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Posted on 09-25-2017

Many of our pet parents are aware that our own Client Care Specialist, Maddie Connolly, is spending a semester abroad at National University of Ireland - Galway (NUIG).

This is the first in a series of informational and fun posts from Maddie in Ireland.  She recently researched the history of canines in Ireland.

The nation of Ireland is rightfully associated with beautiful scenery, good beer, and good music, but the island doesn’t normally get credit for its rich canine history. Ireland has one of the highest rates of dog ownership in Europe, with approximately four out of every ten Irish households including a dog.[1] There are nine breeds native to Ireland, of which six are now endangered.[2] These dog breeds are all working dogs, mainly bred for hunting and guarding. Some of them developed more recently (within the last few centuries), and some have origins stretching back into the mythical past of Ireland.    None of them, however, can be reliably traced back more than 200 years, and the native breeds that existed before then most likely differed from their modern incarnations in significant ways- the Irish breeds were standardised only after the development of the modern show-dog industry. The show ring not only led to official standardisations for each breed, but also led to significant evolution through selective breeding in most of the Irish breeds, since shows place heavy emphasis on aesthetic charactics. By comparison, in the past, dogs were “shown” in field competitions and judged on characteristics such as “endurance”, “courage”, and ability to catch and hold prey, without much regard for aesthetics.[3]

Glen of Imaal Terrier

The Glen of Imaal terrier comes from an isolated area outside of Dublin, and was unknown outside of the Glen, even to the rest of Ireland, until the late 19th century. These terriers can take up to four years to reach maturity and can weigh up to forty pounds. The breed’s claim to fame is micromelic achondroplasia- a form of dwarfism which gives them short legs but standard-size bodies, hence the epithet “big dogs on little legs”.[4] They do not, however, suffer the genetic defects (arthritis, heart disease, spinal defects, etc.) common in other dwarf breeds. Their well-muscled hind-quarters and little legs allow them to sit on their haunches with their backs straight and their legs straight out in front of them, in a pose most other dog breeds cannot accomplish, known as the “Glen sit”.[5] Historically, the Glen was used for hunting small game and vermin, including badgers, foxes, and rats. They were also used as “turnspit” dogs prior to the industrial revolution. “Turnspit” dogs run on treadmills to turn roasting meat over a fire or to churn butter, both time-consuming activities requiring constant attention which poor labourers and farmers could not spare.[6] Today the Glen is highly endangered; reports suggest as few as 2,500 remain.[7]

Irish Terrier

        The Irish terrier, not to be confused with the Glen of Imaal or Kerry Blue, which are also terrier breeds from Ireland, is the only all-red terrier breed. While travelling in the South Pacific, Jack London and his wife once stole an Irish terrier named Peggy and kept her because they liked her.[12] Irish terriers were employed in the Allied forces during the first World War to carry messages, go on scouting missions, and kill rats in the trenches. Like the other terrier breeds, however, their popularity eventually declined. For the Irish terrier this occurred after the end of the war. Because they had served mainly in the British army, accompanying Irish troops that were enlisted by the British, they became associated with British military power, and in early 20th century Ireland that was not conducive to success. With the Irish war for independence looming, the terrier’s English association cost it its cultural significance.[13]

Kerry Blue Terrier

Legend has it that the Spanish Armada once lost a vessel off the west coast of Ireland. All hands went down with the ship, with the exception of a single, mysteriously blue, dog who escaped the wreck and swam ashore in County Kerry. He adjusted to his new life pretty quickly and allegedly got it on with all the girl dogs in the county, thereby single-handedly bringing the Kerry Blue terrier into existence.[8] The Kerry Blue is renowned for its skill at otter and badger hunting, and was a common pet among Irish farmers in the 19th and 20th centuries. They were used by poor tenant families to poach on their landlord’s land, especially during famine years. The Kerry Blue was the dog of choice for this because legally only wealthy landowners were allowed to own dogs considered large enough to bring down big game.[9] Kerry Blue terriers have a reputation for being aggressive and rebellious, and became associated with the radical national movement thanks to Michael Collins, an early leader of the Irish fight for independence. He viewed the Kerry Blue as the quintessentially Irish dog, for its rural roots and scrappy attitude. He wanted to make the Kerry Blue the national dog of Ireland, but was assassinated before he could realize this plan.[10] Unfortunately, the terrier’s popularity declined after Ireland won its independence, and the breed is now close to extinction.[11]

Irish Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier

          The Irish soft-coated wheaten terrier was the object of the “War of the Scissors”, a tension in the dog breeding/showing world that arose during the cultural shift away from reliance on dogs as food providers as dog shows and breed standards grew up. The conflict was over whether show dogs should be adjudicated for traditional skills like hunting and tracking and abstract qualities like courage and endurance, or for aesthetic form. Aesthetic form won out, and we were left with the dog shows and breed standards of today.[14] The Irish soft-coated wheaten is different from other terrier breeds in that it has a single, soft coat rather than the standard wiry double coat common in other terrier breeds.[15] Three different varieties of soft-coated wheaten have developed over the years in Ireland, the U.S., and the U.K. from populations of Irish dogs that were brought over for breeding purposes. Only the original Irish terrier is recognized by kennel clubs, and the U.S and U.K. populations are not permitted to take part in shows under the soft-coated wheaten category.[16] Unlike the rest of Ireland’s terriers, the soft-coated wheaten is still popular today.[17]

