History of Irish Terriers

The Irish Terrier as the name denotes, is a representative of the Emerald Isle, and it is well known that Irishmen, of whatever rank they may be, whether gentlemen, farmers, or courtiers, have always been noted sportsmen, and there is no doubt that a sporting terrier has been kept in Ireland for many generation, as they are referred to in old Irish manuscripts. They are described by an old Irish writer as being the poor man’s sentinel, the farmer’s friend, and the gentleman’s favorite.

These dogs were originally bread not so much for their looks, as for their working qualities and gameness, the Irish Terrier being by instinct a thorough vermin killer. They were formally of all types and all colours; black and tan, grey and brindle, wheaten of all shades, and red being the predominant colours. Colour or size evidently did not matter if they were hardy and game.

That there were both large and small Irish Terriers is evidenced by the fact that at the Exhibition Palace Show in Dublin in 1874 there were classes for Irish Terriers over 9lb. weight, and under 9lb weight.

There was also a large strain kept in Co. Cork, mostly wheaten’s, and there was also a breed found around Ballymena and the north of Ireland, which were more like the modern show Irish Terrier, being racy in type, with long punishing jaws, wheaten in colour but mostly soft and open in coat.

For a few years prior to 1879 Irish Terriers had been exhibited occasionally at such shows as the Kennel Club, Birmingham, Dublin, Belfast and a few others, generally having one class with the sexes mixed. At this time it was the fashion to crop the ears of all Irish Terriers.

The first Irish Terrier Club was formed in 1879 for the purposes of protection and advancement of the breed. At its first general meeting in 1880 there was a regular discussion on the cropping of ears question, which later resulted in the Irish Terrier Club, being pioneers of the movement to put an end altogether to the cropping of the ears of all breeds of dogs for exhibition.

It is not surprising that the Irish Terrier has a record as a war dog and a combat messenger. Lt. Col. E. H. Richardson of the British War Dog School, writing about Irish Terriers in World War 1 is quoted as follows: “I can say with decided emphasis that the Irish Terrier of the service more than did their part. Many a soldier is alive today through the effort of one of these very terriers. My opinion of this breed is indeed a high one. They are highly sensitive, spirited dogs of fine metal, and those of us who respect and admire the finer qualities of mind will find them amply reflected in these terriers. They are extraordinarily intelligent, faithful and honest, and a man who has one of them as a companion will never lack a true friend”.

After these early references to Irish Terriers they became show dogs and pedigrees were kept. However it was quite common and acceptable for bitches still to whelp black and tan pups in their litters, even after they had been predominately red for some generations. Even now, some pups are born with black shading and after a few weeks black down appears, this generally lifts by 12 weeks of age. To go back to the early days it is interesting to note that at Dublin there was to be a first show of Irish Terriers. Therefore it was interest that the sceptics of which there were a great number, mostly Fox Terrier breeders waited to see this first showing of what was said to be an ancient and pristine pure breed. Irish Terrier supporters wanted to make sure of a representative gathering on which they could rely, and stated that no dog would be allowed in the show unless it had a pedigree.

Then came the news much to everybody’s surprise, that a considerable number of pedigree Irish Terriers had been entered! The show day arrived, as did the judge, who was confronted with dogs of all sizes and colours, types and coats. He did not know what to do, becoming utterly confused! To make matters worse, there had been correspondence in the press as to what should be the best type of Irish Terrier. Needless to say, this caused much heated argument between the owners of various types as to who owned the pure breed. It was to settle this vexed question, the judge said to be a long established breeder of these dogs had been chosen as the authority best suited to decide this matter once and for all. He sorted out prizes best he could, giving some to one kind and some to another. Whilst such confusion ushered in the Irish Terrier, there is no question that at that time at least one typical specimen as we know it was today – existing. Mr. Jamieson played a significant part in promoting the breed buying, breeding and showing. So that by the end of the year 1875 he had won altogether 54 prizes – a total of 47 more than the next exhibitor!

Times were difficult for the breed. Pedigree and breeding meant little, all that mattered was that the dog should have the required appearance. There were so many dogs of other types and colours than red, that Sport was not always looked upon with favour – judges often refusing to recognize it as true to the Irish Breed. The first list of Irish Terriers entirely distinct from all other breeds appears in the Kennel Club Stud Book for 1876, some of the entries are stated to be Red, and include “Sport”.