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A passion for wolves that explores our deepest fears

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Date Published: {J}

From earliest childhood, all of us were taught to fear wolves. If we weren’t being scared to death hearing about the wolf’s sneaky attack on Little Red Riding Hood, we were being told about the epic exploits of the Three Little Pigs to save themselves from the big bad wolf. If it wasn’t advice warning us to beware of the ‘lone wolf’ it was biblical material, telling us to be vigilant for those who were ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’.

A fear of wolves runs deep in our psyche, despite the fact that these magnificent wild animals have been extinct in Ireland since the late 1700s. But, really when you think of it, says NUIG lecturer Dr Kieran Hickey, that isn’t much more than 200 years – not a long time really.

Kieran Hickey, a geographer who lectures in climate change in the university, is probably Ireland’s leading expert on wolves, although he’d be the first to remark that the field isn’t exactly overcrowded.

He has recently contributed an article on the subject to a new book Lost and Found II: Discovering Ireland’s Past which was edited by Joe Fenwick of the NUIG’s archaeology department. Later this year he will publish a full book on the subject, which has become a passion over the last 12 years, after he stumbled across it by accident while researching another project in UCC.

Kieran, who has a BA and a Masters from UCC and a PhD from Coventry University, has been lecturing in NUIG since 1999, having previously worked “all over the place”, including in Maynooth, Oxford and Armagh Observatory.

“I like to have a sideline project because a lot of the climate change work is number-crunching stuff and there are days when it doesn’t work or when you don’t want to do it,” he says of his wolf passion.

It was when he was doing research on the last 1.6 million years (which is known as the Quaternary period) that Kieran realised there was very little systematic work done on wolves in Ireland.

“I knew why that was, because the references [to them] were scattered everywhere and thin on the ground.”

As a result, it would have been difficult for any student to get sufficient funding to research a project on the animals within normal university timeframes.

So, Kieran adopted the Irish wolf as a sideline scheme, carrying out other research projects along the way while accumulating information on wolves in terms of archaeology, history and in folkore, and appealing for information along the way.

Information came from many quarters he says, including from as far away as South Africa. And he discovered one gem from 1588 when the Spanish Armada was shipwrecked off the West coast of Ireland.

In addition to the survivors being attacked by the locals as they were in Galway, a contemporary account also recounts how wolves came down from the mountains to eat the dead soldiers. Pleasant stuff indeed.

But it wasn’t all so grim. Kieran discovered evidence of wolves in Ireland going back 25,000 years – the oldest bones found in Ireland are wolf bones, he explains. And there are also many references to wolves in place names throughout Ireland. Many of those were not initially obvious, but research showed that these were ‘hidden’ in Irish place names; such as Isknamacteera in Kerry and places that contain Breagh (wolf). The surname O’Connell, meanwhile, translates as ‘strong as a wolf’.

Historical records of Ireland’s wolf population were relatively scarce until the 1400s when the English began to make a serious impression on the country, but became solid from there on, particularly during the Plantation of Ireland which began in the 16th century.

These records show that wolves were common in Ireland around the 1500s – in fact, says Kieran they survived in Ireland well after becoming extinct in England, Wales and Scotland.

That might be because the native Irish had a different attitude to wolves than the Anglo-Irish, which is illustrated by records which pre-date the English settlement.

“Irish chieftains would keep them as pets. And, yes they hunted them, but not to exterminate them. But the settlers who came in saw them as a foe and wanted to eliminate these predators.”

There was, in fact, a period between the late 1400s and the mid-to-late 1500s when wolf skins were regarded as a luxury item on a small scale and exported to place such as Bristol. In the 1300s, records in Galway listed wolf skins among taxable commodities, which would indicate a significant wolf population.

The real decline of the Irish wolf began during the Cromwellian era in the 1650s, when people were offered a bounty to kill these predators.

So wary were the English settlers of wild Ireland and its inhabitants, both human and feral that some of the incomers used to refer to Ireland as ‘Wolf land’ – there was also a belief that Irish people could change into wolves.

 

For more, read page 23 of this week’s City Tribune.

