The charming Irish terrier, devoted friend to soldiers and princes alike, is in danger of dying out, but its followers are determined to turn things around

Country Life talks to Irish terrier owners, to find out why they are so loveable..

by James Jackson

The Animal War Memorial on London’s Park Lane is an extraordinary space. A frieze carved into the curved wall depicts every type of animal that served with the British Armed Forces-cats, camels, elephants and buffalo, to name but a few-and there, tucked under a goat’s beard, is the head of an Irish terrier. Ears typically cocked, he’s alert, quizzical and resolutely facing forward.

He represents the ‘Micks’, canine heroes of the First World War. Col Edwin Richardson, a 20th-century expert on military dogs and founder of the British War Dog School (now the Animal Defence Centre in Melton Mowbray) for the First World War, greatly admired the breed, which is described in old Irish manuscripts as ‘the poor man’s sentinel, the farmer’s friend and the gentleman’s favourite’. He praised the dogs’ intelligence and ability to learn, their sunny temperament and irrepressible high spirits, their ability to last for hours on a meagre bowl of biscuits and, above all, their extraordinary loyalty to their handlers and their unfailing courage even unto death. ‘They are the hardiest of dogs, swift yet strong, steady as guard and sentry patrol dogs, unsurpassed as ratters,’ he wrote. ‘However, they are not reliable as messengers. They are too easily diverted by the need to greet friends, old, new or imagined.’

He had a point: Irish terriers are, arguably, too convivial for purpose, but their natural playfulness makes them wonderful companions. Certainly, they lifted morale in the trenches of the First World Warlike nothing else. Sadly, this delightful terrier is in decline, something adoring owners find hard to believe. In 2011, only 277 puppies were registered with the Kennel Club, which placed the Irish terrier on its list of vulnerable native breeds.

Irish Terriers from Country Life

Olivia, Georgia and Imogen Jackson with Zuli, Beegie and Tess

For me, they were the best friends a child could have. I was brought up with them-my mother, Lucy Jackson, who is president of the Irish Terrier Association, loves them so much she’s written seven books on the subject, has a website dedicated to them (www. weloveirishterriers.com) and wrote a poem, which begins ‘How do I love you/My little brown dog’.

My earliest childhood memories are of the rough and tumble, the chewed toys, the attempts to play ‘quiet’ games with an Irish terrier encroaching on the Snakes and Ladders board and the comfort they provided during bouts of mumps and measles. They were more like siblings than dogs, and so much a part of everything we did. We seemed to belong to the same chaotic gang and simply tumbled around together.

Viscount Coke Holkham Hall Irish Terriers

Viscount Coke at home at Holkham with daughter Juno and Jupiter, the Irish terrier

Viscount Coke, owner of Holkham Hall, has similarly happy memories. ‘I can still remember the ecstatic welcome from my mother’s Irish terriers whenever I came home from boarding school,’ he recalls. ‘My wife, Polly, gave me my own Irish, Hector, when we came to live at Holkham. He was a real character, loved the children and pretty much ran the place. Our present dog, Jupiter, belongs to my daughter Juno and is a wonderful family man, very loving and keeps us all in order. I love the breed: they’re feisty, full of themselves and there’s never a dull moment.’ Fiona Wilmot-Sitwell, a director at the Lennox & Wyfold charitable foundation, is another devotee, and owns Millie and Maddie. ‘We’re keen gardeners and, in spite of their reputation as diggers, I taught them very early on not to dig holes in the lawns. They’re wonderful, funny, charming companions and adore our three sons,’ she comments, adding on behalf of all owners: ‘Once you’ve had one, you’ll never want to be without.

The sporting Irish

Lord and Lady Manners Irish terriers

‘They spend more time upside-down in a hedgerow than retrieving’: Lord and Lady Manners with one of their Irish terriers

For Lord Manners, a lawyer, Irish terriers are a new experience. ‘We’ve always had dogs, but mainly working dogs, and our three Irish terriers have been very different. They follow the guns, but spend more time upside-down in a hedgerow than performing neat retrieving. They’re great enthusiasts and wonderful companions, and, even at their most exasperating, are so funny that one has to laugh.’

