Wolves in Irish Myth

“Trí ruip conberat duinechinaid: cú áraig, reithe lonn, ech daintech.” “Three brutes whose trespasses count as human crimes: A chained hound, a ferocious ram, a biting horse.”

The Triads of Ireland

Archaeological evidence suggests that wolves roamed Ireland liberally, so much so that it was known in some quarters as “Wolfland”. Wolf remains found in Castlepook Cave in Co. Cork have been radiocarbon dated to 34,000BC. Wolves are now extinct in Ireland due mainly to a systematic post Cromwellian process of extermination resulting in the last wolf
being killed, most likely in 1786 in Co Carlow, where it is said to have met its fate at the edge of a stream. It is fair to say that the Irish psyche reveres and respects the wolf. The wolf features ferociously in Irish myth, with one of the earliest records of wolves in Ireland being recorded by Augustin in 655 AD. The wolf’s character is predominately mysterious and other worldly, and they are often imbued with the ability to shapeshift.

In Gaelic they are known as ‘Mac Tire’ which literally translates as “Son of the country.”
There is an ancient document known as he “Cóir Anmann” that translates to “Fitness of
Names” is described as a handbook of personal name and epithet explanations. It tells of a group of vicious warriors called the “Laignach Faelad” who were said to be half man, half wolf. These “Faelad” or “Soldiers” were in fact specialised mercenary warriors who were sought in battle by many Irish Kings and most notably Tigernmas. Known to be fierce in battle, they dressed in wolf skin and were drenched in the blood of battle. Crom Cruach (the Bowed God of the Mounds) is known as one of the most malevolent Irish deities. The Laignach Faelad cast their allegiance to him and instead of seeking payment in gold they sought payment in the form of the flesh of new-born babes, which they were said to have devoured greedily.

wolf on snow covered dirt road
Martina Trajtelova

“215. Laignech Fáelad, that is, he was the man that used to shift into fáelad, i.e. wolf-shapes. He and his offspring after him used to go, whenever they pleased, into the shapes of the wolves, and, after the custom of wolves, kill the herds. Wherefore he was called Laignech Fáelad, for he was the first of them to go into a wolf-shape.”

Cóir Anmann

In Ireland wolves and werewolves were synonymous with each other. These complex creatures were just as often helpful though, or at least benign, as dangerous. Other accounts from Geraldis Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales who wrote the Topography of Ireland in the 12th century and the Irish version of the Historiae Brittonum of Nennius tell of the Werewolves of Ossary. These fabled creatures were said to have been the descendants of the Laignech Fáelad whose line gave rise to the kings of Ossary, cursed to turn into wolves every seven years and return to their human form every alternate seven years.

Wolves were closely linked with the practices of the supernatural warrior band known as the Fianna, who are often depicted with the canine attributes of wolves. The Morrigan took on the form of a red-furred wolf in her infamous battle with Cú Chulainn. Conall Cairnech, a contemporary of Cú Chulainn was hunted by three red wolves. The Fenian Cycle tells of another worldly being known as Airitech who had three daughters with the ability change into wolve form at will. They emerged from the Cave of Cruachan during the feast of Samhain and devoured the flocks of sheep in the area. A bard of the Tuatha de Danann called Cas Corach convinced them to return to the form of mortal women while they listened to the soothing music of his harp. Caílte mac Rónáin then killed them with his spear and Cas Corach severed their heads off so they could not shapeshift again.

grey and white wolf selective focus photography

The fabled King Cormac mac Airt and noted patron of the Fianna was raised by a she wolf in the Caves of Kesh. It was said that he could understand their speech. Four wolves accompanied him into battle and remained loyally with him throughout his life. Cú Chulainn and Caoilte, of the Fianna were said to love to hear wolves howl which they described as musical. Cormac’s Glossary describes the howling of wolves as uplifting. Fionn of the Fianna who was reared in hiding by two druid women, was said to have been nourished by the milk of a wolf. Saint Ailbe, so named because he was found under a rock, was reared also by a lupine wolf. In The Cattle Raid of Cooley, Cú Chulainn threatened by King Búan the Constant’s daughter after he rebuffs her advances. She turns into she-wolf & stampedes his cattle towards him!

The wolf though extinct lives on in Irish place names. There are several words in the Irish
language to describe the wolf. The old Irish name for wolf is “Faelcú” which translates as
“Wild hound.” It appears in “Feltrim” (Faeldruim) Hill near Swords in Co. Dublin. Large ring forts like Grianan Aileach in Co Donegal were built to protect livestock from packs of wolves. “Bréach” is another Gaelic word associated with the wolf and we find
“Bréachmhaigh (Breachy)” meaning “Wolf Plain” in Co. Donegal also. “Knockaunvicteera” meaning “Little Hill of the Wolf” is found in Co. Clare and “Isknamacteera” which translates as “Water of the Wolves” is a small lake in Co. Kerry.

Ogham is considered Ireland’s most ancient form of writing. It consists of a series of incised linear lines arranged in clusters, each representing a different letter, meaning or association. It is found arranged predominately on standing stones with the most amount found in the south and southwest of Ireland. They generally act as commemorative stones to noted individuals, Chieftains etc and may have acted as grave markers. Most were erected in the 5th and 6th centuries AD when Christianity was really taking hold in Ireland. This is often reflected in these Ogham Stones as many contain references to pagan deities and totem animals or trees.

One such stone is recorded in Co. Waterford where the inscription reads “Cun[a]netas” which translates as “Champion of Wolves.”

Hound/Wolf CUNA ᚉᚒᚅᚐ
Prince of Wolves CUNAMAGLI

Champion of Wolves CUNANETAS

Lucie Bilodeau

A popular Irish surname “Faolán” (Phelan) is understood to mean “Wolf echoes”. Some
Christian names also are derivatives of wolf. Conán, means “great/high wolf/hound” while
Conchobar (Connor) means “wolf lover” and Conn and Conri mean “wolf” and “wolf king”
respectively. Irish people feel an unexplainable affinity to the wolf, it is something ancient in our psyche, that nod we forever give to the primal and the recognition that once they were our friends. Our most sacred elders were nourished by them and there are those that believe we descend from them also. Wolves feature in the Brehon Laws and there is an acknowledgement that they did pose a threat to livestock, if not to humans. The laws also contain an interesting reference to the compensation you were obliged to pay for damage done by your tame wolf. The fact that the laws bother mentioning this suggests that wolves were quite common pets at the time.

“Child do not go
Into the dark places of the soul,
For there the grey wolves whine,
The lean grey wolves.
I have been down
Among the unholy ones who tear
Beauty’s white robe and clothe her
In rags of prayer.
Child there is light somewhere
Under a star.”

Patrick Kavanagh, To A Child

2 responses to “Wolves in Irish Myth”

  1. mawiedraoi,
    I love the stories, Myths and tales you share with us. As an Irish lass myself I allows have been a lover of Myths and was brought up in believing in all the tales and superstitions that go along with them. I have a FB group and I often share your stories on there and share your link to your online journal as your writings are fabulous.
    Thanks again and a happy new year to you and looking forward to more stories. 🧙‍♀️🧙‍♂️🧚‍♂️

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