The last Irish Wolf

(image by Andreas Solberg, used under a Creative Commons license)
One of the world’s most beautiful animals was hunted to extinction in Ireland. Why?

Let me tell you something odd. I used to work in a museum and one lazy day I was casually chatting to three or four school kids about extinct Irish animals. I was confronted with a strange reaction. It started with mild cynicism and very shortly became derisive hooting laughter.
This reaction, I was to discover, was due to the fact that the young men in question simply could not accept that wolves had ever lived in Ireland. I was, as far as they were concerned, a barefaced liar.
I went home slightly irritated about this and I later spoke to one of my nephews about this subject, and again I was greeted with a dramatic raised eyebrow and a dismissive remark, the content of which mostly eluded me but I did hear the words “flying pig”. My attempts to convince him of the authenticity of Irish Wolves were fruitless.
‘Garbage’, he told me; that was like trying to tell him that there were bears in Ireland. As a matter of fact, I retorted, there were bears in Ireland, they’re just dead now. The next word he used shouldn’t be repeated here but it’s enough to say that it nicely summarised his thoughts on the subject. His response was plural and spherical.
The simple fact of the matter is that there were wolves in this country. A lot of them. An awful lot of them. So many in fact that, that they became one of the central threats to life and security in Late medieval Ireland. If you doubt my assertions as to their existence then go to the Natural History Museum in Dublin where you can see wolf remains on display. You can even find a reference to someone’s moaning being likened to the howling of Irish Wolves in one of Shakespeare’s plays.
The problem arose due to the essential nature of what a wolf is; a predator. It was doing what came naturally. This meant hunting and killing cattle and sheep, which (during the medieval period) brought them into conflict with an even more ruthless, cunning and effective predator than themselves.
This was of course mankind. This was a conflict that would eventually lead to the wolf’s total extermination. Many people living in the current age would not have a problem with this; in fact they would be particularly uncomfortable with the idea of wolves running wild in modern-day Ireland. I imagine that anyone who owns livestock and who has ever seen them attacked by dogs will readily nod their head in agreement.
Nonetheless, the wolf has had a hard time of it. Their image is not good. Wolves are thought of as ruthless, bloodthirsty and vicious. Their name is synonymous with treachery, avarice and duplicity. In actual fact the real wolf, when looked at in detail, turns out to be a rather admirable animal, who carries a certain nobility and charm.
Wolves are beautiful, graceful and obviously intelligent. Also their personal habits are charming. They are monogamous and stick to one partner (more than can be said for your average dog?) and they trenchantly protect their families. I would go as far as to say that they are the most beautiful animals on earth.
So what?s the problem? Why did they suffer such a terrible fate in Ireland? What crime did they commit to earn the distaste and animosity of the Irish people? And why at this particular time?
There are a multitude of factors, but really the answer is very simple. In fact it can be reduced down to one word; livestock. Wolves, as already stated are predators. Not predators of humans, but other animals.
There is actually little or no evidence, world-wide, for wolves attacking humans and in the isolated number of cases where they have, later examination of the case has shown that the animal was usually either rabid or was having its cubs taken away from it.
Wolves, in order to survive need to hunt and to feed. When man first arrived in Ireland this would not have presented too much of a problem as there were plenty of wild animals on which their diet was based.
However, as deforestation and farming increased, a new set of problems emerged. There was now a new and seemingly limitless supply of food. This new food was slower, easier to kill and there was a lot more of it. The result was inevitable: outright war between man and wolf.
As far back as the late 1500’s we have references to organised wolf hunting. Later, throughout the 1600’s, as English forces made their presence felt in Ireland wolves were to suffer terribly. Massive projects were set underway to clear away huge sections of Oak Forest. This was the wolf’s natural habitat and now that it was being destroyed at a rapid scale they were forced closer and closer to mankind, resulting in even more livestock being destroyed.
The vicious circle was becoming complete. The wolves were more exposed and thus more vulnerable. The government of King James I set out guidelines for wolf extermination and how much of a reward would be given for each one killed. The plan was never actually used but it paved the way for the actions of a certain Oliver Cromwell.
Cromwell is more infamous for his actions regarding people in Ireland, yet he was personally responsible for the extermination of what must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of wolves. In 1652 he gave orders that wolves were not to be exported from the country and later the same year, wolf hunts were organised. The next year a scale of rewards was introduced for the different type of wolves caught; more for a mother, less for a cub and so on.
The extermination took some time and it is not exactly clear when it was completed. Arguments have ranged for centuries now, as to when the ?last wolf? was killed and where. Nearly every county in Ireland, at some time or another, has claimed to be the one where the ?last wolf? was killed. However, it is reasonably safe to say that the last one died before the end of the 18th Century.
What is striking, when the extermination of the Irish wolf is studied, is the alarming parallel with what is happening in modern Ireland relating to another native species, which is seen as a threat to livestock. This is of course the badger, who has been systematically hunted and exterminated over the last eight years.
Some people estimate that up to 20,000 have been slaughtered. This has been done under a state-sponsored scheme, despite the fact that the most recent scientific evidence suggests that the badgers are not the ones who are primarily responsible for the spread of Tuberculosis (TB) in livestock.
It would appear that after five to six centuries the methods have changed, the weapons have changed and even the animal has changed, but attitudes to native Irish wildlife have not?
Find out more:
A PBS website. Very good stuff.
The International Wolf Centre. A great site from a great organisation.
The National Wildlife Federation Website, USA. A interesting page which gives details on a project to re-introduce Grey wolves to parts of the USA.
Recommended Reading:

