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Madraí na hÉireann

The Irish adore dogs. We are certifiably, a nation of dog lovers. This is no recent phenomenon. Ireland has a long and proud history with our canine companions that stretches back to Irish myths and legends. Recently the Education team developed a downloadable workshop that explores the history of dogs, from cavemen times to the modern era, but criminally, we completely left out Ireland in this workshop.

To make up for this, we decided to dedicate this week’s blog to Ireland’s honoured history with our faithful friends.

It is clear to anyone that speaks Irish that we’ve always had a bit of a thing for dogs. This is evident as much of our wildlife has the word “madra” (the Irish for dog) in their name. The Irish for squirrel is madra crainn (tree dog), the Irish for seal is madra mara (sea dog) and the Irish for fox is madra rua (red dog). In modern Irish, all three animals have been given official non-dogs names; iora, rón and sionnach, but its clear from their etymology that our ancestors saw dogs everywhere.

Who are you calling a sea dog?

There are nine official Irish dog breeds, and while many assume the Irish Wolfhound is our national dog, actually we’ve never officially named it so (There was another contender in the 1920s, but we’ll get to this later). The Wolfhound is likely our most iconic breed, due to its presence in our many myths and legends. The most famous of which was the wolfhound that protected the smith Culann, as he welcomed the King of Ulster for a feast. When the King arrived, Culann released his hound to protect them from thieves and villains. Unfortunately, they had forgotten that the King’s young nephew Setanta, was yet to arrive. The hound was allegedly so large it took three men to hold its chains, but once he was free, he was lethal. As soon as Setanta approached, the hound attacked, but Setanta managed to overcome the dog with his hurl and sliotar. Culann was relieved the King’s nephew hadn’t been killed on his watch, but he still mourned for his hound. Thus, Setanta offered to replace the hound until a new dog was reared, and he was given the new name, “Cú Chulainn”, or “Hound of Culann”.

We all know the Wolfhound, the Irish setter and the Kerry Blue, but do you know which Irish breed this is?


Cú Chulainn went on to be a great Irish hero who went on many adventures, but it is his origin story, involving the great hound, that is certainly his best-known tale.

The hound of Culann isn’t the only wolfhound to grace Irish mythology, however. Fionn Mac Cumhaill (the Jason to Cú Chulainn’s Hercules), had two hounds that accompanied him on his many adventures. Named Bran and Sceólang, the hounds actually had a human mother who was transformed into a dog while she was pregnant. While mum turned back into a human after she gave birth, Bran and Sceólang remained Fionn’s trusty canine sidekick’s for the rest of their days. Lucky that they did. While out on a hunt once, they stopped Fionn from killing a doe, recognising that she was actually a woman with a curse on her (there was an awful lot of transfiguring going on in those days). Fionn was able to break the curse and ending up marrying the lady, and having a son (Oisin of the Tír na Nog legends) with her, all thanks to his lovely dog companions.


Ok so, the wolfhound has more than pulled their weight in Irish legends…but ladies turning into dogs, and ladies turning into does. Can this really be considered history?

Fair enough, lets move away from myth and look at some actual history.

In Celtic times, there was a code called Brehon law which mainly dealt with civil cases involving property, compensation, and inheritance. From looking at this law, we can see that it was surprisingly liberal and modern when it came to animal rights, particularly with regards to dogs. This was hundreds of years before the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876, often considered the first animal welfare law to be enacted. Brehon law forbid any cruelty towards domestic animals, though the law also extended towards the animals, meaning that just as humans were expected not to harm animals, and those who did would be punished, so too were dogs expected not to harm any humans, and for those that did, there would have been consequences.

There was also a curious bit of legislation that stated that you were responsible for any damages done by your tame wolf. This indicates that some of our ancestors kept wolves for pets, and that these wolves, though friendly, had a penchant for making a mess. There is one Brehon law though, that we on the education team think we could adapt today. This law stated that if a dog did a poop on another person’s property, the dog owner had to give the landowner a portion of butter, equal in weight to that of the turd. Seems fair?

If we zip forward to modern times, we can see that our love for dogs has only grown stronger. Michael Collins risked his life to bring his beloved Kerry Blue (curiously named Convict 224) to a dog show that coincided with the Irish hero’s 30th birthday. Collins had a bullet with his name on it at the time, and many of his advisors warned him to keep his head down. He refused however, and ended up having a wonderful birthday when Convict took home the grand prize. Collins actually had plans to make the Kerry Blue the official national dog of Ireland, supplementing the unofficial Irish Wolfhound, however his plans for this faded away when he was assassinated in 1922.

The Kerry Blue vying for top dog

And in even more modern times, the native breeds of Ireland have many other more popular breeds to compete with. From Adele King’s Teddy who moved the nation was he was stolen and then recovered after an appearance on the Late Late, to Rosana Davison’s Leo, who graced Instagram with his good looks.

But we can’t have a post on famous Irish dogs without mentioning, the most popular Irish dogs of modern times, President Michael D Higgin’s iconic Duo; Bród and Síoda.

These Bernese Mountain dogs endeared themselves to the world as they charmed dignitaries, royalty, sports stars and world leaders alike, and it is probably fair to say, they have become part of our president’s brand. They even appeared on badges to promote his campaign for re-election in 2018. We all mourned when Síoda passed away in 2020, however when a video of President Higgin’s newest charge, Misneach, went viral last year, our hearts melted, and we collectively fell in love with the new first dog.

So, there you have it. From ancient to modern Ireland, there has been one constant; our love for dogs. Be it the gargantuan warrior hounds setting off on adventures, or the tiny Instagram dogs collecting likes, there’s no denying that we are a nation that loves our canine companions.


If you would like to learn more about the history of dogs on a more worldwide level, why not download our History of Dogs Workshop on our Clever paws page.