The stage Irish

Derek Jacobi and Irish Terrier

Sir Derek Jacobi with leading lady Bella

Actor Sir Derek Jacobi’s ‘adored’ Bella, who appeared with him in the film A Bunch of Amateurs, makes the perfect backstage dog, welcoming visitors to his dressing room and once adorning Lawrence Olivier’s chaise longue. ‘It takes the heat off me,’ he admits. ‘She’s so beguiling.’ He recounts an alarming incident: ‘We had one terrifying adventure with her when she fell into a river in full spate. It was freezing cold but she hung onto a ledge with her front paws, up to her neck in the icy water. It was a miracle we found her in time. She recovered quickly and it was then that I realised how precious she is to me.’

The former soldier’s Irish

Ram Seeger, former commander of Britain’s Special Boat Service, never had time to own a dog during his soldiering life, but he now has James and says it’s been a wonderful experience. ‘I love the combination of tough, energetic hunter and gentle house dog, who carries his bed around and makes it up around the house. He even accepts that the cats were here first. It’s touching to see his devotion to the grandchildren-he sits “on guard” beside the pram. We take him everywhere-he’s a great traveller. I sometimes think he’s the son I never had.’

A distinguished ancestry

* * The Irish terrier is thought to originate from Co Cork, where it was bred as a hunting dog, probably incorporating strains of other black-and-tan terriers in the British Isles, such as the Kerry Blue, Wheaten, Glen of Imaal and Lakeland

** The dog’s heyday was the Victorian era—the first breed class was in 1873, in Dublin, and the first breed club was formed in 1879, when the standard was drawn up. They were fashionable, neat dogs with coats that didn’t shed, and were billed as the perfect allrounder, ‘a proper dog that stands to the knee’

** Also known as the Daredevil Irish red terrier, it was a favourite everywhere from the royal palaces of Europe—the Hapsburgs used them as shooting dogs—to the caravans of Irish gypsies. The maharajahs of British India favoured them—a painting of one still hangs in Delhi’s Government House

* *The Irish Terrier Association (01733 205386; www.irishterrierassociation.co.uk) was formed in 1911; its first president was the Marquis of Breadalbane

** In 1923, Kennel Club registrations reached an all-time high of 1,148

** In 1933, Gordon Selfridge staged an exhibition (opened by another admirer, the Duke of Atholl) in the dogs’ honour on an entire floor of his London store

** The breeder most responsible for promoting the Irish terrier is probably William ‘Billy’ Graham (right) of Belfast, who once said: ‘The only reason they were not itemised on Noah’s Ark was because it was quite unnecessary to take them on board. They could swim alongside so well’

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  • Dawn

    Rosie is a 2 year old irish terrier bitch. She is loving and loyal, a real joy to take out for walks. Kind with the children and both cats, especially the kitten with whom she sleeps. With a face like a steiff teddy bear we unanimously agree that Rosie is the easiest dog to have around, fun loving and feisty. I can’t understand why the breed are in decline. Why buy a cockerpoo/fashion accessory when you can help to keep wonderful endangered British breeds going into the future?

  • Trish

    My Irish terrier is a gorgeous boy.

    I did a slideshow of photos of his first year with me which can be seen here.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwQVXUWn_VI

    I can’t say enough good things about this breed and it’s sad to see them in decline.

  • Glynis

    Maurice is our 2nd Irish. He has grown up with a greyhound/collie lurcher and does a pretty good job of keeping up with her! He hasn’t realised though that she does short fast bursts. Mo just keeps on running. He looks like the dog whogot the sausages in the old cartoons. He loves people and adopts children. At Christmas when the carol singers left he was all for going with them. He is the worst guard dog – ever. He is also affectionate and fun with a placid temperament. Why doesn’t everyone want one?

  • chris lees

    Allways wanted one , after reading these comments deff want one. At 60 yrs of age I/we want a companion. I think my 5 grandchildren will love the company, and keep myself fit !

