The irish ‘Greyhound’ Pig: an extinct indigenous breed of pig

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2005), Medieval History (pre-1500), Medieval Social Perspectives, Volume 13

The Irish Greyhound pig was a descendant of the European wild pig (Sus scrofa) that had roamed Irish forests since prehistoric times. It was first domesticated in Ireland during the Neolithic. In the early Middle Ages there was not much distinction between the wild pig and the domesticated pig; the domesticated pig was fed on acorns and beech mast like its wild cousin, and it remained a lean, narrow-backed and rough-bristled creature. When in the twelfth century Giraldus Cambrensis crossed the Irish Sea with his warring cousins, he found a country that was infested with pigs ‘small, misshapen, and wary; no less degenerated by their ferocity and venomousness, than by the formation of their bodies’. There are no records suggesting when the wild pig died out in Ireland but it was probably soon after the arrival of the Normans, when the ongoing deforestation of the land would have gradually reduced their natural habitat. The European wild pig varied little across the continent. It was rough-bristled, long-legged, had a long head and was usually a blackish colour. Pigs throughout Europe before the eighteenth century shared many of the characteristics of their wild European counterparts.
In Ireland, the domestic pig’s diet changed from acorns and mast in the Middle Ages to food it could forage and rummage for in farmsteads and in towns, or else food specially prepared for fattening pigs, like oats and vegetables. In the nineteenth century, by all accounts, there was still an abundance of pigs in Ireland. Foreign visitors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were amazed and sometimes shocked by the numbers and appearance of the Irish pigs, as Giraldus Cambrensis had been five centuries before. When the Englishman John Barrow toured round the Irish coast in 1835 he remarked in his travel book, A tour round Ireland (1836), that Carrickfergus had ‘nothing about the place to remind one of its being an Irish town, except, indeed, the great number of pigs grunting in the street, some of which I observed had the complete run of the houses, apparently on the most friendly and familiar terms with the respective inmates’.

The name

The name ‘Greyhound pig’ probably derived from the animal’s physical attributes. Old European breeds of pig were long-legged, narrow-backed creatures with long heads that bore little resemblance to the common breeds of pig found on farms today. A clue to the naming of the Irish Greyhound pig is found in the account of an Englishman, Sir Francis Heads, who was travelling in Germany in the 1830s and who gave the following description of a breed of German pig that he had come across:

‘As I followed them this morning, they really appeared to have no hams at all; their bodies were as flat as if they had been squeezed in a vice; and when they turned sideways their long sharp noses and tucked-up bellies gave to their profile the appearance of starved Greyhounds.’

The Irish Greyhound pig was commonly described by contemporaries as having the same attributes as this German pig. It was also known simply as the ‘old Irish pig’ or ‘hog’ and probably only began to be called the Irish Greyhound pig in the eighteenth century, when its physical appearance began to arouse curiosity in travellers, especially British travellers, who had become accustomed to the improved breeds. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Britain was the only place in Europe where the old native breed had been completely eradicated. Ireland under British rule would have seemed bizarrely old-fashioned, and perhaps, to the more romantically inclined British visitor, quaint, with its undiluted old breed of pig that had free run of the countryside and towns.

Physical characteristics

The Irish Greyhound pig, like all descendants of the European wild pig before the eighteenth century, was a large animal. It was this feature that was to ensure that it became an ancestor of the oldest surviving breed of domestic pig, the Tamworth (an Irish Greyhound pig was reputedly brought to England by Sir Robert Peel in 1809 and bred on his Tamworth estate), and other surviving pig breeds in England and Ireland. The Irish Greyhound pig was white/grey in colour and was reported by some contemporary observers to have appendages dangling from its throat.
In The Rural Cyclopedia (1848), Revd John M. Wilson argues passionately for the eradication of the Irish native pig and in the process gives a colourfully negative physical description of the breed:

‘The old Irish hog closely resembles one of the worst specimens of the large old British hog. It is ugly, bony, razor-backed, lank, coarse, greedy, a voracious eater, a most unkindly feeder, and exceedingly difficult to fatten; and even in its best state, it yields pork and bacon far inferior to those of almost all the improved breeds. Its best recommendation is, that it has disappeared from all comparatively enlightened parts of Ireland, and is rapidly disappearing from even the remote and most neglected districts. Yet, with unutterable absurdity, it is still preferred to every other hog by a few of those half-mad antiquity-loving peasants who can see nothing but horror and ruin in any kind of deviation from the practices of their fathers.’

William Carleton described the Irish Greyhound pig in his Traits and stories of the Irish peasantry, vol. I, in great and comical detail, with one of his many remarks on how they could be ‘useful in the hunting season, particularly if dogs happen to be scarce’. Although this seems an unrealistic description, there have been accounts of other breeds of pig, a lot less agile, being used to retrieve game during hunts in nineteenth-century England.

