Originally hunting dogs, before the advent of guns, were used to locate the game, sometimes deer and hare for the chase when hounds were unleashed or rabbits and birds for the falcon who would then be unhooded. Crouching close frozen in movement a dog was also used to indicate the game’s location to net hunters. With the arrival of the flintlock in the mid 1700’s, a far more manageable firearm, the use of nets declined. Hunters now no longer need the dog to work close, in netting rage, and began to look for dogs with longer legs than the Spaniel. They found what they wanted in the Setter and Pointer. These breeds had been around long before indeed the earliest reference to the term ‘setter’ appears in ‘De Canibus Britannicus’ of 1576. In a section on netting a dog is described as “whereby it is supposed that this kind of dogge is called Setter, being in deed a name most consonant and agreeable to his quality. The setter is mentioned by Surflet & Markham in their 1616 “The Country Farme” as follows “There is another sort of land Spannyels which are called Setters”
The exact origins of the breed are lost in time but it is possible and probable that in times hunting dogs went from Spain to Ireland. As far back as Elizabethan times, Spaniards frequently visited Ireland to aid the locals in their rebellion against British authority. It is most likely that these visitors took with them their hunting dogs (Spaniels) which were crossed with various Irish dogs. As late as the last century he was still referred to as the Irish Spaniel or his Gaelic name Modder Rhu (red dog).
One breed allegedly used in developing and perfecting the Irish is the Gordon and infusion that it is argued did occasionally cause a black pup to appear in a red litter. This could be why the original writers of the standard were so careful to not allow any trace of black on an Irish Setter.
Originally the most Irish were red and white, which the hunter favoured as for ease of identification in the field. One such animal appears in a painting from c1630 of Charles I with a red and white setter. Gradually three colour strains emerged, the solid red, red and white and red with white dots or shower of hail. A Stubbs painting of 1760,“Huntsmen setting out from Southill, Bedfordshire” shows a red setter with a white blaze up the face and a little on the chest. In 1860 at Birmingham the first show with its own Irish setter section was held and the vast majority entered were red and white. By 1875 at the Dublin show the swing towards the solid red was evident, 43 of the 66 dogs entered were solid red.
In 1885 the first Irish Red Setter Club was formed in Dublin and a year later they drew up the first authoritative breed description complete with a scale of points for judging. The Irish Setter Association was formed in London in 1908, which adopted the breed standard of the Club in Ireland. The standard was slightly revised in Dublin in 1930 and when the Kennel Club took responsibility for the standard in the U.K. the scale of points was dropped.
In Australia the Irish Setter has a long history. Indeed before the German Shepherd Dog came to prominence in Germany the Irish was resident and shown in Australia.
Exactly when they first arrived is not known but they were certainly prominent in the latter half of last century. Surprisingly the source of these early imports was not only England and Ireland but also America. In the late 1870’s a Mr Eales, a well-known NSW squatter, bought a brace of Irish of the Elcho blood from the then top American breeder, Dr William Jarvis of New Hampshire. Elcho who was Best Irish Setter at the first Chicago Dog Show on the 26th January 1876 was the first bench champion of any breed in America and sired 197 pups from 51 different dams.
Irish Setter Working In Field by John Paley