When shipwrecks have fantastical endings, they’re usually works of fiction. Think of Gilligan and friends, or the Swiss Family Robinson.
But in our canine world, a centuries-old shipwreck is believed to have helped create a real-life dog breed – and one of the most eye-catching of the terriers, to boot.
Now, full disclosure: This creation story may be just that – a story, fueled by wishful thinking and the persistent human need to embellish. Still, there just may just be something to it.
As legend has it, the roots of the Kerry Blue Terrier harken back to the Spanish Armada, a fleet of 130 ships that left port in Lisbon in July 1588 with the goal of invading England and deposing the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I.
The Invincible Armada, however, turned out to have been inaccurately named. Anchoring in the Strait of Dover, the Spanish ships were badly battered by the nimbler British forces. Forced to break ranks, the Spaniards had no choice but to take the long way home, navigating counterclockwise around the northern tip of Scotland. Hampered by autumn gales, food shortages and navigational errors, to say nothing of the damage incurred by British canons, many of the retreating Spanish ships were lost along the western coast of Ireland.
One of those ships wrecked near County Kerry was said to have included a dog that was its only survivor. Some accounts say he was terrier-like; others suggest he might have been a Spanish Water Dog, a breed with a thick, wavy coat.
Regardless of his pedigree, this nameless survivor carried his fighting spirit onto dry land: His tendency to challenge every dog he met made him a popular sire, and he was bred to many of the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier bitches on the island. Over the generations, this resulted in the Kerry Blue Terrier, a new native breed with a soft, dense, and wavy coat in shades of blue that varied from deep slate to light bluish-gray. The dog’s character was just as striking as his appearance, his intelligence and adaptability on par with his gaminess and determination.
Other Kerry Blue Origin Stories
Another version of this one-if-by-sea legend has a Russian ship wrecking in Tralee Bay, also in County Kerry, and a Russian “blue dog” swimming ashore to become the new Adam of this centuries-old breed.
There’s also a landlocked theory about the Kerry Blue Terrier’s origins: Because the Irish Wolfhound was only permitted to hunt with the nobility, some surmised that the Kerry resulted from clandestine crosses between the peasants’ Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers and these heavy-boned Sighthounds. However, recent DNA research does not reflect the Irish Wolfhound as a major contributor to the breed. (Nor the Otterhound, another breed sometimes mentioned as a prospective ancestor of the Kerry Blue, which is inordinately fond of water for a terrier.)
Genetic Relatives of the Kerry Blue Terrier
Not surprisingly, the genetic research done to date shows that the Kerry has a strong influence from fellow Irish earthdogs such as the Glen of Imaal, Irish, and Bedlington terriers. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is of course the Kerry’s primary contributor, and will sometimes re-emerge, albeit very subtly: Kerry Blue puppies can have a brownish tinge to their coat, a vestige of their Wheaten roots that eventually disappears. (Somewhat incongruously, Kerry Blue puppies are born black, and it can take up to 18 months for the coat to “clear,” leaving behind the dazzling blue-hued coat that is the breed’s hallmark.)
Perhaps unexpectedly, genetic sequencing has also shown a significant contribution from mastiff- and bully-type breeds, including the Staffordshire Terrier. Those one-time fighting breeds may be a more logical source of the Kerry’s sometimes quick temper.
Regardless of how they came to be, Irish Blue Terriers, as they are known in their homeland, soon became favored farm and herd dogs in the highlands of Ireland, particularly in the mountains around Lake Killarney. While never achieving great numbers, Kerry Blues were cherished by those fortunate enough to own them for their sheer versatility: Not only could Kerries, in true terrier style, dispatch vermin such as rodents and foxes with great gusto, but they could also hunt rabbit and birds for the table. Their keen protective instinct made them excellent watchdogs, and they could even be called upon to herd sheep and cattle.
Irish Through & Through
This jack-of-all-trades ability made the Kerry Blue Terrier invaluable among farmers whose hardscrabble life required a canine that could more than earn its keep. But what made the breed beloved was its sensibility, which, whatever its origins outside the isle, at a certain point became quintessentially Irish. The Kerry’s undeniable terrier temperament – alert, quick witted, scrappy – is leavened by a sentimental attachment to those he holds dear, a sensitivity to the moods of those around him, and an impish sense of humor. All in all, a description that could apply as much to a pint-hoisting workingman at any Dublin pub.
Indeed, the Kerry Blue Terrier is so unabashedly Irish that the breed was the impetus for the formation of the Irish Kennel Club. At a time when the British Kennel Club licensed all dog shows, a group calling itself the Dublin Irish Blue Terrier Club organized its own show in 1920 – defiantly holding it outside of curfew hours imposed by the English. One club member, nationalist Michael Collins, exhibited his dog, Convict 224, at that inaugural show, even as a bounty hung over his head. Breed lore has it that Collins attempted to have the Kerry Blue formally declared the national dog of Ireland, but was assassinated before anything came to fruition.
From Rugged Farm Dog to Sophisticated Terrier
Two years after that first show, in 1922, the Kerry club morphed into the Irish Kennel Club, and not surprisingly the Kerry Blue Terrier was the first breed recognized by the nascent body. Seeking to ensure that these “blue devils” would retain the hardiness that made them such valuable assistants on the farm and on the hunt, dogs were required to pass a working trial on rabbit and badger before they could be registered.
Britain’s Kennel Club recognized the breed that same year, and the American Kennel Club followed suit just two years later.
One thing that did change rather rapidly once the Kerry Blue Terrier left the farm field for the show ring was its grooming. These rugged working dogs have evolved a sophisticated terrier trim that tidies up the body and keeps the ears, cheeks and much of the head (except for the “fall” and beard) closely shaved.
But no matter how they are sculpted on the outside, the boisterous, blarney-loving spirit of these unique and useful terriers remains unchanged.