Wild Alphabet: The Wolf in Irish Poetry

The final wolves in Ireland were wiped out some time during the eighteenth century, outliving the wolf in England by almost three hundred years. The process of their extinction, exacerbated and even engineered by the English colonisation of Ireland, bears multiple parallels with the gradual diminishment of the Irish language, itself subjected to a sustained campaign of persecution under English rule. These parallels have been transformed in the work of Irish poets into a recurring metaphor for the loss of a national and linguistic identity, and a means of conceptualising Irish subjecthood.

Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Midnight’ , published in 1972’s Wintering Out, describes the extinction of the wolf in Ireland following the wars of the seventeenth century. The disappearance of the ‘panting, lolling, / Vapouring’ wolf is related to a more general decline in the state of Ireland’s natural landscape. The wolfhound, once bred to hunt wolves, is ‘crossed / With inferior strains’; entire forests are felled, ‘coopered to wine casks’; and the wolf itself is replaced by ‘small vermin // That glisten and scut.’

This broad sense of decay is also specifically replicated by the very wars to which Heaney refers, which left a trail of destruction in their wake. In 1649, Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland in response to its lingering royalist loyalties following the English Civil War. The invasion caused Irish deaths in their thousands, the ‘Corpse and carrion / Paling in rain’ of Heaney’s poem. These lines also refer implicitly to the ‘Pale’ – the area of Ireland under direct English jurisdiction around the late Middle Ages. Cromwell’s interventions in Ireland involved the seizure of swathes of Irish land and their redistribution to English nobles, effectively enacting a ‘paling’ of Ireland which went far beyond the small area around Dublin usually understood by the term. His punitive measures, designed to ‘civilise’ Ireland by bringing it into line with English cultural norms, also included restrictions placed upon the Irish language. The last lines of Heaney’s poem link this enforcement of linguistic control to the extinction of the wolf:

Nothing is panting, lolling,
Vapouring. The tongue’s
Leashed in my throat.

The series of present participles, usually a hallmark of vitality, here serve only to highlight loss. The wolf’s vibrant, living language is transmuted into Heaney’s ‘leashed’ tongue: a language domesticated and made servile, spoken as a matter of command and obeisance. Attempts to suppress the Irish language were frequent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Henry VIII’s 1537 Act for the English Order, Habit and Language stated that in Ireland ‘the English tongue’ must be ‘used by all men’, associating ‘diversity’ of ‘language’ with a perceived ‘savage and wild kind and manner of living’ among Irishmen. The precise practical implementation of this edict varied, and later, under Elizabeth I, it was widely accepted that Church of Ireland clergymen should learn and make use of Irish in order to attain the greatest possible success in converting the Irish from Catholicism.

The bid to render Ireland less ‘savage’ through the marshalling of its language has parallels with the extinction of the wolf.

Although this attitude persisted when Cromwell came to power, restrictive measures were nevertheless placed upon the Irish language. A 1657 proclamation stated that anyone who wished to avoid being forcibly transplanted to Connaught, an area reserved at the time for those who continued in their Catholic faith despite laws to the contrary, must raise their children to speak only English. The removal of Irish landowners to Connaught and the plantation of English and Scottish settlers also meant that, while Irish remained the most commonly spoken language, education, religion, commerce, and the law were all conducted in English.

This bid to render Ireland less ‘savage’ through the marshalling of its language takes on new resonance in Heaney’s poem due to its parallels with the extinction of the wolf in Ireland, which was similarly a product of English jurisdiction. Wolf-hunting had existed as a recreational pastime in Ireland prior to English invasion, but it took on much greater dimensions under foreign rule. Agricultural expansion meant that the wolf, which frequently preyed on livestock, represented a significant economic threat. Official hunters were hired to deal with the issue during the reign of James I, and a system of bounty hunting was introduced under Cromwell which offered significant payments for each wolf slaughtered. Another threat to the wolf was a prodigious level of deforestation, carried out in order to extract maximum profit from the Irish landscape; Heaney’s lamentation of swathes of forest reduced to ‘wine casks’ nods at the scale of this destruction, which – according to research published in 1971 by Eileen McCracken – saw Ireland’s wooded land diminished from an eighth of the country’s entire terrain to a fiftieth within a mere two hundred years. The wolves’ natural habitat was almost entirely stripped away, leading, in tandem with a deliberate policy of extermination, to their extinction.

