Celtic Dog Days: The Irish Terrier (An Madra Gearr)

Terhune’s “… finest dog on earth” Now A Vulnerable Breed

By Roslyn Blyn-LaDrew

Who better than renowned dog man, Albert Payson Terhune, to comment upon the Irish Terrier’s qualifications?  And why has the Irish Terrier, so highly praised, now entered the vulnerable breed status?

First, let’s brush up on Terhune himself, since, as happens to many a beloved classic popular novel, a book’s title may be more memorable than the author’s actual name.  Perhaps these lines sound familiar: “Lad was an eighty-pound collie, thoroughbred in spirit as well as in blood.”  That’s from Lad: A Dog.  If the book itself (1919) doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps the 1962 film does.  With two Irish-American stars, Carroll O’Connor and Peggy McCay aka Caroline Brady of “Days of Our Lives,” how could it not?

In addition to writing approximately 50 books about dogs, mostly fiction, Terhune (1872-1942) was a collie breeder and his line still exists (Sunnybank Collies).  And he’s local!  Born in Newark, NJ, there is a monument to him on his former estate, now a public park, in Pompton Lakes, Passaic County, NJ.

Collies will be covered later in the “Celtic Dog Days” series, so this article won’t deal further with Terhune’s career.  Perhaps eventually, though, we will discover why collie breeder Terhune bestowed even higher praise on the Irish terrier than on his noble Lad and other collies. So far, that remains a mystery!

And what exactly did Terhune say about the Irish Terrier?  “He does not throw away his priceless devotion and loyalty on every stranger who may chirp to him. But to the death he is the comrade and protector. … He is an Irish gentleman of the deathless old school; a fiery, true gentleman from the tips of his braced toes to the rough thatch of his crown. He is more; he has a heart three sizes too big for his shaggy body … He is no bully, but he will flinch not one hundredth of an inch from the fight that is forced on him, be the odds ever so impossible against him.”

As for the second question, why has the Irish Terrier declined in popularity, we may never know the full answer, but it is certainly a matter of concern that so many of the native dog breeds of Ireland and the UK are officially considered vulnerable (less than 300 registrants for The Kennel Club).

The number of English Setter registrants in The Kennel Club (TKC) dropped from 568 in 2002, to 450 in 2005, and further, to only 234 in 2011.

For Irish breeds, the Glen of Imaal terrier is the most threatened, with 67 TKC registrants in for 2011, and in Britain, dogs like the Otterhound (38 in 2011, TKC) and the Sealyham (63 in 2011, TKC) are highly endangered.

Various reasons for the decline have been suggested, including the celeb status of many miniature dogs such as Chihuahuas and Pugs, the trendiness of exotic breeds, and smaller size houses than in the past. House size, though, shouldn’t be an issue for breeds like the Sealyham or Glen of Imaal.

Apparently the Irish Terriers remained popular as family pets up until the 1960s.  Perhaps a revival of interest in the Irish Terrier could be stimulated if some of its literary exploits could be brought once again before the public as movies.  For starters, there are the two Jack London stories, Jerry of the Islands, and Michael, Brother of Jerry.

London’s White Fang certainly worked, so why not some terrier territory for the silver screen?

Certainly the movie Firehouse Dog (2007), with lead canine Rex/Dewey played by three Irish Terriers, Frodo, Rohan, and Stryder, did its bit, and it has an Irish-American setting to boot, but that was not enough to stop the trend.

Perhaps the next best hope is Clashmore Mike Comes Home (2011) by Susan Mullen Guibert and Brendan O’Shaughnessy.  In it, an Irish Terrier, Mikey, learns about “Clashmore Mike,” an Irish Terrier who was Notre Dames’s mascot from about 1924 to 1965, when the leprechaun took over.

The original “Clashmore Mike” (actually named “Tipperary Terrence,” nicknamed “Terry”) was given to coach Knute Rockne, who died tragically in 1931 in a plane crash, at age 43. While Clashmore’s name may suggest some of the action of football itself, it actually comes from “Clais Mhór” in Co. Waterford, renowned for its historic distillery chimney.  Yes, you read that right – distillery chimney — and perhaps that should be another IE article – defunct distilleries in Ireland!  There is also a “Clashmore” in Scotland, but presumably the Irish connection is intended.

As for its physical features, the Irish Terrier is small but sturdy, with the male typically weighing 27 pounds and the female 25.  Its height at the withers is about 18 inches.  Its harsh coat (usually red) protects it from the elements, but does need to be handstripped several times a year.

Regarding the breed’s hardiness, the late breeder William Graham once quipped that “the only reason they were not itemized in Noah’s list of the cargo of the Ark was that it was quite unnecessary to take a pair of Irish Terriers aboard. They could swim alongside so well.”  Graham, a co-founder of the Irish Terrier Club was from Newtown, Breda (Belfast, Northern Ireland).

The Irish Terrier is known in Irish as “an madra gearr,” literally “the short dog.”  Interestingly, but not too surprisingly, the Irish Gaelic name for the breed doesn’t include the word “Irish.”  The Irish names for the Irish Setter (Sotar Rua) and the Irish Wolfhound (Cú Faoil) are similar in that there is no “Gaelach,” “Éireannach,” or “na hÉireann” element.  The Irish connection is simply understood.  It’s likely that at one time, “madra gearr” simply meant “terrier” in general, but now it officially refers to the Irish Terrier and “brocaire” (badgerer [sic]) is the generic word for “terrier.”  The “madra gearr” has been immortalized in two proverbs:

Is fearr duit an madra gearr leat ná i d’aghaidh, It isn’t wise to antagonize people, or, literally, it’s better to have the (Irish) terrier with you than against you.

Is teann gach madra gearr ag a dhoras féin, Every (Irish) terrier is bold on his own doorstep, a loose equivalent of “A rooster is bold on his own dunghill.”

In the 1880s, Irish Terriers were the fourth most popular dog breed in the Ireland and Britain. As early as 1873, they already had a class of their own at the Dublin dog show, the first venue to provide such acknowledgement.  They served as messenger dogs in World War I and their popularity was boosted by their general friendliness, usefulness and loyalty. One can only wonder why Michael, Mikey, Jerry, Terry, Rex and their peers are not more prominent today.

There is good news though.  The Delaware Valley will be the location of an Irish Terrier club event on Sunday, October 7, 2012, in Blue Bell, Pa. (details at: www.itca.info).  Any local IT owners are invited to submit their dog’s photo or competition results to the Irish Edition.

We’d love to hear from you and to see what the Philadelphia area is doing to nurture interest in this “finest of dogs.”