Wolves of Ireland Part 1
The introduction of Christianity into Ireland and its subsequent virus-like success contributed many things to the history of Ireland that followed-
The idea of a single god; the paradoxical idea that that one god was also three gods (or mini godlets), the building of monasteries and the illustration of beautiful copies of the scriptures; centuries of sectarianism with its terrorism, oppression, pain and death; the persecution of women and the unmarked graves of children in a place called Letterfrack; a culture of gloom and greyness; free education for the children of the poor; a particular tone in much Irish literature; a particular tone in many Irish minds; a national constitution too much influenced by what we called THE CHURCH; the absence of divorce and the a steady stream of business from Irish women to English abortion clinics.
And also the arrival of many, many stories. Stories from the bible and as time passed stories of the lives of the saints. We Irish are nothing if not suckers for a good story. These stories of course were extremely popular of course but they nonetheless took some time to spread across the whole country.
It was in this way that a young man called Connor arrived back to his village from a short trip with his head buzzing with one very special story in late September of 1270. The story of St. Francis and the wolf. Of course by then Ireland had its own list of fancy saints with their own tales of daring do but this young man was a big fan of Francis and thought this story of the wolf of Gubbio was just about the very best thing he had ever heard.
Now Francis and the wolf IS a great story, very exciting in itself but there was an extra reason that Connor was so very excited by it. The village of Craig Dubh you see, his village, was rather plagued by wolves. The last wolf in Ireland is said to have been killed in 1786 and in the medieval period they were a thriving community doing at least as well as the human population.
The wolves of Craig Dubh were especially successful. If there had been a prize for the most successful wolf pack in Ireland they would certainly have made the short list at the very least. The pack of Craig Dubh had roughly thirty members with individuals breaking off occasionally to set up packs of their own because the pack was just so big. The pack was led by a large grey male and a white female alpha who did not have names since of course they were wolves.
Now these wolves terrified the villagers partly because of superstitious associations with the animals but also by just being wolves. They competed for wild game and they were much better at hunting then their human neighbours. They sometimes took domestic livestock and very occasionally they injured or killed a human being if they came into direct conflict.
The children of Craig Dubh grew up in fear of the wolf pack and many people felt, rightly or wrongly, the pack was the chief limiting factor to the growth and prosperity of the village and its inhabitants.
Let me just quickly remind you of the story of the wolf and Gubbio and St. Francis. The wolf in question was big and bad and rough and mean and he was managing, single-handed, to terrify the whole town of Gubbio. Think about it, that’s some going for a single wolf. A wolf is unarmed and the biggest is still smaller than the average man but this lone wolf was a thorn in the collective side of a whole, quite large town. You have got to admire that sort of influence. That’s what makes wolves so attractive as well as scary; they are just so damn cool. This wolf was Marlon Brando. *
Anyway, the people of Gubbio were at their wits end with this wolf. He was stealing their food and possibly their children. The situation was not one which could be permitted to continue.
It is hard to believe that nobody could organise some way to kill this one wolf but apparently this wolf was just to cunning, clever and dangerous (again, he just seems super cool, but enough of that). Into this situation St. Francis arrived. Francis was well known for his special sympathy with the natural world. It seems that he actually understood that he was part of it at a time when most people were trying to disconnect from it as strongly and quickly as they could for very understandable reasons. Francis volunteered to go and negotiate with the wolf. I’m sure people were equally grateful and pessimistic about this offer. I’m sure they thought-
“Fair play to you mate, that’s a gutsy thing you are coming to do but I think you’re probably coming to get torn to pieces like that hunter guy a month ago, and all those hunters before- this is one mean wolf.”
Nonetheless Francis went outside the city walls and found the wolf. It’s hard to imagine that meeting but it seems that Francis was genuinely not afraid, perhaps with the lunacy of real religious faith, and the shining eyes of the saint and the steely eyes of the rogue wolf met and understanding occurred. The wolf is supposed to have bowed its head and “given the paw” but I doubt that for two reasons. The first is that a creature like this is not the sort to bow down and be dominated but secondly and more importantly the deal that was done between wolf, saint and town was a very even one, one in which neither side bowed down to the other. Basically the wolf agreed to stop killing and injuring the townsfolk and even to leave their cows, pigs and chickens be and the townsfolk agreed to feed the wolf. They agreed to provide the wolf with food outside the walls of the town for as long as it lived.**
Now imagine Connor coming home to Craig Dubh having heard the story of Gubbio’s wolf for the first time in another, larger town where he had been selling some chickens.
As you can imagine Craig Dubh was a very small town. The whole wolf pack situation did not make the town the sort of place people moved to. Now Connor was a bright, optimistic young man and as he walked home and thought about Francis and the wolf he became more excited with every passing mile. Back then people had to walk a lot and when they did they could easily be overcome by a strong idea or two that were all they had for company as they travelled.
And so Connor arrived in Craig Dubh with a story to tell and a conviction rooted in his heart.
Of course by now you will have guessed what plan Connor was hatching. He had visions of himself as a hero, the St. Francis of his own village. He would simply go and ‘talk’ to these wolves. He would put an end to the trouble between the humans and the wolves and become a hero.
