Loyalty Laced With Wit

Printed in Country Life – December 14, 2000

Devoted, yet free-spirited, fierce sentries yet gentle with children, Irish terriers have enraptured their owners through the generations – as well as their wartime commanding officers. LUCY JACKSON, so devoted an owner that she has written seven books about Irish terriers, explains their particular appeal.

WALK out with an Irish terrier and inevitably someone will stop to say, ‘Gorgeous dog-what is he?’ or, ‘How wonderful to see a Mick,’ (the name given them in the First World War). Invariably, these encounters turn into a party while dogs and new-found friends commune. For Irish terriers are sociable dogs, not cloying or begging for affection, but ‘chatty’ and interested, with enormous charm and rare character. Once they have touched your life they are never to be forgotten, at least that is my experience.

I have loved Irish terriers since, as a tiny child, our adored Jocky-boy arrived – a present for my older brother. He lived for 17 years and was wilful, quirky and indomitable to the end-and he loved us with his life. My own Irish (for I have never been without) seem to run through my heart like an unbroken thread of pure gold. You have to understand that we Irish terrier people are not just fans, we are devotees. Gordon Selfridge in 1933 gave up a whole floor of his famous Oxford Street store to mount an exhibition about the breed. Opened by the Duke of Atholl, a staunch supporter, all the best-known dogs and bitches were ‘on display’.

They are an authentic terrier, descending in an unbroken line from their ancient terrier forbears. Their precise origin is unknown. The Romans brought with them a small ‘black and tan’, but in Ireland there was already a terrier whose breeding was ‘traced carefully through generations’, and prized for its courage and hardiness, unsurpassed speed and skill as a ratter, but famed also for its ideal temperament for ‘life in close proximity with people’.

Who knows how it was bred? The resemblance in coat and racy outline suggests a relationship with the ancient breed of wolfhound. Similarities with the other terrier breeds in Ireland-especially the wheaten-are obvious. There must in any case have been a pressing need for such a dog-the sturdy but swift, low-maintenance all-rounder, able to mount guard, fend for himself when necessary, hunt and poach-but showing an astonishing gentleness with people and especially children.

They are referred to in Irish manuscripts as ‘the poor man’s sentinel, the farmer’s friend and the gentleman’s favourite’. Bred more for their working qualities of pluck and gameness than their looks, it was not until the 18708 when ‘showing’ dogs became popular that any form of’standardisation’ was deemed necessary.

They were a motley lot that gathered at the first Dublin show to offer classes for the breed-brindled, grey, black and tan, and some so small that they weighed only 9lb.

The arguments were long and vociferous but the characteristic which was considered paramount was the striking character of the breed-the extraordinary combination of intelligence, fiery courage and touching gentleness with its human companions.

Proper standards were drawn up in 1879 by the first Irish Club and the Ballymenas from Co Antrim were the style-setters for the dogs we see in the show ring today. By the turn of the century there had been an rapid increase in their popularity. Everyone who was anyone had an Irish. The Irish Terrier Association, founded in 1911, had an earl, a marquis, a maharajah, several lords and baronets, a Major-General and a string of humble colonels as vice presidents. Edward VII had his beloved Jack and they became the favourite sporting terriers of the Hapsburgs.

They were taken to all parts of the British Empire, notably India and South Africa, and became popular in America – especially after the writer of animal stories Jack London, an owner, wrote two novels celebrating their ‘unparalleled excellence’.

It was their courage which led to their pre-eminence as ‘war dogs’ during the First World War. Shipped to France with their handlers, they showed great courage as sentry patrol dogs, messengers, guards and ratters in the terrible conditions of trench warfare on the Western Front. One such was Larry who, under shell-fire, struggled back to base camp through miles of frozen slush and mud. Having delivered his message, he collapsed and died. They found a bullet lodged in his shoulder.

Col Richardson, who was responsible for the dog training programme, spoke of the ‘gallant Micks’ and was convinced that they had an almost psychic ability to find their masters in the mayhem of battle. He told of an Irish terrier who shipped himself to France with the troops and found his master in the trenches. It is impossible to conceive how he managed it.

So why are there so relatively few of them about today? Who knows precisely, except that there was a steep decline in the popularity of all terriers through the 1920s and 1930s. It could have been a post-war longing for change and a fashion for more exotic-looking dogs. Urbanisation would not have helped, but the halcyon days of the feisty, upbeat terriers of all kinds were over.

Like most breeds, Irish terriers owe everything to a handful of skilled and dedicated breeders who struggled on through the Second World War to feed their dogs and keep the breeding lines intact. This was no mean task with food rationing and privations of wartime Britain.

We can thank this generation for the lack of any serious congenital breed faults which are all too common in other breeds today. As my vet remarks rather ruefully, having not seen my two Irish since last year’s inoculations: ‘Fit as ticks, are you? Well, there’s not a lot to go wrong, is there?’

There are some beautiful dogs about today, smart as paint, stripped and trimmed to a whisker for the show ring. There is also a steady stream of adorable puppies that make wonderful family pets. They have never been over-bred with too many puppies waiting for good homes. Rarely, if ever, does one land up like thousands of other dogs, in care. Nor have they ever been ‘farmed’, the iniquitous practice of raising puppies entirely for financial gain, which has caused such terrible havoc in some of the most numerous breeds.

There any no disadvantages to the dog-unless you are a control freak who cannot tolerate a dog who has a free spirit, is not naturally obedient, remains playful and energetic into ripe old age, digs holes, chews, is insatiably curious, full of ideas and innovations and is exasperatingly delighted with himself. In an age when convenience is the fashion, conformity the rule and depression almost the norm, I thank God for a dog with his soul intact, a heart warm and generous, that is perfectly adapted to modern living and has the wit and fire of his ancient terrier ancestors.

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