The origins of the Kerry Blue Terrier

There is considerable obscurity in regard to the origin of the Kerry Blue Terrier but there is no uncertainty that the Kerry Blue Terrier is a striking instance of rapid improvement in Terrier type, breed, character, and true canine beauty. Just three decades ago the Kerry Blue Terrier was practically unknown, but today the Kerry Blue Terrier is one of the strongest contenders in Terrier competition. A dog which has made such noteworthy advances toward improvement in such a short period of time becomes the center of much speculation as to early origins and development.
“Earth dogs, which the French call terriers, are here commonly found all black, nevertheless, their race is sometimes light gray or blue in color. In fact, this breed is so mingled in portions of Ireland that •we find them of all colors. The group of working terriers which the O’Donovans of Shreve have always kept have been known for long years for their hunting instincts and their gameness. These kind of dogs have been dispersed throughout the hinterlands of Ireland. They are strong, sturdy of body; nevertheless, their legs are not short but of right height and formation for giving chase. They are swift, have good scent, and will go to earth whatever their prey may be. Terriers of the gray-black color are looked upon as best, but I could see nothing to make any great account of why this would be true. There was one large terrier which was white and wasstrong in body and limbs. This was the son of a distinguished hunting pair and was kept because of sentiment and not for breeding or because of his hunting powers. It is doubtful whether any terrier is more hardy or more hard-bitten in field work; in the rocky scraggs of Irish hills this terrier is wonderfully welladapted to this work.”
This paragraph, written by Bennelson in 1808, purports that the antiquity of the Irish Blue Terrier dates far beyond the meager modern history of this truly Irish breed. Like all things Hibernian, the history of the Kerry Blue Terrier is mixed; very little factual history is known about it. It has seemed peculiar to the author that the Irish exuberance and enthusiasm of early breeders have not sought to add ancient lineage and its accompanying dignity to this Terrier in claiming great antiquity for the Irish Blue Terrier in folklore and family tales.
On a recent trip to Ireland, the author talked with many old men who went into reminiscenses and related tales of their fathers and grandfathers who owned and bred “stonegray” Terriers. These tales concerned hunting water rats in the rivers, drawing the badgers in the mountains, and killing rabbits as they were bolted by ferrets from the warrens These “gray Terriers” were used as watch dogs in the cotters’ houses of Ireland. The author is certain of one thing -the Kerry Blue Terrier is a true and distinct breed indigenous to Ireland and, though no man can trace accurately its origin, all men will admit its antiquity.
Infrequent mentions have been made in the journals of the early 19th century of a “curly-coated Irish Terrier, gray in color, and fierce in fighting’, but the facts as to whether these were forerunners of the modern Kerry are now masked in clouds of obscurity.
The Irish Terrier originated in the mountainous regions of Ireland in the County Kerry from which its name was derived; they have been pure-bred in this section for nearly one hundred and fifty years. In ancient times the range of color of this breed was from dark blue to wheaten. From the latter, the Irish Terrier of the red or wheaten coat was developed; from the former came the Kerry Blue Terrier. This breed has recently come rapidly to the fore and has established a secure place for itself among the more-popular breeds of dogs of England and America. As has been stated previously, it is difficult to trace with any degree of accuracy, the origin of the Kerry Blue Terrier in his native land, but the breed has been known for many generations in Ireland, particularly in the mountains of Kerry, as a sporting dog of medium size, an invaluable guard of person and home, and a reliable companion to farmer, sportsman, and stockman. It is quite possible that the blue color was introduced by a cross with the Irish Wolfhound. This cross, even today, seems probable. The Irish Wolfhound of past centuries was no mythical animal, but was a rugged sporting dog of gray-blue coat, which at one time was a familiar figure in the halls of the Irish kings. In the old feudal days it was not permissible for Irish peasants to hunt with Wolfhounds, and it is quite reasonable to believe that their Working Terrier bitches were cross-bred with Irish Wolfhounds in order “to improve the pace and scent of their progeny.” Further proof of this cross is the similarity of three week old Irish Wolfhound puppies with two to three month old Kerry Blue Terrier puppies; this resemblance between infant Irish Wolfhounds and juvenile Kerry Blue Terriers shows a consanguinity that cannot be doubted.
Anyone who has observed this similarity can hardly doubt that the Kerry Blue may easily have been developed from an admixture of the bloods of the Otterhound, the Working Terriers indigenous to Ireland, and the Irish Wolfhound.