The first thing he did was to organise a meeting of the town’s people. Even that was not all that easy. The town had meetings twice a year and whenever anyone tried to get a special meeting together most people thought they in was just some busybody with a hobbyhorse to flog. Connor had to use the story of Gubbio and little hints of something interesting to come to slowly convince people it was worthwhile risking some time on a meeting.
Picture the scene- The village long hall. A wooden building which; though it was by far the largest building in Craig Dubh, was still really quite small. It is dark and the air is thick with smoke from a large fire and also with tension. Well, mostly it was smoke because a lot of the folk in the hall suspected that they may be wasting their time.
Connor was not a natural public speaker, who is, but he had passion and as he presented his agreement that passion glowed, like the embers in the fire..(ok you get the point). His speech went something like this:
“You all know that I have recently returned from Pic Alba. A fine town full of fine people and they have all the new stories that there are to hear. I heard a wonderful story about one of the great Italian saints, St. Francis of Assisi who is a special friend of the animals. The people of a large town, many times bigger than our little town, were sore put to it my a wolf, a single wolf, but the worst wolf that ever there has been…”
Connor went on to tell the whole story with as much colour and interest as he could muster, trying all the time to get to the point without too much waffle.
“So I heard this story and I thought about our wolves here. Couldn’t one of us take the example of St. Francis and go out to the wolves, go put by night when they are most active and make a deal with them. If we were to put out some certain amount of food that we can afford to in a place away from the village a ways and the wolves were to take that and leave us be wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing.”
There was dead silence for a second before Colm the baker voiced the thought that was on everyone’s mind:
“Won’t this person, whoever that person might be, be torn to pieces and altogether made a meal of by the beasts and who would be stupid enough to do such a thing.”
“I’, replied Connor, ”am stupid enough to do this, I mean that I am willing to do it. I feel inspired by the example of Francis (this religious angle was Connor’s ace card). Give me the chance and I think I can prove my worth here.”
“Stupid, stupid, stupid and more than stupid”, a deep, impressive voice came out of the smoke near the fire. A tall dark man stepped forward to follow his words. It was Diarmuid the village wolf warden. Diarmuid was in a strange position within the village. His job as the protector of the village against wolves was one that earned him a decent living and a certain respect because the people of the village were very afraid of the wolves but the thing was that he and the volunteers who worked under him were just not that good at it. The real wolf pack were running circles around the village wolf squad.
“There can be no deal done with the savage beasts. They love only violence and death. If you have looked into their eyes as I have looked into their eyes…”
At this point he went into his usual speech about the savagery of the wolves and of course his own personal bravery and vital necessity to the continued safety of the village and all those who lived there.
Of course in the end his eloquence was pointless because the villagers were quite happy to let Connor, a young man who was nice enough but not exactly important in the community, have a go at his hair-brained scheme. What harm could it do to anyone but him after all.
So Connor spent the next few days preparing himself for his big mission. He exercised and ate well and went over his plan in his mind again and again. In the end though he had to go do the thing.
When the night came that Connor had decided to leave it was cold and raining, an altogether miserable night. He thought he might delay it a little but then he was so scared that if he didn’t go right then and there he might never go at all.
He packed a small bag with offerings he had gathered for the wolf pack- mostly cold meat but also a few things that he valued himself and he hoped the wolves might appreciate- little wooden carvings of animals and such. He covered his head with a leather hood and walked slowly through the mud out of Craig Dubh. A few of his fellow villagers turned out to see him off but what with the weather and the fear almost smell-able in the area immediately around Connor the whole thing was a bit of a letdown really.
The glory or otherwise of his departure was the last thing on Connor’s mind as he passed through the village gate and the night watchman locked it tight shut behind him. He couldn’t stop himself looking back over his shoulder at the wooden wall that surrounded the town of his birth. The idea of the old place had never been sweeter but he kept moving steadily, if slowly, forward towards and then finally into the dark woods.
It is amazing how much goes on in a wood after dark. It seemed to Connor that there was noise and movement all around him. He wondered for a moment how he might find the wolf pack but then realised that the pack would probably find him just fine without any help from him.
God it was dark.
Eyes, yellow eyes appeared and disappeared between the trees, or so he thought. Who could tell what was real and what was imagination at a time like this?
Time for a shift of perspective now because of course Connor was being watched. He was being watched by rabbits, badgers, voles, owls, rats, mice, deer and most definitely also by two specific wolves.
Two of the younger wolves who were on patrol around the woods and had noticed him from before he even crossed the treeline. Right now they were only watching him as they were not in a position to act on their own authority. The wolf pack remember was really much better organised than the people of the village.
One of the young wolves followed and watched this strange human who seemed to be wandering aimlessly and unusually alone. The other went to find the rest of the pack.
Connor didn’t know any of this. All he knew was that he was cold, wet and increasingly terrified. He was beginning to question the wisdom of his saint inspired mission. All he could do was to keep walking deeper and deeper through the trees and into the darkness.
Meanwhile the pack was springing into action. The alpha male wanted the human rounded up and brought to a particular place near three large old elms (the humans called them the tree sisters) so that he could be examined and his purpose found out.