Improved breeds

During the eighteenth century, an era of active agricultural experimentation, members of the British aristocracy began to cross exotic breeds of pig brought back from the colonies in the far east with the indigenous varieties found in England. The oriental breeds were of smaller stature but fattened more easily than their European counterparts. The aristocratic breeders began to cross the oriental strains with the large indigenous pigs to create new breeds that would both be large and fatten easily. The new breeds became known as the ‘improved breeds’ and were soon being bred by farmers throughout Britain. One of the most successful was the Large White Yorkshire, a breed that was created from the old British pig (which was very similar to the Irish Greyhound pig) and one of the new improved breeds called the Leicester. As breeders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries experimented zealously, a whole variety of new improved breeds were created, strains were crossed and re-crossed, and after many crosses confusion spread over the pedigree of many of the improved breeds.
The development of what became known as the ‘improved breeds’ began with the importation of oriental varieties and the Neapolitan breed (a heavy swine that was a cross between a southern Mediterranean pig and an oriental breed), which were then bred with the native British swine. The Oriental, Neapolitan or improved British breeds were then imported into Ireland, where they could be crossed with the Irish Greyhound pig to enhance their size and strength after a couple of generations. Dubourdieu, on his travels through Ireland in 1811, observed the breeder William Crooks, who raised an improved variety of swine, renewing the new breed every three or four generations by crossing with the native Irish stock. William Crooks kept crossing his new breed with the Irish Greyhound pig to enhance the new breed’s size and also to keep it healthy.
The introduction and breeding of improved strains of pig began the slow process of extinction for the Irish Greyhound pig. It is remarkable that it survived, albeit in the most remote and poorest regions of the country, for nearly another two centuries after the improved breeds were first introduced into Ireland.
The modernising breeders showed a wilful determination in cross-breeding the old stock to create improved breeds that would fatten more easily to keep step with the market. During the Industrial Revolution the quantity of pork and hams had to keep step with the population boom in the United Kingdom; a pig that was both large and easy to fatten was ideal for market conditions. The Irish Greyhound pig had the ideal frame to be used to breed with the quick-fattening oriental types to produce a productive new strain. By the middle of the nineteenth century agricultural statistics were reporting that the Irish Greyhound pig was almost entirely confined to County Galway.

The pig that pays the rent

The importance of the pig to the tenant class in rural Ireland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was immense. Rearing pigs on refuse and then selling them once mature and fattened was a much-needed source of income for impoverished tenant families. To fatten a pig properly, however, refuse was not enough, and pig-owners would have to supplement the diet with cereals. Oats was the favoured cereal in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the pig’s main food from the early eighteenth century to the Great Hunger of the 1840s was the potato. Although the pig would eat the same food as its masters, it would be more likely to get scraps and refuse rather than the more nourishing parts of the food. The pig’s stomach is very similar to the human’s and made the diet of the pig spare in times of hardship, as it was competing with its human masters for potatoes and oats.
Landlords knew the value of the pig in the contribution to their rents, and the more adept landlord began introducing the more profitable improved breeds into Ireland from Britain. To ensure the payment of rent, some landlords supplied pigs to the poorer tenants, and when the pig was sold the tenants repaid the price of the pig as well as the rent. If tenants wanted to breed their native pigs with the new improved strains, the landlord would generally hire out a boar to them for that purpose. Mr Blood of Riverston, Co. Clare, who ‘received a medal, at Ballinasloe shew [sic] in 1804, for the best pig of any age’, hired his boar to the cottiers in exchange for ‘a pig of the litter at six weeks old’ (Dutton 1808). However, the landlord had to be careful that he received a pig of the litter of the improved breed and not a pig from the litter of the Irish Greyhound pig, as it was common practice to try to trick the landlord into receiving a piglet from the less profitable indigenous variety.
The pig’s importance to the tenants was so ingrained that the common Irish expression ‘on the pig’s back’ became synonymous with a person doing well financially. The saying originated from tenants who grew flax. Flax was a profitable crop, and the flax-growers began to refer to it as the crop that ‘would set them on the pig’s back’, meaning that they could afford to keep their pig.

Inevitable decline

By the beginning of the twentieth century the Irish Greyhound pig had all but vanished. The photograph above was taken in one of the remotest and poorest regions of the country. The sow pictured has the appearance of suffering from malnutrition, and in its half-starved state it looks like a breed that is on the verge of extinction. This haggard animal on a bohreen in Rosmuc (Rosmuc means ‘headland of pigs’) was probably one of the last of this indigenous breed of pig. All over Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries old indigenous strains of pig were bred out as agriculture moved ever more surely towards a larger scale and a faster rate of production.

Oisín Fitzgerald is a technical writer based in Dublin.

Further reading:

J. Bell, People and the land: farming life in nineteenth-century Ireland (Belfast, 1992).

W. Carleton, Traits and stories of the Irish peasantry, vols I and II (Buckinghamshire, 1990).

H. Dutton, Statistical Survey of the County of Clare 1808. CLASP Press (published online 2001).

R. F. Scharff, ‘On the Irish pig’, The Irish Naturalist, Nov./Dec. 1917.


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