Irish Terrier Origins

Irish Terrier Origins


Irish Terrier Origins

The existence for centuries of an Irish sporting Terrier is referenced in ancient manuscripts archived in Dublin Museum. One old Irish writer refers to these dogs as the “poor man’s sentinel, the farmers friend, and the gentleman’s favorite.” Dogs were an important part of life in ancient Ireland. The Baerla laws, recorded in the first centuries of the Christian era, included detailed provisions for the control and responsibility of hunting hounds, shepherd’s dogs, earthdogs, vermin killers, and watchdogs.

Early Irishmen did not keep accurate breeding records. As a result, the origin of the Irish Terrier is subject to conjecture. The first reference to the breed is an article authored by Richard Ridgway in the 1878 Edition of Stonehenge’s Dogs of the British Isles. Ridgway, a founder of the first Irish Terrier Club, provided a breed description and stated that the Irish Terrier was a purebred widely known and remembered since the early 1800s.


Irish Terrier Origins
The Irish Terrier, from Stonehenge’s The Dog, Fourth Edition, 1887.


A generally accepted theory traces the origins of the breed to the wire-haired black and tan Terriers that existed in Great Britain more than 300 years ago. Appealing to people of all classes, the black and tan Terrier grew in popularity in the 19th century as a working dog. Efficient ratters, they controlled vermin in buildings, were used to bolt fox and otter, and hunted rabbit for food and for the sport of rabbit coursing.

F.M. Jowett, author of The Irish Terrier (1907), wrote: “In the early history of the Irish Terrier as a show dog, it was a very common experience for a bitch to have two or three broken-coated black and tan puppies in nearly every litter.” Jowett points out that as late as the early 1900s, an occasional black and tan puppy appeared in well-bred litters. Even today, many Irish Terriers are bornwith black hairs in their puppy coats.


Irish Terrier Origins
Ch. Kilvara Magic Master was a strong producer. Grandson of Jerry O’Callaghan’s Ch. Hunter’s Moon and Ch. Kilvara Madrigal. Best of Breed winner at the Irish Terrier Club of America 1948 Specialty Show. Bred by Judith E. Taylor and owned by Martha G. Hall. By Bruce Peterson


Regardless of origin, the Irish Terrier emerged as a recognized breed in the 1870s. Breeders emphasized working qualities and “gameness” rather than looks. As a result, there was a wide variety of sizes, ranging from under 10 pounds to dogs as big as 40 pounds. Colors included black and tan, gray and brindle, wheaten, and red-wheaten.

Separate classes for Irish Terriers were first provided at a Dublin dog show in 1873. Classes for Irish Terriers over or less than 9 pounds were offered. In 1879, the first Irish Terrier Club was founded in Dublin and the breed standard was adapted. Irish Terrier breeders finally had an ideal to aim at. This ideal appeared the same year in the form of the bitch, “Erin.”

William Graham, a prominent Irish Terrier breeder of the era, discovered Erin at a Dublin show. Mr. Graham immediately recognized her quality and bought her even though Erin had no recorded pedigree. Graham pronounced her the best Irish Terrier bitch he had ever seen and his opinion was widely confirmed by the fanciers of the day. Graham eventually sold Erin to J.J. Pim.

In an 1891 article, Mr. Pim reflected on Champion Erin: “I think everyone will agree that the mother and star of the breed was found by Mr. Graham in her hamper before being benched at a Dublin Show… beautiful long lean head, cropped, with that game-looking eye and expression peculiar to the breed that we are fast losing; nice neck with perfectly placed shoulders; good legs and feet; wonderfully perfect body, stern and hard dark red coat; not heavy in bone or forelegs, which were not low, but forming a perfect symmetry.” Brimming with type and character, Champion Erin was only defeated once in her show career and retained her quality until her death in 1890.

About the same time that Erin entered the Irish Terrier scene, Howard Waterhouse of Dublin acquired “Killiney Boy.” The dog had several previous owners, including one who left him behind after an estate sale. In The Irish Terrier (1907), author F.M. Jowett describes Killiney Boy as a “rare good, game little Terrier with a hard coat and grand Terrier head, but rather low on the legs.” Killiney Boy did some winning in the show ring, but his claim to fame was earned as a sire.


