these pups would be a welcome addition!

      • They are a hoot! I’ve owned three and they have each had their own personality. My old girl (10) gets scolded for barking too much. She gets offended (really? I’m protecting you from all the stuff that isn’t really out there but could be!) and shuffles off to another room where she can woof in private. This leaves the young one (4) alone with me, which is what he likes. So, occasionally, he will woof just once (with an air of ‘who, me?’) just to get her started. (Cue offended scene) Then he curls up on the couch next to me to remind me he is the good dog.

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