Irish Water Spaniel

        The Irish water spaniel is the oldest of the country’s still-extant native breeds. It is said to be descended from the dobhar-chu, meaning “water-hound” or “otter”. The ancestors of modern water spaniels were likely brought to Ireland from Spain by the Irish pirate queen Granuaile sometime in the 16th century.[18] The Irish water spaniel is the largest of the spaniels and has a purple sheen to its coat which is unique to the breed. Its coat is waterproof and it has webbed feet, a smooth hairless face, and a “whiptail” which is hairless except at the base.[19] The breeds usefulness is in its ability to catch, kill, and retrieve birds and skill at locating and tracking other game. Water spaniels were invaluable during the famine years as their presence in a home reduced the pressure to be able to afford an expensive hunting rifle during times of extreme poverty and food scarcity.[20] At the end of the 19th century, as the country recovered from the famine, the Irish water spaniel began to lose its popularity to the newly-developed labrador retriever, which has the same skill set but is much easier to groom.[21]  

Irish Red and White Setter

        This dog is, like all of Ireland’s native breeds, a hunting dog, specializing in bird hunting. The Red and White setter was developed in the 18th century and was an extremely popular gun dog until its popularity was eclipsed by an upstart variant of itself- the Irish Red setter. The all-red dogs proved to be more aesthetically pleasing at dog shows.[22] Modern Red and White setters can trace their lineage back to three 20th century dogs: Gyp, Johnny, and Glen. The female and two males were bred together during World War I in order to preserve the breed by concerned dog enthusiasts, as breeding of gun dogs had, for obvious reasons, fallen off during the war.[23] One such enthusiast was Noble Huston, a Presbyterian minister with a passion for the breed. He noted the births of his litters in the parish register alongside human births.

Irish Red Setter

        The Red setter was originally an all-red variant of the Red and White, but the solid red coat proved so popular at dog shows that breeders began to select for it, eventually causing the all-red dog to develop into a new, albeit closely related, breed.[24] Irish Nationalist hero Charles Stewart Parnell had a Red setter, whom he insisted stay with him while he was on his deathbed.[25] The Irish Red Setter Club, founded in 1882, was one of the first breed clubs in Ireland. Due to mixed interests among enthusiasts and breeders, the breed eventually differentiated between show and field varieties.[26]

Kerry Beagle

        The Kerry beagle is not really a beagle, although it does bear a certain resemblance to them; the Kerry beagle, however, is bigger and more muscular than standard beagles, and actually is not related to standard beagles.[27] In the case of the Kerry beagle, the name possibly derives from the Irish word “beag”, which means “small”. No kennel club outside of Ireland officially recognizes the breed.[28] Although now used as hunting dogs on their own, in in the past Kerry beagles hunted in conjunction with other dogs- the beagles would track the prey, and then a larger dog, often an Irish wolfhound, would kill the prey.[29] Kerry beagles are pack animals, and in the early 19th century, hunting packs could consist of up to 200 dogs.[30] Today, only one united pack remains. The Scarteen pack is several centuries old, and managed to survive the ravages of the 20th century which wreaked havoc on the rest of the breed thanks to the leniency of the landlords that owned the pack toward their peasant tenants.[31] Kerry beagles were so valued as hunting dogs during the Famine years that landlords often prioritized feeding their packs over helping their starving tenants. Angry peasants later took revenge by leaving poisoned meat across hunting fields on tenanted land for the dogs to find, and occasionally went so far as to slit the throats of the dogs if they could catch them.[32] Today Kerry beagle still primarily fulfills its original role, unlike the other native Irish breeds which today mainly serve as household pets. It is now the rarest and hardest to get of the Irish dogs.[33]

