The absolute history of the Setter from Ireland is questionable by the lack of records from ancient times. The story is further clouded by the exaggeration of sportsmen who have owned and bred the dogs in the past. Finally, one cannont discount the distortion by myths that seem to be a main constituent of the heritage of a land and people famous for their myths and legends. What has survived the distortions of time and oral history are several paintings and a few written descriptions from the 17th and 18th centuries that attest to the presence of the white "setting dogges" with red markings.
However, the lack of irrefutable facts has never stood in the way of relating the history of dogs in the past, and it certainly will not impede this effort. If you wish a more authoritative history, I suggest you refer to Anna Redlich's The Dogs of Ireland. Another good reference is PAtricia Brigden's The Irish Red and White Setter. (You will probably have to go to a real library to get these).
Way back in the early days of what we now call Ireland, the Romans took up a temporary residence and brought with them the sport of hunting birds using trained hawks and falcons to catch game birds on the fly. Eventually the Romans went back to Rome, but left the tradition of hunting for sport. Later on, returning crusaders brought home sporting dogs from the continent, generically referred to as Spaniels. Spaniels find game and flush it so the hunter can get a clear shot (in early days with a bow and arrow). You can easily find references that claim that the term "spaniel" was used loosely and may have been sued to describe any sporting dog.
The earliest references to any kind of setter are from the 16th century with depictions of a hunter with a net and supine dog pointing toward a doomed grouse or quail. The "setting spaniel" is one of the earliest references to the setters we know today. Hunting with a net requires the dog to find the bird, freeze the bird in place and not be so close to the bird that the hunter nets the bird and the dog at the same time. Only a superior dog could manage all of these tasks.
The introduction of firearms into everyday life eventually led to shooting birds in flight, which added the additional stress of demanding the dog stand while the bird is flushed so it won't get shot as it chases the bird. The Irish developed such a dog, a white dog with red markings. Legend and paintings from the 17th century reflect dogs very similar to the documented pedigrees of the 18th century. But before one gets too excited about the fact that we can actually see paintings similar to today's dog from 200 years ago, keep in mind that before the middle of the 19th century dogs were bred to work, and any notion of breeders being concerned about any particular conformation have never been demonstrated.
By the end fo the 18th century, the white and red breed was well established and several kennels were known for supplying purebred dogs. There are references to several varieties of white and red dogs, and these varieties were found in different regions of Ireland. Travel was difficult during the 18th century, so it shouldn't be surprising that different varieties developed and were maintained in various regions. All of the varieties, however, had one thing in common: they were white with red markings, varying from the legendary "show of hail" coloring, to nearly pure white and nearly pure red. The patched variety that is seen today was the most prevalent. But even today's patched variety can vary from scattered small patches to large blankets. Remember this "ne'er a hair of black on an Irishman." The presence of any black hair on a purported Irish Setter means the dog is not purebred.
There are records of all red dogs in kennels at the end of the 18th century. Most authorities are of the opinion that all red dogs came from breeding white and red dogs that had increasing amounts of red.
During the 19th century, the red dogs started establishing themselves in ever greater numbers until they eventually became the predominat variety. In the middle of the 19th century, conformation shows were established and the flashy all red setter took the world by storm. By the late 19th century, it was difficult to find a white and red setter in the show ring, although there are reports of them being shown until WWI in the United States.
WWI brought great hardship to the people of Ireland and their dogs. The number of white and red Setters had declined to nearly zero. Anna Redlich credits Rev. Noble Huston of Ballynahinch, County Down, to saving the line and gradually building up the numbers. With the aid of his cousin, Dr. Elliott, he was able to slowly bring back the breed. Dr. Elliott lived in a house named Eldron, and that prefix is in the names of dogs bred in the 20's and 30's. The Rev. Huston did not keep official pedigrees, but did record his litters in the parish register. Althought most of the dogs were kept in Ireland, a single dog was sent to the United States, two to Spain and several to England. There were other breeders in Ireland during this time, but their contributions ot the current lines are not recorded.
The next important players in this story are Mr. and Mrs. Will Cuddy. In 1940, Mrs. Maureen Cuddy (nee Clarke) was given a sickly puppy bitch. She nursed the puppy to health and called her puppy Judith Cunningham of Knockalla. It is highly probable that every recorded IR&WS today is decended from this bitch. The Cuddys were instrumental in forming an IR&WS group in Ireland and gaining recognition of the breed. Mrs. Cuddy carried on a lengthy correspondence with the aging Rev. Huston and is responsible for researching and preserving much of the early 20th century history of the breed. In 1944, the Irish Red and White Setter Society formed in Ireland.
Between the end of WWII and the early 1980's, the Irish slowly built up the numbers of what became officially known as Irish Red and White Setters. The breed spread to England. Both the Irish Kennel Club and the Kennel Club (UK) came to recognize the IR&WS as a breed separate from the Irish Setter.
The IR&WS again came to the United states in the 1960's with the import of a few dogs by a couple of individuals. In the 1980's breeding pairs were imported and the gradual increase in the IR&WS population began. Since that time, several other imports have arrived and an unhurried breeding program has resulted in approximately 1000 dogs populating a wide area of the U.S and Canada.
As of January 1, 2009 the American Kennel Club has recognized the Irish Red and White Setter with full registration. In Canada, the CKC accepted the IR&WS to full recognition in May of 1999. The IR&WS is a favorite amoung international competitors.
The Irish Red and White Setter Association is a national organization promoting the continuance of the breed. The IR&WSA structured its' organization to comply with the requirements of the AKC in order to gain AKC recognition, provide a democratic voice by membership and promote the IR&WS as a family, sporting and correctly conformed dog.