The Man-Wolves of Ossory

Patrick Weston Joyce

In the dim days of yore, the people of the kingdom of Ossory[1] had the power of changing themselves into wolves whenever they pleased.

During the whole time that an Ossorian lived as a wolf, his own proper body remained at home as if he were dead: and when about to make a wolf of himself he gave strict orders to his friends not to disturb the body; for if it were removed he was never able to regain his own shape, but was doomed to remain a wolf for the rest of his natural life.

While he was in his wolf-shape he ravaged sheep-folds and devoured cattle, and was in every respect as fierce and bloodthirsty as any natural-born wolf.

And if you came on him suddenly and attacked him in the act of eating a sheep, he commonly ran straight home and resumed his own shape.

But although he was now, when you confronted him, a man, and looked as innocent as a lamb, yet if you insisted on examining him closely, you found on him all the marks and tokens of his savage feast:—splashes of blood here and there, and bits of raw flesh in his teeth; and the wounds you inflicted on the wolf, you found them fresh and bleeding on the corresponding parts of the man's body.

This extraordinary superstition prevailed in Ireland from very remote times; for we find it alluded to in the “Book of the Dun Cow,” a volume transcribed about the year 1100, but whose contents belong to a much earlier age.

In this old book there is a sermon on the Resurrection, in which the writer mentions several kinds of supernatural changes, for the purpose of pointing out that the Resurrection shall be different from them all; and among them he mentions the transformation of a man into a wolf.

The superstition held its ground for many centuries; and how very generally it was received as an undoubted fact is shown by its frequent mention in old writings, as well indeed as by the language of those who argue against it.

Fynes Moryson, writing in or about the year 1600, speaks of it in these words:—

“It is ridiculous which some Irish (who will be believed as men of credit) report of men in these parts [Upper Ossory and Ormond] turned into wolves, except the abundance of melancholy humour transports them to imagine that they are so transformed.”

A circumstance so wonderful could not escape the notice of Giraldus Cambrensis; and he firmly believed it, as he was ready to believe every other marvellous story. He devotes a whole chapter to it, which he heads “Of the prodigies of our times, and first of a wolf that conversed with a priest,” at the end of which he has a learned argument to prove that it was not unusual for men to be transformed into other animals; and to remove all doubt he gives examples of several supernatural transformations witnessed in his time.

He says that he himself saw persons who by magic arts could change, and often did change, an ordinary object, such as a stone or a clod of earth, into a fat pig. It was a common practice with these rogues to raise money by driving a pig extemporised in this way, to the nearest market; and of course they generally disposed of them without delay, for they could well afford to undersell the owners of real honest pigs.

These counterfeit pigs were always of a red colour; if they crossed a stream of water they returned at once to their own shape—stick or stone as it might be—under the very eyes of the unfortunate purchaser; and in any case they never retained their pig-shape longer than three days.

Giraldus also reminds us that in his own day there were many old women in Scotland and Wales, as well as in Ireland, who were in the habit of turning themselves into hares and running about the country at night sucking the teats of cows.

And here we are forced to acknowledge that he is corroborated by several Irish story-tellers of much later times, down even to the present day, who relate many curious stories of old women turning themselves into hares, and of some who were pursued by huntsmen and hounds and were caught almost in the very act of returning to their own shape.

And after regaining the old-woman shape the wounds inflicted by the hounds were still on the corresponding parts of their bodies, raw and bleeding, as in the case of the man-wolves above mentioned.

The account given by Giraldus of the Ossorian wolf-transformation is somewhat different from that which we find in our own ancient writings.

According to him there were always two of the Ossory people—a man and a woman—passing their lives in the shape of wolves: each couple remained so for seven years, at the end of which time, if they lived so long, they were permitted to return to their home and another pair took their place.

It appears moreover—according to Giraldus—that it was a curse pronounced against the people of Ossory by St. Natalia[2] that brought this dreadful visitation on them; but Giraldus does not inform us what it was that moved the anger of the saint.