However, the motivations for wiping out the wolf in Ireland were not solely economic, but also symbolic. The ‘savagery’ purportedly represented by the Irish language was also seen to be embodied by the wolf in Ireland, which was perceived as a novelty given that wolves were long extinct in England. This was a source of immense interest to English observers, even leading to the use of ‘Wolf-land’ as a substitute name for Ireland. Edmund Spenser’s vicious 1596 polemic ‘A View of the Present State of Ireland’ stated that the Irish were in the habit of eating wolves, befriending them, and even transforming into them: ‘the Scythians sayd, that they were once every yere turned into wolves, and soe it is wrighten of the Irish’.

Deforestation not only stripped away the habitat of wolves but also that of ‘woodkernes’: Irish outlaws who resided in the forest.

Wolves become similarly synonymous with Ireland in Shakespeare: in As You Like It, Rosalind dismisses a series of lovers’ complaints as ‘like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon’. This association became a means of asserting the bestiality of Irish subjects and justifying their cruel treatment at the hands of the English state. Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World (1983) cites a testimony given by a military captain and his troops which describes the bodies of an Irish garrison slaughtered at Cashel in 1647, asserting that many of those found dead ‘had tails near a quarter of a yard long’.

The extermination of human and animal lives was also tied together with respect to deforestation, which not only stripped away the habitat of wolves but also that of ‘woodkernes’: Irish outlaws who resided in the forest. Research published in 1997 by Eoin Neeson reveals that Lord Blennerhasset, Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer, described the woodkernes as ‘human wolves’ in 1610, recommending that they be ‘track[ed] down […] to their lairs’. Political resistance was therefore coded as wolf-like, with the hunting of both wolves and rebels championed and financially rewarded by the state.

Ciaran Carson’s collection of sonnets The Twelfth of Never (1998) carries out a similar association of Ireland with the wolf. ‘Wolf Hill’ refers to a location in Belfast which, as indicated by its name, is one of several sites across Ireland where the last wolf is claimed to have been killed. The poem is narrated by the wolf’s killer, whose financial motivations are implied by the ‘foreign silver coin’ of the ‘haughty moon’. However, the dead wolf, cut ‘open from the gullet to the groin’, offers a final display of nationalism in the poem’s final lines:

Therein lay little Erin, like one of the Undead,
A pair of bloody dancing shoes upon her feet,
Her gown a shamrock green, her cloak a poppy red.

The wolf’s slaughter renders this figuration of Ireland not dead but ‘Undead’, affirming Irish identity as something tangible but no longer fully lived. ‘The White Devil’, named after a revenge tragedy by John Webster which dates to the reign of James I, also describes the hunting of a wolf-like figure – a ‘wolfish fellow’ with ‘lupine length’. Upon his death, he transforms into ‘the head and torso of a man’, and a flying butterfly emerges from his yawning ‘maw’. Carson therefore subtly invokes the tales of lycanthropy related by Spenser, with the wolf becoming a stand-in for the Irish subject. This association of Ireland’s fate with that of the wolf is also articulated by ‘Wrap the Green Flag Round Me’, a poem from the same collection, which describes ‘Erin ’ wearing ‘a silver wolfskin coat’. All three poems make use of the traditional associations between the Irish and the wolf, but in a manner that affirms not their mutual savagery but their mutual humanity, and underlines the violence of the English colonial project. ‘Legions of the Dead’, another sonnet from The Twelfth of Never, emphasises this violence, like Heaney, through a focus on the loss of the Irish language, stating that ‘My Irish is corrupted by the English tongue’. The poem, which commemorates ‘The now-forgotten lyrics of a rebel song’, articulates the same cultural loss as the wolf poems in the same collection, creating a connection between the co-occurring extinctions of the Irish wolf and the Irish language.

The wolf becomes a poetic symbol, not only for national identity, but also for the intimacies of everyday Irish lives.

Both Carson and Heaney therefore suggest a parity between the Irish and the wolf which need not necessarily follow the same logic as its insulting and dehumanising colonial variant. Indeed, the idea of a closeness between humans and wolves was a feature of Irish mythology and hagiography which predated Spenser by quite some way. Cormac Mac Airt, a possibly fictional ancient High King of Ireland, was purportedly raised by wolves, and Ireland’s patron saint, Patrick, is said to have placed a curse upon the werewolves of Ossory, a kingdom whose rejection of Christianity meant they were doomed to periodically transform into wolves.

