On Greyhounds And Ireland

by Houndstooth on

Bunny here at the keyboard with a little Greyhound history lesson for you today.

For a long time, the common belief is that Greyhounds got their origins in Egypt along with a group of other sighthounds.  Now, however, there is some dispute about that.  Some people say that DNA tests show that we weren’t the legendary dogs of the Pharoahs.  They say we probably originated in Eurasia and soon migrated to the Celtic area with hunters.  Humans tend to get interested and worked up about these things, so I thought I’d share a little about what I’ve learned.

A Lady Sitting with Two Greyhounds Alfred de Dreux

A Lady Sitting with Two Greyhounds Alfred de Dreux

Greek historians recorded everything in their area with great dedication and they don’t mention Greyhounds at all until they met a Northern tribe called the Keltoi in 200 B.C.  That’s the first time they recorded any mention of us at all.  You know if we’d been around, people would have been talking about us like crazy.  In 300 B.C. Xenophon didn’t mention us at all in his book about dog breeds.  However, two centuries later, the poet Grattius wrote about the Celtic dogs, who were called Vertragus by Arrian, a Greek historian.

…swifter than thought or a winged bird it runs, pressing hard on beasts it has found.

The Celtic culture was all over Europe from Austria to northern Spain, the British Isles and Ireland.  Wherever they went, they took their dogs and soon the Vertragus were leaving behind various offshoots of themselves.  Spain had Galgos, the British Isles and Wolfhounds and Tumblers, and the Celts didn’t give their sighthounds specific names.  To make it even more confusing, they had large dogs they called Greyhounds and the dogs that became the breed we are today were called Coursing Dogs.  Irish Wolfhounds were particularly valuable at that time because of their ability to hunt boars.  People paid large sums of gold for them.  Of course, I can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t want to pay a lot to have a sighthound, but I digress.

Home from the Hunt c.1876, Jean-Léon Gérôme

Home from the Hunt c.1876, Jean-Léon Gérôme

They say that we became the Greyhounds we are today after the Forest Laws of the 17th Century ended.  Before that time, commoners couldn’t own a sighthound.  It was against the law and they could be killed for it, or get a hand chopped off.  After the Forest Laws were ended, there were very strict rules enacted about coursing and they demanded specific requirements of performance and traits.  Most of the sighthound breeds disappeared.  Even the modern Irish Wolfhound is a recreation of the original dog.

Door Watchers -- Tales and Tails

Door Watchers

There are two studies that support this theory.  One is from 1997 called “Multiple and Ancient Origins of the Domestic Dog.”  It traced the DNA of Greyhounds from long ago to present day.  It suggests that male Irish Setters, St. Bernards and Miniature Schnauzers were bred to female Greyhounds to create each of those breeds.  Those dogs all originated in the Celtic region.  The second study, “Genetic Structure of the Purebred Domestic Dog,” studied clumps of DNA strings that appear in some breeds, but not in others.  They don’t show us Greyhounds having much in common with the Asian breeds like Salukis, Afghan Hounds, Chows, Shar-Pei or Akitas.  However, those breeds all have a lot of common DNA with each other.  We Greyhounds have common DNA with the Celtic region breeds like Irish Wolfhounds.  It also showed that we’re the starting point for a lot of breeds like Whippets, Borzoi, St. Bernards, Collies and Shetland Sheepdogs.  All of those breeds are known to have started in the Celtic areas.

It has long been believed that the Irish saved Greyhounds from becoming extinct during the Middle Ages, but now it looks like we might have just gotten our start there, too.  During the famine, Greyhounds were taken in by clergymen who bred them for the nobility.  Whether we started in Egypt or Ireland, Ireland is a very important part of our history.  The truth is, people might never know where we actually started from, but it’s fun to ponder it, especially on a day like Saint Patrick’s Day.  All I have to say is, kiss me, I’m Irish!

The Pot O' Gold -- Tales and Tails

The Pot O’ Gold

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  • Do you know there was a penalty of death For killing a greyhound in 12th century Wales?.And quite right too!

  • Sue Dyer

    Pucker up Bunny:)

    Very interesting post.

  • MelF

    What a fantastic history lesson. I had no idea that the Irish Wolfhounds of today are a recreation of the former breed. Wow. I love it when you do these pieces Bunny.

  • Lori – What Remains Now

    I love your history posts! Fascinating and GREAT pictures of greyhounds in art. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

  • Reilly & Denny Cowspotdogs

    that is some wonderful history to have – happy St Patricks Day

  • Wow, that’s so interesting. It’s crazy that they can trace all the DNA now and learn even more. I have a stupid question though…..why are you called a “sighthound?”

  • fivesibes

    Such a fascinating history post…I love history stories. Wishing you all the blessings and good wishes of the Irish on this St. Paddy’s Day!

  • Casey the Boxer

    Wow, you ARE Irish! Happy St. Patrick’s Day to ye!

  • Jodi

    Happy St. Patty’s day Bunny!! Thanks for the history lesson!

  • Jen

    Lots I didn’t know about the greyhound! Of course, all the dogs in the Book of Kells look like them (…more or less) so while I didn’t KNOW they were from Irish areas, I “knew” they were. If you know what I mean.

    I do know that “Lurchers” occurred because of Forest Laws, when it was illegal for non-nobility to own a greyhound. A Lurcher isn’t a “real” breed (or even a designer one, I don’t think) but rather a combination of a sighthound + something else to course hares, etc. My understanding is they’re produced for working/functionality rather than appearance.

  • Fascinating! I wish more actuate history was kept about dog breeding and mixing but it is also fun to discover. All I can think about regarding greyhounds in Ireland though is “brrr!” My two very thick furred Euro dogs are warm and dry in any fog and mist, Irish or Cascadian. But greyhounds? Like I said, “brrr!”

  • Two French Bulldogs

    Very interesting
    Happy St. Patrick’s Day
    Lily & Edward

  • SGilbert

    Thank You! It was a very interesting learning about the origin of the greyhound, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

  • M. K. Clinton

    Irish with a treasure chest of gold coins! Yes!! Gorgeous pictures and very interesting information. Thanks for sharing some heritage with me!

  • Flea

    Bunny, are those gold foil covered beef liver treats? That would totally rock. Hmm. Now there’s an idea …

  • Oz theTerrier

    Well, kiss me I’m Scottish which is quite close to being Irish! That is some interesting history you uncovered, Bunny. Personally, I think you look brilliant all decked out in your Irish attire!
    *Cairn cuddles*
    Oz

  • Sara Blair

    Interesting! So greyhounds and shelties might be related! Cool! They kind of share the long nose thing.

    If I really loved a dog, it might be ok to get my hand chopped off! But, I’m glad that’s not an option these days.

    Happy St. Patty’s Day!

  • jan

    Thanks for all your research and an outstanding post.

  • When I got my first greyhound I read a book that claimed the origin was possibly turkey, and also mentioned that they are the only dog mentioned in the bible. The bible reference is accurate, but I wonder about Turkey.

  • Guest

    Your dogs are gorgeous and love the info!