by Arthur M. Hillery
© 1992 USKBTC
This article first appeared in the 1992 Kerry Blue Terrier Handbook.
The origin of the Kerry Blue Terrier is lost in the dim past. No one knows with any certainty how or when the breed was started. The best that can be done is to relate some of the legends about it and you may then decide for yourself what to believe.
One legend says that in the days when only the nobility in Ireland was permitted to hunt with the Irish Wolfhound, the peasantry developed the Kerry Blue Terrier for the purpose of poaching. There has been some speculation that the Irish Wolfhound was mated to the basic terrier breed in Ireland to produce the Kerry. But was that basic terrier the English Terrier, or the Irish Terrier, or the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, or an earlier terrier? You will have to guess. Manifestly, Irish peasants have, on occasion, used the Kerry Blue for poaching and for many other tasks. Matings between Irish Wolfhounds and Kerries have been known, so the disparity in size between the two breeds does not bar this hypothesis.
Then there is the romantic legend of the Russian “Blue Dog”-a blue terrier that swam ashore from a Russian ship wrecked in Tralee Bay and was mated to local bitches to produce the Kerry Blue Terrier. Another version identifies the ship as one of those in the Spanish Armada. Who can say that this is the true origin-or that it is not?
Writing on dogs in Ireland a century ago, H. D. Richardson of Dublin, famous writer and authority on dogs, does not mention Irish Terriers as a breed, or Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers, nor Kerry Blues, as such. He does mention what he calls the Harlequin Terrier, a true terrier and a game dog, bluish slate in color, marked with darker blotches and patches, and often with tan about the legs or muzzle. It seems obvious that the breed he refers to is the Kerry Blue Terrier. I have seen in this country several young Kerries with Irish breeding close-up that met this description, and I saw a Kerry at a show within a year that could almost qualify. The brownish tinge on the coats of puppies that promise to turn a light blue is, of course, common.
It is my belief that the Harlequin Terrier mentioned by Richardson and the Kerry Blue Terrier are one and the same breed. It should be remembered that when Kerry Blues were first shown in Ireland there was a wide variance in size, with a range in height of 16 to 20 inches of dogs shown in a single class. Since the adoption of a standard for the breed, selective breeding has cleared color and done much to establish uniformity of size. The present excellence of the Kerry Blue Terrier is a real tribute to the serious breeders in Ireland, England, Canada, the United States-and all over the world-for having refined the breed and brought it to a fair degree of conformity with the ideal Kerry called for by the breed standard.
Probably this much can definitely be accepted as fact: That the Kerry Blue Terrier, or Irish Blue Terrier, as he is called in Eire, has been known for well over one hundred years; that because of his gaminess, intelligence and adaptability as a hunting dog, as a herd dog, and a working dog, the Kerry Blue has every attribute an Irishman would seek in a dog. It seems reasonable to believe that the Irish kept the strain clear in this breed they admired so greatly. In fact, the Irish may have been the first to conduct dog-breeding on a systematic plan. In the Brehon laws, dating from the fifth century, there were enactments, relating to ownership, breeding, and welfare of dogs. Kerries are not now, and never were, very numerous in Ireland. They were found mostly in the mountains of Kerry around Lake Killarney. But they were more appreciated for their rarity by those who know the Kerry Blue Terrier.
In Ireland, the Irish Blue Terrier was first shown as a breed around 1916. Their good qualities soon attracted attention and by the 1920s, thirty to a class was common at the larger shows. Kerries were first shown in England at Cruft’s Show in 1922, and four Kerries were exhibited in the miscellaneous classes at the Westminster Kennel Club Show in this country that same year. Two years later, in 1924, the breed was officially recognized and put on a championship rating by the American Kennel Club.
At shows in Eire, Kerries were shown untrimmed and in the rough, with the coat merely tidied up a bit. Probably the greatest impetus was given to the progress of the breed when they began to be trimmed as a terrier in England, then in this country and in Canada. Thus came the modern Kerry Blue Terrier as we know him.
Last Updated: 12/19/2002, 4:02 pm