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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 cannot 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 dogs" with red
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
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 of 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 predominant 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. Although 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 to 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
descended 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
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
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
among 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.
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