1786. The year in which the last Irish wolf was exterminated, 36,000 years after they first hunted on the peninsula of an icy continent, now the island of Ireland. In remote areas of Canada I have seen wolves twice; both memorable occasions. One fleeting look at a grey beast leaping across an embankment in Northern Quebec. One black wolf running along a road in the Albertan Rockies. Two lucky encounters with a creature revered and despised with great intensity by different members of our species.
Wolves don’t have to be visible in order to radically affect the world and culture around them. Often shy and evasive towards humans, in lieu of direct sightings their marks on ecosystems can be observed. They alter the ecological dynamics of herbivores so that forests can regenerate. They cull weaker members of various cervidae (deer-family) species, providing an important evolutionary pressure on these ungulates. In ecological terms, they are a keystone animal – one which has a disproportionate effect on an ecosystem relative to their abundance. This was succinctly and beautifully illustrated in George Monbiot’s video “How Wolves Change Rivers”. Wolves are highly evolved predators with a profound social intelligence, and an essential part of a highly functional environmental system, stimulating abundant life in balanced trophic harmony. And they are more than this.
Wolves permeate myths, legends and history in every location in which they shared space with Homo sapiens. For those who are repelled by our more animalistic instincts, they symbolise the devil and the dark nature which must be ‘civilised’ or eradicated. To use the Bible as a case in point, there are over five hundred direct references to sheep or lambs within, contrasted with thirteen ominous mentions of wolves. They are inferred to be Satan by proxy, preying on the good flock. They are prefixed in fairy tales by the words ‘big’ and ‘bad’. In cultures with puritanical tendencies towards sex and death, wolves become a Jungian archetype of unknowable fear and unrepressed instinct. However, for those drawn to wilderness, wolves symbolise true freedom. In many global traditions, the wolf embodied the warrior spirit. A talisman for hunter-gatherers. Nurse to the founders of Rome itself. Separate from rational observations of ecological impact, the icon of the wolf is rich in meaning, even to people who live in places where wolves have not roamed for several centuries.
Symbols are important. We look for patterns and meaning in chaos; and religion, art and culture use images and allusions to explain or contextualise life. The destruction of a symbol is an act of cultural war, and one in which al-Qaeda and Daesh are well versed, as we saw in the rubble of the World Trade Centre and in the Assyrian artefacts ground to dust in Mosul. A quote attributed to Milan Hübl, stated that “the first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster”. If we accept this to be true, then it is incredibly important to note that the single most aggressive campaign waged against the wolf in Ireland was overseen by Oliver Cromwell.
In a long national history of tragedies, the Cromwellian war in Ireland between 1649 and 1653 was especially brutal. Through direct military campaigns of slaughter, the implementation of the Penal Laws, deportation, and the Act for the Settlement of Ireland, Cromwell and his army ravaged the land in a manner which crushed the Irish Catholic Confederation. In the enormity of all these atrocities, the fact that Cromwell sought to exterminate the wolf is seen as a footnote which tends to be overlooked from the broader historical narrative. Perhaps the importance of this is worth reviewing. Significant bounties for wolf kills were established, and hunters from England travelled to Ireland to collect them – while this is often attributed to the perceived threat of wolves to increasingly intensified agriculture, the significance of this policy may lie in a more cultural sphere.
Catholicism in Ireland had followed a central tenet of Roman imperial expansion – assimilation rather than total obliteration of a culture. Christianity as practiced in Ireland up to this point was permeated with rituals, images and symbolism derived from druidic/pagan beliefs and preserved in folk traditions. There are some relictual traces of this in contemporary culture, Halloween being a synthesis of the pagan Samhain harvest festival and the Christian All Saints’ Day. It can be claimed that Catholicism in the first half of the 17th century was a more regionally distinct, and therefore culturally unique, system of beliefs than an orthodox religion following pure Roman dogma. The wolf in this culture was not totally reviled – feared, certainly – but recognised as a symbol of the natural world which once fostered the druidic way of life and reverence of nature. In short, while Ireland was nominally a Catholic country, aboriginal spiritual beliefs still informed our cultural identity.
Cromwell may well have ordered the eradication of wolves because of their impact on increasingly extensive, intensified, and profitable livestock farming. He may have sought to eliminate wolves solely because of their satanic associations in his puritanical worldview. Similarly, the harvest of old-growth oak trees may have been solely based on their economic value and naval utility. What I would like to suggest is that in the middle of a brutal and complex war, Cromwell was fixated on destroying the remaining tenets of aboriginal Irish spirituality by razing the forests and the creatures which inspired it. The wolf was hated not because of what it is – a predator of herbivores – but because of what it symbolised, a token of an untameable spirit.
