An Mac Tíre: The Wolf and the Irish Son of the Earth; Fact and Lore

In the Brehon Laws, the wolf was dealt with in it’s context for being a threat to young livestock, particularly calves. ‘The Book of Werewolves’, S Baring-Gould. Wolf hunting was considered a public duty, with one law stating that a client had to go on a hunting excursion at least once a week for his landlord. Also, if it was known that a pack of wolves lived in a particular area, it was an offence for someone to drive their neighbours livestock towards them. These Laws even deal with a wolf being taken from the wild and treated as a domestic pet. The Law treated any offences commited by this wolf the same way as a domesticated dog. One thing to note is that the Brehon Laws did not discuss the threat of a wolf to a human as there is nothing mentioned about this scenario. The general consensus would be that such attacks were rare with the exception written in the ‘Annals of Connaught’ 1420 that “many persons were killed by wolves”. It is more than likely a very harsh Winter made the wolves desperate.

The extensive areas of wilderness that existed in Ireland ensured the survival of wolves for a good while with the growing population of humans. ‘The Fauna of Ireland’, FJ O’Rourke. During the 1500’s, there was a substantial trade for wolf skins from Ireland to the port of Bristol with a range of 100-300 skins being exported each year. Up to 1652, wolves were still found in the outskirts of Dublin with a public wolf hunt organised in Castleknock. A Cork city Official wrote in 1698, describing wolves in the city district. As with Irish Catholics, the wolf population also fell foul of the Cromwellian governing body. ‘To Hell or Connaught’, P Ellis-Bereford. The Protestant Planters were horrified that wolves were still common and a bounty was set by the Parliment with £6 per female and £5 per male. Because of this and the ongoing destruction of the Irish natural woodlands, the wolf population decreased rapidly from the 1600’s to the late 1700’s. The last recorded wolf kill was in 1786 by John Watson of Ballydarton, county Carlow who hunted a lone wolf who was killing his livestock of sheep on Mount Leinster. Since then the Irish wolf has been extinct in the country. However all is not lost.

In Irish, Mac Tíre is a relatively newer descriptive word and has two other names as well. Bréach and Faol. These are dialect variations that are found in townland names. Foe example, Britway in county Cork in Irish is Bréach Maigh or the Plain of the Wolf, Feltrim, county Dublin is Faol Droim or Wolf Ridge and Clashavictory, county Tipperary is Clais an mhic Tíre or Ravine of the Wolf. There are many more around the country that have these descriptions. ‘Wolf-Forgotten Irish Hunter’, K Hickey.

The above history would suggest that humans and wolves did not get on but it’s qualites were revered and respected by all. It was admired for it’s bravery and warlike attributes which, in legend made the wolf a symbol of kings and warriors. Also, in the legends, it is shown as an animal that responds with good deeds when treated with respect.

When we look at the tales given the Christian filter, especially when they involve saints, their miraclous powers and compassion tame the wolf’s predatory nature. ‘Book of Werewolves’, S Baring-Gould. In ‘The Life of Saint Cainnech’, the saint tames a wolf that had eaten a calf. The owner of the alf complained to Cainnech, who in turn told him to go back to his livestock and clap his hands. When the owner did this, the wolf returned and stood in the place where the calf had normally stood. The cows licked it and accepted its presence, while they were being milked. The wolf returned each morning for the remaining season getting the same treatment. According to ‘The Life of Patrick’, a wolf made off with one of the shepard boys charges and in turn was rebuked by the woman of the house. The next day, the wolf returned with the calf in it’s mouth unharmed and dropped it at the boys feet, before running back to the woods. Saint Colman is supposed to have had a covenant with the wolves in the nearby forest. They would come to hime each day and behave like domesticated dogs around him. Saint Molua is described to have taken pity on a pack of starving wolves by providing them with cooked calf meat in the guest quarters of the monastary. This became an annual event and the wolves protected the monastary and livestock. Another is a tale from ‘De Ingantaib Érenn’ where Patrick’s preaching is vehemetly opposed by the people of Ossary “ It is told that when the holy Patricius preached Christianity in that country, there was one clan which opposed him more stubbornly than any other people in the land; and these people strove to do insult in many ways both to God and to the holy man. And when he was preaching the faith to them as to others and came to confer with them where they held their assemblies, they adopted the plan of howling at him like wolves”. Patrick responded by praying for God to punish the clan, resulting in them suffering “a fitting and severe though very marvelous punishment, for it is told that all the members of that clan are changed into wolves for a period and roam through the woods feeding upon the same food as wolves; but they are worse than wolves, for in all their wiles they have the wit of men, though they are as eager to devour men as to destroy other creatures.”

Sounds fantastical and miraclous, doesn’t it. But there could be a logical reason that is unwritten and the wolves could be human. The Irish werewolf is different from the Teutonic or European werewolf, as it is really not a “monster” at all. Unlike its continental cousins, this

shapeshifter is the guardian and protector of children, wounded men and lost persons. According to some ancient sources, the Irish werewolves were even recruited by kings in time of war. Known in their native land as the faoladh or conriocht, their predatory behaviour is typical of the common wolf, not beneath the occasional nocturnal raid. It’s a possibility that the saints came across them or employed their services. In some folklore, werewolves became so by donning the hide of a wolf. The people of Ossary could have been a group of mercenary warriors who wore wore pelts as a form of uniform and invoked the attributes of the wolf archetype in their daily lives as the wolf was also a symbol in Early Ireland of people who lived close to nature.

In the Cycles, Lebor Gabala claims that the Tuatha Da Danann roamed Irealnd in the forms of wolves. In the Ulaid Cycle, a poem about Queen Maedbh describes her as “ a fair-haired wolf-queen”, the Ulster warrior Conall Cearnach’s name is derived from ‘cunovalos’ meaning ‘strong like wolf’ and in ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’, an Morrigú attacks Cú Chulainn in the form of a wolf. In the Osiniac Cycle, Fionn mac Cumhaill is said to have ‘ loved the music of far off wolves leaving their lairs’ and Caoilte of the Fianna recounts ‘the music of the wolves’. The 8th Century text ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ defines wolves as creatures of uplifting howls. In the Cycle of Kings, Cormac McAirt, is nursed by a she-wolf and in ‘Suibhne Geilt’, Mad Sweeney says on his death bed “Ba binne liom robhaoi tan, Danálach na gcon alla, Ina guth cléirigh astaoigh, Ag meilighis ag meigeallaigh.” or as Béarla “It was melodious to me once, the cries of the wolves, than the cleric indoors, a-bleating and a-baaing.”

I could go on about describing the attributes of the wolf archetype but that is subjective and the wolf has a personal meaning to each individual. That is for you to make of alone. Seas os comhair na gealaí agus canadh fonn an mac an tíre. Do amhrán ón taobh istigh. Seán Ó Tuama.


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