Galway in Days Gone By

The way we were – Protecting archives of our past

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A photo of Galway city centre from the county council's archives

People’s living conditions less than 100 years ago were frightening. We have come a long way. We talk about water charges today, but back then the local District Councils were erecting pumps for local communities and the lovely town of Mountbellew, according to Council minutes, had open sewers,” says Galway County Council archivist Patria McWalter.

Patria believes we “need to take pride in our history, and we should take the same pride in our historical records as we do in our built heritage”. When you see the wealth of material in her care, this belief makes sense.

She is in charge of caring for the rich collection of administrative records owned by Galway County Council and says “these records are as much part of our history as the Rock of Cashel is. They document our lives and our ancestors’ lives. And nobody can plan for the future unless you learn from the past, what worked and what didn’t”.

Archivists and librarians are often unfairly regarded as being dry, academic types, but that’s certainly not true of Patria. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she turns the pages of several minute books from Galway’s Rural District Councils, all of them at least 100 years old.

Part of her role involved cataloguing all the records of the Councils – Ballinasloe, Clifden, Galway, Gort, Loughrea, Mountbellew, Portumna and Tuam. These records mostly consisted of minutes of various meetings.

When she was cataloguing them she realised their worth to local historians and researchers, so she decided to compile a guide to their content. The result is For the Record: The Archives of Galway’s Rural District Councils, which will be a valuable asset to anybody with an interest in history.

Many representatives on these Councils were local personalities and several were arrested during the political upheaval of the era, she explains.

And, ushering in a new era in history, women were allowed to sit on these Rural District Councils – at the time they were not allowed to sit on County Councils.

All of this information is included in Patria’s introductory essay to the attractively produced A4 size guide, which gives a glimpse into how these Rural Councils operated and the way political thinking changed in Ireland during a short 26-year period. In the early 1900s, these Councils supported Home Rule, but by 1920, they were calling for full independence and refusing to recognise the British administration.

“I love the tone,” says Patria of the minutes from meetings. “The language was very emotive.”

That was certainly true of the Gort Rural District Council. At a meeting in 1907, following riots in Dublin at the premiere of JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World the councillors’ response was vehement. They recorded their decision to “protest most emphatically against the libellous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, that was belched forth during the past week in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, under the fostering care of Lady Gregory and Mr Yeats. We congratulate the good people of Dublin in howling down the gross buffoonery and immoral suggestions that are scattered throughout this scandalous performance.

 

For more from the archives see this week’s Tribunes here

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Archive News

Real Galway flavour to intermediate club hurling battle in Birr

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Date Published: 23-Jan-2013

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Athenry fail to take chances as they bow out of Junior Cup

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Date Published: 29-Jan-2013

Athenry FC 1

Kilbarrack United 2

(After extra time)

For the second year in succession Athenry were done in extra time in the FAI Junior Cup as last season’s beaten finalist’s came from behind to snatch an excellent game in Moanbawn on Sunday afternoon.

On a heavy pitch that was only playable following extensive groundwork by club officials all morning, the home side were by far the better side in the opening half, but failed to take advantage of a number of opportunities that came their way.

An Alan O’Donovan penalty gave them a merited advantage just after the restart, but thereafter were on the back foot as Kilbarrack took over, but for all their pressing, the home rearguard were dealing comfortably with their forays.

However they were struck a body blow just six minutes from time, as big striker Keith Kirwan was left all alone at the far post to head the equaliser and from that point on the Dubliners were the better side.

They started off the extra time in the ascendancy and enjoying all the momentum before striking for a good winning goal on 104 minutes. A strong bench allowed them to make some necessary changes and it was not a facility that was available to Athenry manager Gabriel Glavin.

With Gary Forde and Gary Delaney out through suspension following their sending off against OLBC in the previous round, and Seamie Crowe injured, it left their bench rather threadbare with just a number of young squad players available.

Playing with the aid of the slight incline and any wind advantage going, the home side had a Connor Cannon effort on target in the opening minute, while John Meleady was just over with a flick at the other end.

Meleady then tested Andrew Walsh who saved comfortably, before the goalkeeper pulled off a brilliant double save on 14 minutes.

Firstly he went full length to push away a Meleady shot and was then back on his feet to parry David Jackson’s close-range rebound.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Sentinel.

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