This heritage is represented in the poetry of Eavan Boland, whose work explores the themes of colonialism and language discussed by Heaney and Carson. Her collection Code (2001) explicitly links these concerns to imagery of the wolf, suggesting, in the frame of an ordinary modern marriage, the broader sweep of Ireland’s natural history:

Did you know our suburb was a forest?
Our roof was a home for thrushes.
Our front door was a wild shadow of spruce.

Our faces edged in mountain freshness,
we took our milk in where the wide apart
prints of the wild and never-seen
creatures were set who have long since died out.

With this sense of the country’s former wildness as background, the modern couple of the poem are set against:

Irish wolves. A silvery man and wife.
Yellow-eyed. Edged in dateless moonlight.
They are mated for life. They are legendary. They are safe.

The speaker expresses relief at her distance from the ‘immortal or unlucky’ life of these ‘lovers in an Irish story’, who ‘never had good fortune […] kissed at the edge of death’. However, she also hints at a sense of affinity with them, intimating that this ‘legendary’ precedent is ‘what is hidden in / this ordinary, ageing human love’. A sense of continuation is suggested between a mythic past and a suburban present, creating a hybrid form of living that is simultaneously ‘legendary’ and ‘safe’.

Boland therefore makes use of the wolf as a poetic symbol, using it to stand not only for a broader sense of national identity, but also for the intimacies of everyday Irish lives. In addition, it becomes a way of conceptualising the art of poetry itself. ‘Limits’, another poem from Code, describes the work of ‘the old monks’ of Kells and Durrow, creators of the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, two early illuminated manuscripts. The alphabet created by these monks is ‘wild’, formed of ‘strange / wings’ and ‘talons’. In the final lines of the poem,

…………..the thin,
ribbed wolves
which had gone north
left their frozen winters
and were lured back
to their consonants.

The Irish literary tradition is linked irrevocably to the wolf, figured here in the act of returning home as opposed to dying out. The wildness with which Irish subjects were denigrated during their conflicts with the English becomes an imaginative facility and a source of literary achievement, suggesting a potential homecoming for Irish culture.

The wolf symbolises loss, but also a form of poetic manifesto – an ambition to unleash poetry from the restrictions of colonial intervention.

The first poem of ‘Colony’, a sequence in Boland’s collection The Lost Land (1998), serves as a form of elegy for this tradition, describing the manner in which it was threatened by colonialism. Titled ‘My Country in Darkness’, it describes the decline of the bardic tradition in Ireland. Active until around the seventeenth century, Irish bards were retained by kings in order to write Irish language poetry, and enjoyed a comfortable way of life and a great deal of societal respect. Under Tudor colonisation, however, they were directly threatened by way of strictures placed upon the Irish language. Aidan Doyle’s 2015 book A History of the Irish Language also notes the endangered position of their patrons and their negative perception by the English, who suspected that they might use their positions in society to incite rebellion. Under these pressures, their numbers quickly dwindled. ‘My Country in Darkness’ describes a bard left, without support or patronage, to wander across a country in which ‘The Gaelic world’ ‘burns in the rain’ and falls into ‘Darkness’, leaving behind the traditional mythologies of ‘Limerick, the Wild Geese and what went before’. Crucially, the opening of the poem situates the loss of this tradition within a series of other extinctions:

After the wolves and before the elms
The Bardic Order ended in Ireland.

The wolf again comes to stand for Irish poetry. In Boland, Carson, and Heaney’s poetry, the wolf symbolises loss, but also a form of poetic manifesto – an ambition to unleash poetry from the restrictions imposed by colonial intervention and the mediation of subsequent Irish literature through the English tongue. All three represent this liberation as a remote possibility, expressing first and foremost a sense of continued restriction in the attempt to resuscitate a tradition that ‘My Country in Darkness’ describes as ‘a dead art in a dying land’. However, by keeping the wolf at the forefront of their poetry, the hope remains that this former wildness, and the imaginative freedom it symbolises, might return to their poetry, be ‘lured back / to their consonants.’


Part of The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season, spring/summer 2017.

Image credit: The Chi-Rho Page from the Book of Kells: “The Word Made Flesh”
Via Suny Oneonta


The Learned Pig

Erin Cunningham

Erin Cunningham is a PhD student in the English department at King's College London, researching the sonnet in Irish poetry from the late nineteenth century to the present day. She grew up in Worcestershire, and previously completed degrees in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford and Issues in Modern Culture at UCL.