Connor kept moving, certain now that he was being followed. As he was.
Swift feet moved towards him and began to let themselves be seen first as a flash of yellow eyes, then as a glimpse of movement, then standing out clearly for him to see.
Connor began to run. Not knowing that he was running exactly where the wolf pack wanted him to go.
The wolves were aware of everything that was going on around them. They moved with grace through the wood, perfectly in control of the situation. The Alpha for example was aware of another human hiding behind a tree and lifting and aiming a bow and arrow towards the other one, the one that running. The alpha wolf knew the man with the weapon well but he had never seen him without his rather incompetent pack.
Connor stopped, despite his fear, when he heard the scream. He was right between three large elms. He say a large grey wolf come towards him dragging with him a dead body. A dead body which was revealed as wolf and cadaver came closer to be the body of Diarmuid.
Then Connor passed out.
Now in another story this is where the author might say: “That was where Connor’s nightmare began..” or something alone those lines. It might even be appropriate but only in a very limited sense because, you see, that was when things got nightmarish for Connor, but only for a relatively short time. I mean right then and there as he stood facing a wolf with Diarmuid’s dead body clamped between its huge jaws by the neck and more wolves started to emerge from the trees around him one after another filling the air with their breathing and rather strong odour, right then and there and for a few hours, even days after things were pretty nightmarish but after that things really looked up.
I’m moving too fast; back to the story.
Connor was fixed to the spot in fear. The wolves to the sides and back of him, something like twenty of them, stopped moving and he stopped paying attention to them. He was focused entirely on the wolf that stood straight in front of him. The one with his old neighbour between his teeth.
The wolf moved forward slowly. He did not seem aggressive (circumstances aside). The beast come with a couple of feet of the man and dropped the body of Diarmuid like a gift at Connor’s feet.
Even in his fear Connor knew that the wolf was attempting to communicate something, and it didn’t seem to be malicious. It was also beginning to dawn on him that the wolf had clearly done him a great good turn. Surely the village wolf hunter was not out on this particular night alone trying to hunt wolves. It was far more likely that he was out hunting the man who was trying to make a deal with the wolves. After all, if Connor was successful in his mission than Diarmuid was out of a rather decent job.
Connor slowly opened his bag and removed the items within. The wolf came forward and sniffed at the wooden models. Then it took a bite of the meat. Then the wolf turned and took a large bite out of Diarmuid. Then the wolf removed a chunk of meat from Diarmuid’s upper body and brought it to Connor. He held it up for Connor to take and the implication was clear.
This point was the height of the nightmare. The height because it was as bad as it got, and the height because afterwards things got better. Connor may not have had a real choice. Not making friends with this pack of wolves right then and there might well have meant that he ended up just like Diarmuid but for the rest of his life he would always know that it had not been as hard as it “should” have been.
He reached down and took the chunk of meat from the wolf and slowly lifted it to his mouth. He opened his mouth good and wise and took a large healthy bite of what had been Diarmuid until recently.
The next morning the people of the village woke to find Connor washing his face and hands at the well in the town centre.
“Well”, said Ruairi the builder, “well..”
Connor, who seemed somehow older and more dignified this morning than he ever had before, stood tall and took his time. He let some more people come out of their houses, then he let a smile spread slowly across his lips and he spoke:
“The problem with the wolves is over”.
The celebrations were long and loud and no one noticed that Diarmuid was absent for a whole twenty-four hours. The people of the town were more than happy to stick to the deal that Connor had made. They would provide food for the wolves at the tree elms deep in the woods three times a week and the wolves would leave the town alone and cause no trouble or harm to human or domestic animals.
A lot of village dogs breathed a sign of relief.
The wolves by the way were not luring people to a trap as one might be suspecting- they were after all only wolves.
The disappearance of Diarmuid was of course remarked on and a search was made for him but the truth was he had been a grumpy and impolite man and he was not too much missed.
The peace lasted between the village and the wolves at least as long as Connor lived. Connor became the headman of the village. He married well and had a healthy, frighteningly healthy, pack of children and he made sure the deal with the wolf pack was respected. He was friendly, sociable man despite the fact that he would take himself off on the odd “holiday” of a few days alone in the woods.
If the people of the village who went to bring the meat to the wolves at the allotted place sometimes had a strange feeling or an unusual experience well that was no big deal and a village with its own wolf pack was a strange thing anyway.
Time passed and Connor died, his sons and daughters died and the people of their generations died along with them. The deal with the wolves was less and less respected and the old enmity slowly grew up again. The town grew and the weapons available got better and better and before to long from the perspective of history, there were no more wolves in Craig Dubh.
*If you don’t know who Marlon Brando was than please feel free to insert the name of anyone who you think is really, really, cool. (And maybe check out Marlon Brando if you have the time)
** This actually has happened and continues to happen to this day in Harar in Ethiopia but with Hyenas and humans rather than wolves.. That particular situation began with a plague and the hyenas helping to dispose of the bodies of the dead but then becoming too many and not wanting to go away when the plague ended and the death toll went down again.