The Wolf : The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, L. David Mech, Paperback, 384 pages
The Last Wolf of Ireland, Fiona Malterre, Hardback, 127 pages
Grey Wolf Voicethread

The Last Wolf by Mary TallMountain

Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary (Flickr Slideshow)

Damien DeBarra was born in the late 20th century and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. He now lives in London, England where he shares a house with four laptops, three bikes and a large collection of chairs.


  1. Thank you….a wonderful illustration……of the worst animal on earth…….man himself. His inhumanity to other animals, but even worse, to his own kind.

  2. You are right on the money. I have read a couple of books about wolves and have allways been fascinated by a recurring dynamic between man and wolf.That being the projection of all of man’s

    vicious qualities onto the wolf. I think that has a lot to do with why Peter and the Wolf, when narrated by someone like Boris Karloff, really gets under your skin.

  3. Very good piece.

    I had no idea that the badger appears to be suffering the same fate.

  4. the treatment of wolves and the rest of our native animals is once again a shameful and embarrassing tale. As usual, unless we could break the animal’s spirit(dogs) we could do nothing but demonise a creature that was far nobler and more gracious than ourselves.

  5. If there were never wolves in Ireland, then why were famous people named for them, and why was a dog bred to hunt them? And why so much ART that depicts them?
    Were there ever wolves in Ireland. Definately. Bears? FORESTS? History records there were dense forests in Ireland–filled with all manner of wild animals. Since modern folk don’t read the histories, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes…again.

  6. Very interesting and very true. The same level of ignorance applies to the many sharks which roam our waters.

  7. With my love of wolves, it’s a little sickening for me to read that one of my ancestors (Cromwell) did something like that. I guess it was the times though. Back then people tended to think in terms of “Kill what you don’t understand, unless you can subjigate it.” It kinda sucks.

  8. Just one comment, In 1652 Cromwell gave orders that WOLFHOUNDS were not to be exported from the Ireland, not wolves.

  9. Just found this site and wanted to let all Wolf lovers know that there are wolves in Ireland! I walk one every day I’m off. Anyone interested can email me at and if you’d like to meet him or walk with him we can arrange it. It’s great to see such nice comments about wolves, they really are very special. I am constantly asked “what breed of dog is he” and when I say he’s a Wolf most people are taken back. When they pet him and see how gentle and caring he is they are stunned. We’ve all grown up with the stories about the big bad Wolf so it’s easy to see where peoples fear of Wolves originates, but they are fairytales. Wolves are not viscious, they do not attack humans, they don’t bite or growl for no reason. Wolves are intelligent, caring animals. Their social structures are very similar to humans. In fact Wolves are more like humans when it comes to social structures than apes or chimps are. I can guarantee if you spend some time with them your life will change. We have so much to learn from Wolves, from all animals but sometimes we’re too arrogant and stupid. Take care. Adrian

  10. Excellent article. What a pity more people do not take an interest in this wonderful animal. Having only recently being introduced to a real live wolf, yes here in Ireland, i have been converted. For those who haven’t had this experience you should make every effort. One sentence in the artile sums up this wonderful animal i.e. Wolves are beautiful, graceful and obviously intelligent. Many thanks to my two new found friend A & F and indeed to the writer of this article for opening my eyes.

  11. I was once told that Ireland had no Wolves. Somehow this rang false with me. Yours is the first source I have found that confirmed my belief that the homeland once possesed the mighty Wolf. I follow a form of Animism, and my Spirit is the Wolf. It pleases me to find yet another link to Eire.


  13. comment by mike b is a great idea and would be great for midlands if done properly unfortunatly this is modren ireland where things are done arseways ie port tunnel,m50,electronic voting system,penalty points and all the other things that dont work. offaly has so much history which connects it still to wolves wildboar etc

  14. Thanks Nick for the comment Wolf trap mountain would be a even more magical place to climb if you actually heard a wolf howl or saw boar in the forestin kinnitty.maybe we should forget the goverment and start a programme ourselves lots of enthusiast on this site. any support?

