Curse of Cromwell extended to Ireland's wolf population


IT IS well known that Oliver Cromwell and his supporters spelt trouble for the native Irish, but their arrival also took a fatal toll on the Irish wolf population, according to a book published this week.

In it, Kieran Hickey of NUI Galway says the major push to rid Ireland of wild wolves came during the Cromwellian government in the 1650s, with legislation and bounties to kill them off.

While the Irish themselves did not fare so well back then, there were so many wolves in Ireland that settlers from England and Scotland referred to their new home as “Wolf-Land”.

Very substantial bounties for wolf-kills led to systematic hunting until large areas were devoid of wolves through the late 1600s, says Dr Hickey. In an essay in Lost and Found II: Rediscovering Ireland’s Past, Dr Hickey says professional wolf-hunters came to Ireland to carry out the extermination, and those granted land had to kill wolves or face fines. In 10 years of research, he has amassed 500 references to wolves in history, archaeology and folklore, indicating the wolf had been in Ireland for at least 20,000 years.

In folklore, wolves were very important but considered evil, and were depicted as such in the Book of Kells. Their body parts and dung were used in medicine.

Cures included eating a dish of wolf meat to prevent a person seeing ghosts, and sleeping with a wolf’s head under the pillow to prevent nightmares. Mr Hickey found place names referring to wolves in 20 of the 32 counties, and wolf hunting was mandatory under a ninth century Brehon-law text.

Ringforts were built from AD 500 to AD 1000 to protect cattle and sheep from them. William Russell, lord deputy of Ireland, was recorded wolf hunting with his wife in Kilmainham, Dublin, on May 26th, 1596. In 1558, 961 wolf skins from Ireland were exported to the port of Bristol.

Dr Hickey wrote that it was clear Ireland had a very significant wolf population during the 1500s and early 1600s, possibly well in excess of 1,000 animals.

He said the last authenticated date for the killing of a wolf in Ireland was 1786 on Mount Leinster, Co Carlow: a lone wolf which killed sheep was “subsequently hunted down and killed by the wolfhounds of John Watson, Ballydarton, Co Carlow”.