Some Animals connected with Hunting and Sport in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXV....continued

4. Some Animals connected with Hunting and Sport.

The Dog.—Dogs of all kinds were used by the people of Ireland quite as much in ancient times as they are now: but hunting-dogs have, as might be expected, impressed themselves most of all on the literature. By far the most celebrated of the native dogs was the Irish wolf-dog, noted for its size and fierceness. Campion, the English Jesuit, who visited Ireland, and wrote a short history of it in 1571, says:—"They [the Irish] are not without wolves, and greyhounds to hunt them, bigger of bone and limme than a colt." Twelve centuries before his time, a Roman citizen named Flavianus, who had visited Britain, presented seven Irish dogs to his brother Symmachus, a Roman consul, for the games at Rome (A.D. 391)—a gift which Symmachus acknowledges in a letter still extant:—"All Rome," he says, "viewed them with wonder, and thought they must have been brought hither in iron cages." A passage in the Book of Lismore says, "Each of these hounds is as big as an ass." From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, Irish wolf-dogs were, it might be said, celebrated all over the world, so that they were sent as valuable presents to kings and emperors, princes, grand Turks, noblemen, queens, and highborn ladies, in all the chief cities of Europe, and even in India and Persia. After the final extinction of wolves in Ireland in the early part of the eighteenth century, the need for these great dogs ceased, and the race was let die out.

The word cu was generally applied to any fierce dog, this term being qualified by certain epithets to denote dogs of various kinds. A greyhound or hunting-dog, whether a wolf-dog or any other, was commonly called milchu. A watch-dog for a house was called archu, from ar or air, to watch. These watch-dogs were kept in every house of any consequence; and they were tied up by day and let loose by night. At the present time the most general name for a dog is madra or mada, which is also an old word.

It appears from some passages in the Laws, as well as from general Irish literature, that lapdogs were as much in favour in Ireland in old times as they are now: women of all classes, from queens down, kept them. The commonest name for a lapdog was oircne [urkina], a diminutive of oirc [urk], which means, among other things, a little dog. A lapdog was also called messan, which is in use among the English-speaking people of Scotland at the present day.

A wicked dog had a muzzle (srublingi), and sometimes an eye-cap or covering of leather fastened over his eyes. When a dog was found to be mad, it was hunted down and killed, its body was burned, and the ashes were thrown into a stream. Here is the quaint language of the Book of Aicill on this point—"There is no benefit in proclaiming it [i.e. sending round warning of a mad dog] unless it be killed; nor though it be killed, unless it be burned; nor though it be burned, unless its ashes have been cast into a stream."

Wolves.—A common name for a wolf was cu-allaidh [coo-allee], i.e. 'wild-hound.' Another was mactire [macteera], which literally means 'son of the country,' in allusion to the wild places that were the haunts of these animals. Faelchu is now a general name for a wolf. In old times wolves were so numerous in the woods and fastnesses of Ireland as to constitute a formidable danger to the community: so that in Irish writings we meet with frequent notices of their ravages, and of the measures taken to guard against them. In later times, and probably in early ages as well, we know that these animals were hunted down by the great Irish wolf-dog: and they were also caught in traps. As the population and the extent of open cultivated land increased, wolves became less numerous and were held well in check; but during the wars of the reign of Elizabeth, when the country was almost depopulated, they increased enormously and became bolder and fiercer, so that we often find notices of their ravages in the literature of those times.

Deer were plentiful in ancient Ireland, and they are noticed everywhere in the literature, both lay and ecclesiastical. By far the most remarkable of the ancient deer of this country was the gigantic Irish elk, the bones of which are now often found buried deep in clay, sometimes with a thick layer of bog over it. It is well established that this stately creature lived in the country for some considerable time contemporaneously with man: but it seems probable that it had disappeared before the time reached by our oldest writings: so that it is lost to history; and those deer so often spoken of in Irish literature are not the great Irish elk, but animals like those of the present day.

Skeleton of Irish Elk

FIG.197. Skeleton of Irish Elk in National Museum, Dublin. (From plate of Royal Dublin Society). Human skeleton put in for comparison.

The skeleton of the elk in the National Museum has antlers extending twelve feet from tip to tip: and, as may be seen from the figure, stands nearly twice the height of a man. The most common word for a deer is fiadh [feea], which originally meant 'wild.'

The Hare would appear to be the smallest animal to which the term fiadh ('wild') was applied, if we may judge by the composition of its name gerr-fhiadh [gerree']; i.e. short or small fiadh, from gerr, 'short or deficient.' Sometimes a hare was called mil-maighe [meel-mee], 'beast of the plain.'

The Cat.—A cat is called by the same name with slight variations, in nearly all the languages of Europe: in Irish the common name is catt. Wild cats were in old times very plentiful: large, wicked, rough-looking creatures, very strong and active and very dangerous; and the race is not yet quite extinct, for wild cats, nearly twice the size of our domestic animals, are still found in some solitary places. It was these animals that gave origin to the legend, very common in ancient Irish story, of a monstrous enchanted wild cat, dwelling in a cave, and a match for the bravest champion. Stories of demon cats have found their way down to modern Irish legend.

Otters.—The otter has several names in Irish, the most usual in old writings being dobor-chu, 'water-hound' (from dobor or dobur, an old word for water). It was also called madad- or madra-uisce, 'water-dog.' Otters abounded in rivers and lakes, and were hunted, partly for sport and partly for their skins. Otter skins formed an important article of commerce, so that they were sometimes given as payment in kind for rent or tribute.

Of the badger it will be enough to say here that it was called in Irish broc, and that the chase of the "heavy-sided, low-bellied badger" was a favourite sport among high and low.

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