Going through my writings, I realise how little deals with something of great personal importance to me; nature and the natural world. Of course, semantic quibbling teaches us that “nature” and “natural” are weasel words. Talk about “the sounds of nature”, say, and you leave yourself open to all sorts of critiques and special pleadings. But talk about “the sounds of nature”, and special pleading aside, people know what you mean.
Other pieces about “nature” are no doubt in my oeuvre, but this is the one that springs to mind – a 2013 review of Kieran Hickey’s book on Wolves in Ireland. This is an academic text, and this review is something academic in bent. It was also my first piece to appear on the TLS website . This is the published text.
A burthensome beast
WOLVES IN IRELAND
A natural and cultural history
155pp. Four Courts. ¤26.95.
978 1 84682 306 0
At the Westminster Parliament in 1657, Major Morgan, representing Wicklow, enumerated the “three beasts to destroy that lay burthensome upon us. The first is the wolf, on whom we lay five pounds a head if a dog, and ten pounds if a bitch; the second beast is a priest, on whose head we lay ten pounds, and if he is eminent more. The third beast is the Tory, and on his head, if he be a public Tory, we lay ten pounds, and if he is a private Tory, we pay 40 shillings”.
Wolves and “wood kernes” (rebels living in forests) were often lumped together in English discourse on Ireland during the early seventeenth century, and Kieran Hickey provides much evidence that the authorities held an exterminationist approach to both creatures. The wolf is commonly supposed to have been eliminated in England and Wales during the reign of Charles II; in Ireland it persisted until the eighteenth century. Before the Cromwellian Wars the local population generally tolerated wolves; thereafter a combination of deforestation, a bounty system, a rising population, and a determination to tame “Wolf Land” all combined to doom the Irish wolf. The most commonly given date and place for the death of the last wild Irish wolf is 1786 in County Carlow.
The tallest breed of dog everHickey, a lecturer in Geography at National University of Ireland, Galway, has written a history with abundant material on the zoology, folklore, history and cultural legacy of the wolf in Ireland. The Irish wolf-hound, the tallest breed of dog ever, and extinct in its original form (today’s wolf-hounds are reconstituted) is also discussed. There is, for a self-styled “cultural history”, little on literature. No mention of The Citizen’s wolfhound, Garryowen in Ulysses, and while we are told twice that W. B. Yeats was photographed posing in a wolfskin, we do not read of the wolves of “The Madness of King Goll” or “Three Marching Songs”.
Hickey is clearly more comfortable on the natural historical and the geographical (particularly wolf-related place names) than the cultural and historical elements. There are some striking solecisms. How different the history of these islands would have been if the Earl of Tyrone had indeed met “Queen Elizabeth’s grandson, John Harington” in 1599. And Hickey refers to the parliament which Major Morgan addressed as “the first united parliament of the three kingdoms”, which would have been a surprise to Oliver Cromwell.
Often the chapters on history and folklore read as an accumulation of somewhat random observations, a not atypical section reading: “The Greeks referred to the volcanic gases that came out of the ground as wolves, and the temple of Apollo in Athens was called the Lyceum, which means wolfskin. The wolf also features in Chinese mythology associated with astrology. Wolves feature heavily in the mythology of the indigenous tribes of North America”. Yet these cavils seems churlish, since Hickey himself cheerfully admits that the range of topics covered brings him outside his academic comfort zone. Indeed, he rather charmingly invites the reader to join in his research on the wolf in Ireland, estimating that many lifetimes would be required to fully work through the material he has gathered.
Hickey uses data such as the records of wolfskin exports from ports in the South-east to Bristol and historical references to wolves in various literary sources to try to extrapolate a population estimate. Of course, both of these methods have limitations that he openly acknowledges (it is very surprising that there are no references to wolves at all for County Donegal, the closest county to wilderness even now), but the natural historical detective work is impressive.
An area of about half the size of Ireland would be needed to support a viable breeding populationHickey also posits an intriguing counterfactual – that if wolves had managed to survive in Ireland up until the Famine, they possibly would have experienced a revival with the massive rural depopulation opening up much potential territory. A reintroduction is not feasible; using pack ranges from the United States (although European wolves tend to roam less), an area of about half the size of Ireland would be needed to support a viable breeding population.
Wolves have roamed Ireland in the last decade; but as escapees from captivity. There is no restriction on keeping wolves as pets, and Hickey cites recent escapes in Counties Fermanagh, Tyrone and Wexford as evidence of somewhat reckless atttitudes. The Welsh philosopher Mark Rowlands, when lecturing at University College Cork, ran daily by the Lee with his wolf Brenin, to the apparent indifference of farmers and passers-by. Perhaps modern Irish attitudes to wolves have returned to their pre-Morgan state.