Irish Wolfhound

         Wolfhounds, or something ancestral to them, were first bred in Celtic cultures in central and western Europe. The Gauls had them; Julius Caesar made note in De Bello Gallico of the fearsome dogs that fought alongside their Celtic masters. Wolfhounds can be traced back to the third century BCE, and there are indications that their ancestors were hunting and fighting alongside humans as many as 9,000 years ago. Wolfhounds were originally war dogs, and present an imposing and ferocious sight due to their huge size.[34] The name of the Irish breed refers to their main purpose in Ireland- hunting wolfs. Their history as war dogs made them perfect for the job, as “…a Wolfhound has to be fast enough to overtake a wolf, and powerful enough to kill one”.[35] Irish Wolfhounds are known for their loyalty and intelligence, so much so that they featured in one of the Icelandic sagas (our chief source of information on Viking lore). They are described thusly in the “Saga of Nial”: “I will give thee a dog which I got in Ireland. He is huge of limb, and...equal to an able man. Moreover, he hath a man’s wit...And he will lay down his life for thee”.[36] Unfortunately, the breed’s numbers declined after the extinction of wolves in Ireland. A retired army captain, George Graham, later took it upon himself to resurrect the breed. He researched ancient lore, paintings, poetry, and other sources to reconstruct how the breed looked and behaved. He had a lifesize model of his “ideal” wolfhound built, and set about collecting living specimens to breed. His dogs performed at their first show in the special category of “Nearest Approach to the Old Irish Wolfhound”. The modern Irish Wolfhound is not the same dog as the one that fought in the Gallic Wars and hunted wolves to extinction. Some experts believe the original Irish Wolfhounds may have already been completely extinct by the time Captain Graham began collecting specimens, and it is possible that some, if not all, of his specimens were not actually descended from wolfhounds at all. On top of that, the dogs that he bred were created to suit his own tastes, to match his “ideal” version, not necessarily to recreate the exact breed.[37]

Works Cited

 "Glen of Imaal Terrier." Animal Breeds. Accessed September 10, 2017. http://animalsbreeds.com/glen-of-imaal-terrier/.

"Kerry Beagle." PetGuide. July 13, 2015. Accessed September 17, 2017. http://www.petguide.com/breeds/dog/kerry-beagle/.

Knox, David Blake. The curious history of Irish dogs. (Stillorgan, County Dublin, Republic of Ireland: New Island Books, 2017)

Haggerty, Bridget. "The Irish Wolfhound- A Brief History." Irish Culture and Customs. Accessed September 09, 2017.

Hillery, Arthur M. "The Origin of the Kerry Blue Terrier." Kerry Blue Terrier Foundation. January 04, 2016. Accessed September 12, 2017. http://www.kerryblues.info/introduction/the-origin-of-the-kerry-blue-terrier.

 "Irish Wolfhound." Europetnet. Accessed September 17, 2017. https://www.europetnet.com/resources/dog-breeds/item/1674-irish-wolfhound.html.

[1] Knox, David Blake. The curious history of Irish dogs. (Stillorgan, County Dublin, Republic of Ireland: New Island Books, 2017) 2-10.

[2] Knox 3

[3] Knox 5.

[4] Knox 97-99.

[5] "Glen of Imaal Terrier." Animal Breeds. Accessed September 10, 2017. http://animalsbreeds.com/glen-of-imaal-terrier/.

[6] Knox 100-101.

[7] Knox 105.

[8] Hillery, Arthur M. "The Origin of the Kerry Blue Terrier." Kerry Blue Terrier Foundation. January 04, 2016. Accessed September 12, 2017. http://www.kerryblues.info/introduction/the-origin-of-the-kerry-blue-terrier.

[9] Knox 59-60. 

[10] Knox 62-65.

[11] Knox 73.

[12] Knox 130.

[13] Knox 133-135.

[14] Knox 159.

[15] Knox 159.

[16] Knox 161-166.

[17] Knox 153.

[18] Knox 110.

[19] Knox 113-114.

[20] Knox 119.

[21] Knox 122. 

[22] Knox 76-78.

[23] Knox 80-81.

[24] Knox 76-78.

[25] Knox 171.

[26] Knox 182.

[27] "Kerry Beagle." PetGuide. July 13, 2015. Accessed September 17, 2017. http://www.petguide.com/breeds/dog/kerry-beagle/.

[28] Knox 139-141.

[29] Knox 141.

[30] Knox 143.

[31] Knox 149.

[32] Knox 145-146.

[33] Knox 150-152.

[34] "Irish Wolfhound." Europetnet. Accessed September 17, 2017. https://www.europetnet.com/resources/dog-breeds/item/1674-irish-wolfhound.html.

[35] Knox 31.

[36] Haggerty, Bridget. "The Irish Wolfhound- A Brief History." Irish Culture and Customs. Accessed September 09, 2017.

[37] Knox 34-39.

Images Courtesy of Vetstreet, a Henry Schein Animal Health Company.

Fig 1. Sutch, The Glen Sit. May, 30, 2014. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8d/The_Glen_sit.jpg. Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 4.0), http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0. Accessed Sept. 19, 2017.

Fig. 3. Anne Sollerud, Irish Terrier. ND. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/Irish-terrier.jpg. Creative Commons License (CC BY 3.0), http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0. Accessed Sept. 19, 2017.  

Fig. 4. Srinayan Pupala (TigerPuppala), Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier. May, 8, 2005. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8c/Soft_Coated_Wheaten_Terrier_Flickr.jpg. Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 2.0), 

 https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/83/Kerry_Beagle_%22Coco%22.jpg. Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 3.0),  http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0. Accessed Sept. 19, 2017. 

Fig. 9. Tirwhan, Irish Wolfhound Sam. 2003. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6e/Irish_Wolfhound_Sam.jpg. Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 3.0), http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0. Accessed Sept. 19, 2017. 

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