The following quotations will be of historical interest. In 1892 an Irish breeder, whose name is unknown, wrote a letter to the late Mr. Frank Butler inviting Mr. Butler to visit Field Trials in which Blue-haired Working Terriers were used on the badger. In Mr. Rawdon B. Lee’s hook, “Modern Dogs”, published in 1894, the author quotes Mr. Catton, a breeder, of Blessington, County Wicklow: “There is a glen, Imaal, in the Wicklow Mountains that has always been, and still is, justly celebrated for its Terriers. It would be hard to specify their color in particular-the wheaten in all shades to that of the bright red. In County Kerry I think the black most prevalent; quite black is very uncommon, and I hardly ever saw a good specimen of that color. Mr. Charles Galway, of Waterford, the breeder of the celebrated Greyhound, Master McGrath, for years, long before the Irish Terrier came into fashion, always kept and bred the variety, and I am told there was no getting one from him. I am also informed that the coats of his Terriers were rather inclined to curl, and that the dogs themselves were undeniably game”.
This text also states that at. a show held in Limerick in 1887, there was a class given for Silver-haired Irish’ Terriers, and that the fine specimens exhibited were of a slate-blue color.
In Mr. Egerton Clarke’s book, Dr. Pierse of the Bushmont Kennels writes as follows: “a blue terrier has existed in Ireland for centuries. The dog was not confined to any particular part of the country until some ten or twenty years after the middle of the last century, when it had practically died out only isolated specimens remaining-except in the County Kerry. These terriers were of different types and had coats of varying textures, the hard or wire coat., predominating, except in Kerry, where the coat was as it is today. Many were blue and tan …. There (County Kerry) the dog has been kept for hundreds of years, the principal centres of the breed in the County being the towns of Tralee and Castleisland. I knew Kerry Blue fanciers nearly 50 years ago, some of them being then advanced in years, and these old fanciers remembered the dog as long as 50 years before that time and in their youth knew people who had previously kept Blues for over 50 years, thus taking the records of the dog back for 150 years”.
In “British Dogs”, Mr. Hugh Daiziel, in discussing the Red Irish Terrier, states: “If this Terrier had existed as a distinct race peculiar to Ireland, it seems impossible that it should have been unknown to so careful and painstaking a writer as Mr. H. D. Richardson. Richardson was, I believe, an Irishman, and a resident in Dublin; he was an enthusiast on the subject of Irish dogs. He described the varieties of all Terriers’ of Scotland as he saw them with accuracy, but of Irish Terriers as a breed, and writing as late as 1847, he says nothing. He wrote the following about a breed of Terriers in Ireland and it will be seen that, whatever the variety might be, it was different from the Irish Terrier of our shows today:
“Richardson called the dog he described the Harlequin Terrier and says: ‘Whatever the origin of this little dog it is now a recognized variety of extreme beauty, both of form and color, combined with such capabilities as Terriers should possess; developed in the highest degree of perfection, it is rightly deserving of being cultivated. In form it is, as it were, a perfect English Terrier; in color, it is a bluish-slate marked with darker blotches and patches, and often with tan about the legs and muzzle. It is one of the most determined of the race, and is surpassed by none in skill and the ability with which it pursues and catches its game and the resolution with which it battles and destroys it”.
The standard height of the English Terrier in the same book is given as 161/2 inches, and though the present standard height of the Kerry is about 18 inches, many smaller dogs are still exhibited in the show ring.
“Darker blotches”, black coats, and tan points still appear in puppies and continue to bother all breeders. Many authorities agree that the “Harlequin Terrier” of these. early days was certainly the same as the Kerry Blue and the foregoing quotation appears to. partially prove that the Kerry Blue is older than his red brother.
Mr. A. L. Henry, writing in 1919 says: “I am an Irishman myself, born in 1863, and the son of a family who could count back in their reckoning the Irish Terrier for many generations … remarkable as the fact may seem, Ireland possessed five distinct varieties, viz., all whites, blues, black and tans, brindles and bright reds-and it was at the latter part of last year, 1918, at a dog show held at Killarney, that about 20 fine specimens of the all blues were benched and judged by the Terrier expert, Mr. Frank Butler, and which were so admired that it is hoped that this rare and true blue may come again into his own. He hails from the districts of Kerry, Kilthynne, Castleisland and Tralee. He is a true sportsman’s dog, a most affectionate pal, the equal of any Setter for the gun, fond of children, and the gentlest of playmates, and can be strongly recommended as a house dog.”
In 1588, the Spanish Armada, commanded by Philip II in an attempt to escape the British fire-ships of the English Admiral, Lord Howard, sailed north around the Island of Britain. On the coast of Ireland, the Spanish fleet encountered a terrific hurricane which scattered the ships, a great many being sunk. From the sinking ships, long haired dogs of much refinement and elegance swam to the coastal villages of Ireland. From these Spanish “puddle” dogs or poodles came much of the profuseness of the Kerry Blue coat. This cross is a historical fact and the Irish made a great show of these elegant Spanish dogs who showed remarkable intelligence.
This article was written by E. S. Montgomery.

1 thought on “The origins of the Kerry Blue Terrier”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top