Irish Terrier Origins
Irish Terrier Origins: Killiney Boy (sitting) and Peter Bolger. Photograph of 1883 oil painting by R. Waterhouse, a relative of H. Waterhouse who owned the dogs. (Copyrighted by Marg G. Best and may not be reproduced without her permission.)


Matings of Champion Erin and Killiney Boy, planned by William Graham, produced outstanding offspring. The first litter produced Ch. Playboy, the best show dog of his day, and two other champions.

The influence of Erin and Killiney Boy was broadly stamped on the breed with very close breeding among their offspring. As a result, twenty-five years after the first breeding, ninety percent of the Irish Terrier show dogs were descended from the pair. The bitch found in a hamper at a show, and the once-deserted dog, became the mother and father of the breed.

Irish Terriers arrived in the United States in 1878. Two years later the first one was shown, James Watson’s “Kathleen.” The following year, the Westminster Kennel Club offered Irish Terrier classes for the first time. In 1897, the Irish Terrier Club of America was formed and the original members adapted the breed standard of the Irish Terrier Club of Great Britain and Ireland.

Over the past 100 years, Irish Terriers have been influenced more by one individual than any other: Jeremiah J. O’Callaghan. Noted Irish Terrier author George Kidd fondly referred to him as the “Dean of the Irish Terrier fancy.” Jerry bred his first Irish Terrier in 1902 and continued a breeding program until his death in 1973. With a keen instinct for breeding the right dogs, his Kilvara bloodlines became highly influential. Jerry outlived his early Irish Terrier breeder rivals, and the new breeders chose to found their kennels with his Kilvara dogs. As a result, a majority of today’s winning dogs trace back to Kilvara stock.

Born on September 27, 1886 in County Cork, Ireland, Jerry O’Callaghan came to Boston at age 11. In 1902, his uncle, Father O’Gorman, gave him his first Irish Terrier. Later that year, his uncle returned to Ireland and purchased Celtic Badger who became the foundation dog of the Kilvara Kennel. Ch. Celtic Badger provided the blood link between Ireland’s top dogs of the day and the American Kilvara line.

O’Callaghan felt that the bitch, Crow Gill Patricia, purchased by Father O’Gorman from F.M. Jowett, also played a key role in the development of the Kilvara strain: “Jowett’s dogs had good coats. Patricia was bred to Celtic Badger and produced Celtic Dream. She was bred to Ch. Thorncroft Sportsman, a great dog but with a poor coat. They produced Kilvara Lily. She was smooth-coated. Meanwhile, I had seen Andrew Albright’s Reprieve, an import from Mile End Kennels. Reprieve had an open coat but he was assertive. I bought him and bred him to Lily to try to give his puppies an undercoat. It worked. A bitch from his mating, Aroostook Meg, was bred to Aroostook Historic and this produced Aroostook Aviator, a great sire.”


Irish Terrier Origins
Irish Terrier Origins: Ch. Mile End Barrister, pictured in a 1903 painting by Maud Earl.


Lewellyn Powers founded Aroostook Kennels in 1912. In 1917, Jerry O’Callaghan joined forces withPowers. All of the dogs other than those of O’Callaghan’s breeding were sold. The frequent show ring success of the Aroostook dogs during this period was curtailed by Jerry’s 22 month of service in the U.S. Army during World War I. While Jerry was in France, hard times forced Powers to sell most of the Aroostook dogs. Upon O’Callaghan’s discharge, the Aroostook partnership was dissolved and the Kilvara prefix reactivated. He acquired Aroostook Aviator from Powers and began to rebuild.

Aroostook Aviator became an outstanding sire and a major player in the intense linebreeding of the Kilvara program. Bred to a wide variety of bitches, even smooth and kinky-coated ones, he almost always seemed to correct their faults. Aroostook Aviator appears in the extended pedigrees of most strictly American-bred Irish Terriers. Most would agree that he has influenced American Irish Terriers more than any other individual dog.


Irish Terrier Origins
Aroostook Aviator at 9 months, bred and owned by Jeremiah J. O’Callaghan.


Irish Terrier Origins
By Bruce Peterson

  • Bruce Peterson passed away in 2017. We are grateful to be able to share his research into the origins of the Irish Terrier for the benefit of new and long-term fanciers. A version of this article originally appeared in the July 2012 edition of SHOWSIGHT Magazine.

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