Giraldus is never wanting in a good story when it goes to confirm his statements; and he has here a very circumstantial one about a wolf who conversed with a priest three years before earl John's visit to Ireland.

This priest, who was on his way southwards from Ulster, was benighted in a wood on the borders of Meath.

He and a young lad who was his companion lighted a fire under a large tree where they intended to pass the night; and as they were sitting and watching by their fire, a wolf came up and spoke to them in very good Gaelic, telling them not to be in the least afraid, and that they need not run away, for there was no danger.

The travellers were of course astonished and frightened beyond measure; but after some further conversation, they became convinced that the visitor was really a man in the shape of a wolf.

Giraldus then goes on to recount particulars of the interview, among them a relation about the administration of sacraments which is too revolting to be transferred to these pages.

The wolf remained at the fire with them during the night, conducting himself with propriety and good sense, and in all respects—except shape—like a man.

In the morning he led them to the verge of the wood and pointed out the straight road for a long distance.

Before resuming his journey the priest (who it must be remembered was an Irishman) inquired from the wolf whether the hostile people (the Anglo-Normans) who had lately landed in Ireland would hold the country for any length of time. To which the wolf (who was also of course an Irishman) replied, in a tone of great piety:—

“The anger of the Lord has fallen on an evil generation; and on account of the sins of our (i.e. the Irish) nation and the monstrous vices of the people, He has given them into the hands of their enemies. This foreign race shall be quite secure and invincible so long as they shall walk in the ways of the Lord and keep His commandments. But we know that the path leading to sinful pleasures is easy, and human nature is prone to follow evil example; so if this strange people shall hereafter learn our wicked habits from living amongst us, they will no doubt, like us, draw down upon themselves the vengeance of Divine Providence.”

So having finished his sanctimonious speech, he left them to pursue their journey.

It is much to be feared that this last part of the narrative, as well as other particulars which I have omitted, was invented by Giraldus himself for the double pious purpose of favouring his Anglo-Norman friends and having a good hearty slap at the Irish people.

The Kongs Skuggio has this man-wolf story also, not very different from what is related above; but the writer attributes the transformation to St. Patrick, who pronounced the curse against the Ossorians, because when he attempted to preach to them they howled at him like a pack of wolves by a preconcerted arrangement.[3]

The belief in the transformation of human beings into wolves prevailed very widely—almost all over the known world in fact—in ancient times; and it still holds its ground in some countries of northern Europe.

Although however the superstition is now confined within comparatively narrow limits, it is still remembered in the popular legends of nearly every country of Europe; and here most readers will call to mind the horrible German legends of the “werewolf.”

The German were-wolf was a much more atrocious and fiendish animal than our Ossorian man-wolf; for his favourite repast was human flesh torn up from graveyards; whereas Giraldus Cambrensis, who would be only too glad to find a flaw in the behaviour of an Irish wolf, does not record that the Ossorian man-wolves ever did anything worse than devouring a cow or a sheep.

[1] Ossory an ancient sub-kingdom comprising the present county Kilkenny and Queen's County.

[2] Natalis, called in Irish Nailè [Nawly], is the patron saint of Kilmanagh, west of Kilkenny, and of Killenaule in Tipperary, which last took its name from him (Nawle's Church: Joyce's Irish Names of Places, i. 146). He was the son of Aengus mac Natfree king of Munster, and died A.D. 564.

[3] The Kongs Skuggio has among its wonders an account of the Gelts or Madmen who in lapse of time got covered with a growth of feathers and flitted about on the tops of the trees like so many squirrels. Our Irish writings have full records of these Gelts though they do not class them with the wonders. An account of them will be found in my “Smaller Soc. Hist. of Anc. Ireland” (pp. 96, 97), or in my Irish Names of Places under Glannagalt (i. 172).