Primary Role: Hunting Wolves. Dur.
Secondary roles: Faithful Companion.
Distinguishing features: The Irish Wolfhound is easily the tallest of dog breeds, up to a yard high at the shoulder, which is waist height if you're an adult, or quite a bit taller than you if you're only five or six. Standing on his back legs, a big wolfhound can reach seven feet (basketball player size). A really big one weighs in at 150 lb., so you'll need a big set of scales.
Coat: Shaggy wiry fur, grey, blonde, brindled, often wet and/or filthy, and usually full of twigs.
Would you want one as a pet? Wolfhounds need lots of love, and might reduce your furniture into its component molecules if neglected. Normal sized pooper scoopers don't cut the mustard- you'll need to take a shovel and bin liners when you go for a walk. But if total devotion is what you want in a dog...
History: Ancient beyond belief- some people place the wolfhound in Ireland as early as 7000 BC, and Caesar wrote about them in his account of his wars against the Gauls. Wolfies featured in the games at the Colosseum (good luck to you runaway slaves!).
Modern history: The wolfhounds you see today are not quite what the ancients would have known- they were 'recreated' in Victorian times by Capt. Graham of the British Army, using Borzoi, Great Danes, Scottish Deerhounds and English Mastiffs as breeding stock. The result became an 'official' breed in 1885.
Why did the 'original' breed die out? Well, mainly because they did what they were bred to do- kill wolves. With the last of the wolves gone in Britain, the old wolfhound went the same way.
Gelert is very much one of the ancient breed of wolfhounds. Legend has it that he was a gift from King John to King Llewelyn, which would mean that Gelert has an English accent, which he doesn't.
For more info on wolfhounds:
Irish Wolfhound Information, Facts, Pictures, Training and Grooming