In a year of historical contemplation brought on by the anniversary of the 1916 rising, I feel that there is a gap of understanding in our national and natural history. While we have sought to eke out an identity on the world’s stage since we gained independence in 1922, we have forgotten that our entire physical landscape has been reshaped by the policies of invasion. The influence of Cromwell is much greater on our land in its current state than that of the pre-Christians and early Catholics who revered the oak, holly, and wolf. In modern social sciences, there is recognition of the extreme cultural, social, and mental difficulties which plague aboriginal peoples across the globe when they are forcibly assimilated into a colonial power and their connections to the natural world are severed. In Ireland, the impact of subjugation and assimilation is often discussed, but rarely if ever is the loss of our natural heritage framed in this light. For those of us who are innately drawn to wild things, there is an unexpressed sense of loss. Aesthetically beautiful though our hills, cliffs, and rivers may be, we are the most ecologically impoverished people in Europe, in part due to our island location, and as a result of a concerted effort to eradicate the native forests and fauna which once covered the land.
In the multidisciplinary field of Quaternary science (the study of the last 2.5 million years of Earth’s history), there has been a long-standing debate about what caused the extinction of mammalian megafauna, from mammoths, mastodons and the sabre-toothed cats which preyed upon them, to more unusual creatures which are less well known such as the glyptodons – giant armoured armadillos found in the Americas. The debate has centred on two key hypotheses – that either a rapidly changing climate or aggressive human hunting triggered rapid population declines. It is my understanding that the overkill hypothesis best explains the vast majority of individual extinctions. The climate of the Earth changed rapidly between glacial and interglacial periods during the Quaternary, but the most significant extinction events occurred when humans reached new territories, such as when the first humans arrived in Australia 50,000-70,000 years before the present day (BP), or when the Clovis people crossed the Bering Strait from Asia into North America 13,500BP. For those in favour of the climate change hypothesis, Ireland was a useful case study. Up until very recently, it was believed that the first human settlers arrived 10,000BP, one thousand years after the Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus) went extinct from the island – purported evidence that large mammals were under environmental stress sufficient to eliminate them from an area. A finding announced on 20th of March, 2016, has posed a major challenge to that theory. A radiocarbon date of a butchered bear patella (kneecap) has shown that humans were hunting in Ireland 12,500BP.
While waves of extinction occurred as our species encountered new lands, subsequent cultures exercised a greater degree of reverence for native fauna. Though this is pure conjecture on behalf of this writer, the initial recognition of species loss may have inspired a more balanced view of the natural world and the naturalistic philosophies which typify aboriginal peoples in Australia and North America, and perhaps the druids and early Christians of Ireland. Oliver Cromwell, in completing the colonisation of Ireland and attempting to eradicate the forests and fauna which remained on the island, was intentionally waging a cultural war on spiritual traditions which, though diluted, were rooted in the arrival of the first Irish 12,000 years previously. This issue has been singularly ignored by various nationalistic movements in Irish history.
This is not an irreversible situation. Rewilding, or large-scale ecological restoration, is a modern iteration of a land ethic which seeks to reintroduce the essential components of an ecosystem so that it can function fully, rather than a strict conservationist approach of fixing and enforcing the specific parameters of one ecosystem or another. This movement is gaining traction in continental Europe, as forests expand into abandoned agricultural land and mammals such as brown bears and lynx increase in number. As an island, this cannot be a passive process, but one which requires either direct human intervention or the emergence of a land-bridge during some future ice-age. There are many scientific arguments which have been made in favour of this process – the sequestration of carbon through forest expansion, mitigation of flooding, and the enrichment of biodiversity are but three. There is another reason to consider rewilding, one of particular relevance to a nation as it reviews its past: forests and wolves are part of our natural heritage, culture, and identity, and we have forgotten that we need them.
In 2016 our landscape has not significantly changed since 1916, but perhaps we can start to look to 2116 and the genuinely exciting possibility of restored oak forests protected by wolves. When I think about this, I feel a stronger connection to a sense of identity which was never taught to us, and one which we owe ourselves to consider.
Much of my understanding of the history of the wolf in Ireland is due to the work of Dr Kieran Hickey, of University College Cork’s Department of Geography. I am grateful to Dr Hickey for providing me with some of his publications on this topic. Any and all subsequent mistakes are my own.