  15. I’d be very interested in anything I could do to bring the wolf back to ireland . and I’m sure many other people would to.

  16. One of the names for wolf is MacTir(son of earth). Most Native Americans revered(some still do) the wolf as a brother, teacher, healer, mother and a deity, as did the Irish(and some still do). Eire lost her wolves, let’s not allow to happen anywhere else. Their is an effort under way to open the states of Wyoming and Montana in the US to hunting and poisoning wolves that wonder out of national park bounderies.
    Go to to learn more.

  17. Having just come home from your beautiful country, Ireland, I was looking up whether wolves still lived in Ireland and found this site. In the U.S. I provide a small sanctuary for wolves or wolf dogs who have been “adopted” by humans as exotic pets and found that they were too much to handle. They are wonderful animals – smart, affectionate and very communicative. But they are not dogs – more independent and more clever at excaping if that is what they want to do. The myths about wolves still persist. The truth is, wolves will run rather than fight and use various communication methods through body language to avoid a fight. Their effect on livestock in the U.S. is far less then that by natural causes like weather and disease. Furthermore, there is no historic record of anyone in North America ever being killed by a wolf. You are more likely to be killed by a deer, being hit by your car, than by a wolf. One of the most interesting wolf stories about wolves is thestory of Yellowstone National Park, in the U.S., and how destroying the wolves desimated the park. Once they reintroduced them, the park flurished.

  18. Excellent article.
    Here is a link to a great article on wolves
    I love the idea of reintroducing the wolf to Ireland. If enough people got together we could perhaps make this a reality. “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow”
    Anybody willing to start a group to examine this possibility ?
    If the Durtchers could make it happen perhaps there is hope for the project in Ireland

  19. I just wanted to make a correction. The book mentioned above, “The Last Wolf of Ireland,” was incorrectly said to be written by Fiona Malterre…
    The name of the author is
    Elona Malterre.
    The Last Wolf of Ireland, by Elona Malterre was a tear-jerking great read. Highly recommended to all.

  20. I LOVE the idea of bringn back the wolf and we can do it!!! the only thing i would worry about is farmers shooting them but the again if the were protected animals! but were can you get a wolf or how? I would love to try it,but would you not need an expert? i love wolfs and would love to have them back. Im sure if foxs are surviving nowadays considering roads ect. a wolf can? would it affect the fox? I think foxs are finding hard to cope as we are losing are wildlife and countryside to new homes and roads. you prob wouldnt be able to reintroduce them and have them wild. you would have to keep breeding them. but after being tamed could they survive wild. Please comment!!!

  21. I looooved ur peice! It helped me alot on a homework asignement I had to do for school! I was suppose to do an article about something interessting about Ireland and I chose to do one about the last wolf of Ireland! Thx!

  22. i anoyed because i have to do school powerpoint in front of 500-600 people and couldent find anything but i funt theis artical very hepful!! thanks of posting it!

  23. I know this may nothing to with the subject , but i would like to if there is actually such things as the WereWolf , thanks i really Need to know , and i do hope the Wolves Return to Ireland =)

  24. The loss of the Irish wolf is disappointing indeed but there is the other side of it we need livestock . Ireland is a small country not like other countries where wolves roam in the wild miles from humans

  25. I’m delighted to see an article on wolves in ireland, if slightly biased. Wolves are a magnificent apex predator and their complete loss from Ireland is our loss. However, there are numerous documented cases of wolves attacking people, contrary to some of the comments here.There ARE documented cases of healthy wolves killing many people(in most cases young children),mostly in Eastern Europe and Asia but also in North America: Candice Berner in Alaska in 2010 and Kenton Joel Carnegie in Saskatchewan in 2005 being two of the latest that spring to mind. To those who seem to be suggesting releasing wolves into the wild, be aware that this is illegal(not to mention irresponsible) under the Wildlife Acts, and furthermore would result in a drastic drop in the fox population as the wolf will kill any lesser predators on sight. Just some food for thought!! Oh… and there is no such thing as werewolves!!! 😉

  26. I live in Ireland and this is the first I hear about wolves having ever lived here. I am originally French though and in France too, wolves have been exterminated, though a few have been reintroduced in some parts, which is always a big source of discontent with the local sheep owners.
    The article here is very interesting, but I think it fails to address the most striking question. Wolves have been exterminated in Ireland, like they have in France, but not just that, they have been exterminated into complete oblivion. The French know there used to be wolves in France. They know that they’ve been wiped out. It’s considered an important part of our medieval History and is always mentioned in schools when we study this time period. We have a major legend about it and even made a movie about it (Brotherhood of the Wolves). How come the Irish have never heard anything about wolves having even been there in the first place? Why and how have they been wiped out not just from the land, but from the mind and History so entirely?

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