The last of the Irish wolves

The last of the Irish wolves
Wolves in Ireland: A natural and cultural history

By Kieran Hickey (Open Air / Four Courts Press, €29.95 / £25.97)

Christopher Moriarty


Wolves are beautiful creatures, with many of the most attractive characteristics of the domestic dogs of all shapes and sizes which are descended from them.

That is the current view of the majority of well-informed people who dwell in countries like Ireland where wolves no longer live in the wild.

It is shared by similarly sophisticated inhabitants of continental countries of Europe and North America, where relatively small populations of wolves survive and are zealously protected.

Perhaps a little more remarkably, there is evidence that the people of Ireland, prior to the 17th Century, tolerated their local wolf packs.

Kieran Hickey has collected in this book a marvellous miscellany of writings on wolves in Ireland, from reports on finds of wolf bones in archaeological studies to attempts to establish the date of the death of the last Irish wolf, from unlikely tales of encounters between persons in wolves’ clothing and holy men to mundane records of the numbers and value of wolf hides exported to Bristol in the 16th Century.

Perhaps the most remarkable fact in the book is the small number of written accounts of wolves and the even smaller numbers that may be taken as factual observations.

It suggests that, by and large, wolves and people lived independent lives and that the Irish wolf was not the creature of terror and mystery of its continental brethren.


The situation changed dramatically in the course of the 17th-Century invasions. There is evidence that the wolf population increased and added to the insecurity of the settlers.

The English destroyed forests and hunted wolves and the dispossessed Irish people. The latter survived. The wolves declined but seem to have lived on in very small numbers until the last one was killed in the 1780s.

Something of a movement exists in favour of the re-introduction of wolves. The author makes a good logical argument against such sentiments. The hunting to extinction of such an interesting native animal was indeed a tragedy.

But sheep, shepherds, dogs and hill-walkers in a relatively small country like Ireland are probably better off without them.