Wolf-hunters and the last wolf in Ulster
The last wolf in Ulster
Wolves were numerous in Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So numerous indeed that they posed a threat to the livelihood of farmers.
A letter from Gabriel Whistler, agent of the Salters’ company 11 April 1699 speaking of the devastation brought about by the 1641 rebellion in the region stated 'your lands and most of the others continued in this condition without inhabitants (but wolves and wild beasts) until the year 1656’ (D4108/1/12A)
At various times generous bounties were given for the destruction of wolves, particularly during the Cromwellian period. In 1652 the Commissioners of the Revenue of Cromwell's Irish Government set substantial bounties on wolves, £6 for a female, £5 for a male, £2 for a sub-adult and 10 shillings for a cub.
In 1677 a proclamation by Gabriel Whistler at the manor court on the Salters’ estate, ‘ordered that the summe of one shilling bee raysed and payed by the tenants of every towne land within the said Manor to any person that shall kill a Wolfe within the said Manor, And also that the summe of one penny shal bee likewise raised & payd by the tenants of every towne land within the said Manor to every person that shall kill a fox within the said Manor, and that in default of payment the said summe shalbe levyed by distrisse by the bayliffe of the said Manor, & paid unto the said persons that shall so kill the said wolves and foxes accordingly’. (D4108/1/10B)
The last wolf in Ireland
Eventually, wolves were hunted into extinction. Various dates are contested about the last known wolf-killing. Although we can’t be certain, it seems that the last wolf in Ireland was killed by a farmer, John Watson from Ballydarton, Co Carlow. The Watson family of Ballydarton and their ancestors were known to have hunted deer and wolves and were responsible with their hounds for the death of the last wolf in Co. Carlow near Myshall, Mount Leinster (Carloviana; Journal of the Old Carlow Society, Dec 1968: ‘The Carlow Hunt’ by H. Fennell page 13). This took place in the year 1786, almost five hundred years after the last English wolf and over one hundred years since the last wolf was shot in Scotland.
The Last wolf in Ulster --
A schoolmaster J. Compton brought out a small volume called ‘A Compendous System of Chronology’. Against the year 1692 is written: ‘the last wolf seen in Ireland is killed by Irish wolf-dogs on the hill of Aughnabrack, near Belfast by Clotworthy Upton of Castle-Upton, Templepatrick’. Aughnabrack is commonly called Wolf Hill by the people of Belfast.
The OS memoirs of the 1830's provide fascinating insight into the wolf-hunters of Ulster but provide few clear dates –
The memoirs for Desertoghill reveal one fascinating detail about the parish – that it was plagued by wolves, and that it is in part due to this fact that the parish derived its name. In ancient times the people resorting to the old church of Desertoghill were very much disturbed by the wolves that infested the country and on sundry occasions of the people assembling to midnight mass on Christmas days, the wolves made sudden and unexpected attacks on different persons. It was necessary to have watchmen with wolf-dogs to guard the country. Consequently, a watch-house was erected by the congregation a little beyond the old church near St. Columb’s well, in which two men with wolf-dogs were stationed to guard the congregation.
One of these wolf-hunters was a gigantic man and of great courage, by name of Toughill. This Toughill, it is said was a huge and impressive man. It is believed that through time this man became known locally as Desert (a reference to his life and work in the parish) and that eventually the place was partly dedicated to his name, ‘and called Desert Toughill, and gave name to the parish.
The memoirs for Banagher parish give contrasting stories about the last wolf hunted in that parish. One story relates to a wolf hunter named Rory Carragh who was from the Dungiven region:
The last of the mischievous animals called wolves that were seen in this part of the north was known to dwell in the mountains and glens of Aughlish. Latterly, there were only two of them to be seen, a he and a she. About that time there lived in the town or neighbourhood of Dungiven a wolf hunter called Rorey Carragh, and who was celebrated for his superior judgement and success in killing wolves. His attendance for this purpose was for a series of years solicited in many of the northern counties and one of his last exploits was displayed in Aughlish. The two animals were making great ravages among the herds of sheep in the neighbourhood. Few young lambs could be saved from their fangs and even able-bodied men dreaded their approach. They covered mostly in the woods of the aforesaid townland.
This Carragh was a good judge of the time of the year the dam hade her young and which time was the surest to put his designs of killing them into execution. For the moment the dam has her young she repairs to salt water, if there being any convenient, leaving the he-one in charge of her young till she returns, which duty they are known to discharge with care and parental affection.
Carragh was employed by the inhabitants to set them free from the destroyers of their flock. He, well knowing the time of the dam having her young took the opportunity of repairing their cover well-armed and accompanied by his wolf-dogs. The moment he discovered their den he observed the he-wolf dutifully watching the 2 young ones and the dam absent in search of her favourite drink. He lost no time in firing on the sentinel, shot him dead, but had scarce time to reload his gun when he observed the dam springing towards him in furious manner with her jaws open ready to devour him in an instant but he was fortunate as to drive the contents of his piece in through her mouth, pass through her body and killed her on the spot. This successful event put an end to wolves in this part of the north. Informants – Joseph & Archibald McSparren (16 Feb 1835). It is though that this event of wolf killing was dated to circa 1700.
By contrast the Banagher memoirs also reveals details on the life of one Charles O’Heney of Carnanbane, a shoemaker, who reputedly died in 1804 aged 106 (giving him a lifespan of circa. 1698-1804). ‘By his own account he had been in at the death of the last wolf that ravaged this part of the country. The animal was slain by a hunting party got up by the Learey family on the mountain between Banagher and Ballynascreen’. If O’Heney had been a young man when this even occurred then this would take us back to early seventeenth century.
Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary for 1837 for the parish of Tamlaghtard (Magilligan) parish states that ‘the last wolf known to exist in Ulster was started about 90 years since upon Benevenagh and hunted into the woods near Dungiven where it was killed’. This gives us an approximate date of circa 1747 for the extinction of the wolf in Ulster.