  • Glenn Hall

    We have a litter of Irish Terrier puppies, with a strong pedigree background (Saredon/Kerrykeel). 3 weeks old, (18 May 2013) they can be seen now. 6 boys. family bred, with cats, all strong fit & healthy.
    The best is their mother Morgan, makes people smile. contact us on 01600 861888 (Chepstow)
    We are not breeders, our concern was to have healthy pups, and now to find good loving homes. Will be KC registered. £800.
    email gh AT skirrid DOT com.
    (would advertise here if possible)

  • Brian

    we bought Molly home on December 27th
    she is funny lively and the most fabulous friend even though not quite six months old
    cant think of being without her she is so loving and friendly

  • Glenn Hall

    Our Irish Terrier Morgan, gave birth yesterday to seven beautiful healthy pups. Full pedigree both sides from strong healthy kennels. We are registering them fully. We live near Chepstow, but mostly ( but not for a while) in Bristol at the Unversity.
    Four years with her, the bet thing is she makes people smile. Good. With cats & kids. Highly recommended as a family member. So much so, she gave birth on our bed, shunning the carefully prepared next!

  • Sue Gatenby

    We adore our boy Cormac. Son of the dignified Ronan. In the early days I turned to Lucy for advice. It seemed we would never manange this bundle of red mischief. He has turned out to be the most loving boy. Tolerant and patient. He loves children and likes nothing better than his daily play in the park with his pals.When I retire from teaching we would love a little girl.

  • Alex

    We would love an Irish Terrier puppy. Preferably a bitch but we are not too bothered. We have 3 daughters and they are longing for a dog and everything I read about Irish Terriers makes me want to own one. If anyone knows any Irish Terrier owner having puppies we would love them to get in touch.

    Thanks so much

    Alex

  • Susan Littleford

    Muttley was the best dog we ever had, lived to the grand old age of 17 and was much loved.

  • Vanessa

    Fantastic article by James Jackson. I fully support Brian Emsley’s comments. We have our first Irish a 3 1/2 year old bitch and she has brought our family so much fun. I read all the comments before we bought her about aggression with other dogs etc and I too have found that NOT to be true…..they just love to play! I found it amusing that they all do similiar things like carrying their beds around the house! Maisie does that too. She waits in the evening until we are all ready to go and settle down in the lounge and she drags her bed or (noonoo as we call it) so she can settle too. Wonderful dogs!

  • Terrance Keenan

    We have had terriers all our lives, but never an Irish. Now that we have Barley, a 10 month old “pup”, I can’t imagine why. He endears everyone on market day and we have to keep him on a lead at the pub because everyone there wants to walk off with him. If intelligence, fun, ease with children, utter loyalty and companionship are criteria for family dogs I can’t imagine why anyone would NOT want an Irish terrier. Barley has all these things in plenty and has enriched our lives enormously. Every day he reminds us of the important things in life: friendship, love and joy in the little things of the world.

    Terry Keenan,

    West Cork, Ireland

  • Jane MacLeod Keenan

    We’ve had Barley, now 9 months old and 38 lbs, since he was 8wks, and he adapted easily to his two feline siblings. Our life is full of his affection, charm, humor, energy and the whimsy of his personality. Out in West Cork, Ireland, on the Sheeps Head peninsula as we are, he loves to “help” peg out the wet laundry on a blustery day…the game of tag when he pulls a sock out of the basket is the beginning of great exercise for us all. He draws many admiring comments from folks at the Bantry market day, and wistful comments from older gents who remember their Irish Terrier when they were young. A wonderful breed and some fine breeders in Ireland. Thankfully!

  • debbie Wylde

    We love our Fintan. he is so lovely with my 9 year old. We have 6 Irish Terriers in our Village of Batheaston! Let me know if you want any pics. Debbie Pat and Cara x x x

  • Brian Emsley

    I have had two Irish Terriers. Rosie, who died in 1999 and now 12-year-old Roscoe. The beauty of their character, combining charm, loyalty and humour presents us with a unique breed which we should feel privileged to have. I am profoundly perplexed and saddened at their decline. I suspect that this is due to the repeated libel which one sees time and again in dog encyclopaedias and guides. I have noted that the same wording appears time and again and can be traced back almost 100 years. Perhaps lazy editing by the book compilers. While summaries pay tribute to the dogs’ assets they often suggest they are aggressive with other dogs and a hadful. Not true! They a playful and inviting. I would love to hear from others who might wish to help in a campaign to rescue the Irish Terrier from further threat. We cannot lost such a gift. It would be tragic to see them vanish. If soldiers from the first world war could speak they would support us. Perhaps a push this tear in the run up to the war’s centenary?

  • Anne

    Super article, and the author is one of the great experts in this breed.

  • Anne Tureen

    Super article, and the author is one of the great experts in this breed.
    Anne