By Roslyn Blyn-LaDrew
Once again we have several versions of a dog breed’s name, and the Irish language version offers a further variation. In English today, the usual term is “Kerry Blue Terrier.” In Ireland, the dog may be called the “Irish Blue Terrier,” and this was particularly true in previous decades, notably in the 1920s. Coincidence? The breed was also under consideration to be Ireland’s “national dog” at the time.
In Irish, the breed is “Brocaire Gorm,” literally “blue terrier,” with no geographic reference, similar to the term “Madra Gearr” (Irish Terrier) simply meaning “short dog,” not a specifically Irish one. If “Kerry” were included, we’d see some form of the word “Ciarraí;” for “Irish” it would be “Gaelach” or “Éireannach.”
I’ve read conflicting reports as to whether County Kerry officially claims the breed or not. Some say no, others say yes, and some specifically claim that that breed originated when one male dog swam to safety from a shipwreck, reached the shores of County Kerry, and mated with, well, all (!) the female dogs in the county.
Some advocates of this theory claim that part of the Kerry Blues’ genetic make-up includes Portuguese Water Dog. I thought the Armada was Spanish, not Portuguese, but, well, one never knows!
For that story to hold water, as it were, we’d have to be quite sure the breed originated after the Norman invasion of Ireland, when the county divisions were established in Ireland. Prior to that, boundaries were less secure, changing with chieftains’ power, so the notion of a county-specific dog would be meaningless.
That time frame does give our (possibly) fictitious breed progenitor a generous margin of 800 years in which to establish paternity. And it means that the breed wouldn’t go back as far in time as “aimsir na bhFiann” (the legendary time of Finn McCool) or to the time period of St. Patrick. Both Patrick and Finn were closely associated with dogs, interesting sagas unto themselves, but too involved to summarize here.
One variation of the shipwreck theory, which offers a little more details, pinpoints the location to the Bay of Tralee in the 1700s, but I haven’t been able to track down further details. It may be apocryphal, but I do see possibilities for promoting tourism! A statue of the champion swimmer reaching the shore? Greeted by a bevy of waiting, well, female dogs? Figurines, portraits, and other dog souvenirs? I have visited Tralee, but don’t recall any particular promotion of this breed.
Other breeds that may have contributed to the Kerry Blues’ make-up are the lamb-coated Bedlington (a native of the Northumberland mining town), the Dandie Dinmont (Scotland), the Soft-coated Wheaten, and the Irish Terrier. Over land or over sea, it seems that good genes travel fast!
At any rate, so much for the geographic elements. Kerries are also fascinating from the color perspective. While “Brocaire Gorm” means “blue terrier,” we understand that this is not some Wizard-of-Oz-Horse-of-a-Different-Color brilliant cobalt blue, but actually a grayish blue. A very grayish blue, in fact.
The word “gorm” can also mean “blue-tinted” or “bluish,” which is more apropos here. The same word (gorm), by the way, is also used in Irish to describe buttermilk (bláthach ghorm), and I don’t think buttermilk, even in its thinnest variations would normally be considered blue as such.
Even if you’re “blue-mouldy” fer da want o’ a dhrink o’ it. Actually “blue-mouldy,” in Irish-English, at least in Joycean Irish-English, usually refers to hankering for Guinness, not bláthach, but that’s definitely getting into a different shade or hue of blue.
Hmmm, maybe there’s the sequel to “Fifty Shades of Grey” —Fifty Shades of “gorm”? of blue? of blue-mouldy? Anyway, it’s well established in the canine world that various dogs are described as blue, sometimes as the standard color and sometimes as a rare genetic mutation; these include Chow Chows, Pomeranians, Italian Greyhounds, Border Collies, Weimaraners, the Bluetick Coonhound, and more.
So what does the Kerry Blue Terrier actually look like? They’re born black and their coat usually changes to the characteristic gray by age 18 months. If the coat does not naturally change color or “clear” by this age, the dog is disqualified from registration in kennel clubs.
Darker areas are permitted around the muzzle, head, ears, tail and feet (“black points”) at any age and small white markings are also allowed, but other than that, the acceptable parameters are quite specific — the dog can be “blue gray” or “gray blue,” any hue ranging from “deep slate” to “light blue gray.” Hmmm, fifty shades of “blue gray”?
In addition to its unusual color, the Kerry Blues’ coat has some other specific features. The dog doesn’t shed, so it needs to be groomed at least weekly, preferably daily, and clipped about every six weeks. There is no undercoat and the texture is like human hair, soft and silky, sometimes compared to astrakhan (Russian lamb).
As for temperament, Kerries are great with people but, unfortunately are often quarrelsome with other dogs. They require much training but respond readily and learn to be quite obedient. They probably do best in a single-pet household. They enjoy the water (shades of that alleged ancestor from the shipwreck?) and do well in activities such as herding, tracking, and dog agility.
The Kerry Blues peaked in popularity in the 1920s, when there were four clubs dedicated to them in Ireland alone. At that time about 25 percent of Irish Kennel Club registrations were for the Kerry Blue, an astonishing percentage for any single breed.
Today, they are on the (UK) Kennel Club’s “vulnerable native breeds” list, which was established in 2003. Breeds registering fewer than 300 puppies per year are considered vulnerable, with Sealyhams topping the endangered list.
Kerry Blues’ statistics are more robust than some, steadily in the 200s, but any figure under 300 is a cause for concern. The registrations for recent years are as follows: 244 (2002), 277 (2005, a healthy rise), and 212 (2011, a significant decline).
Michael Collins—Most Famous “Kerrier”
Probably the most famous Irish “Kerrier” was Michael Collins, who owned and exhibited the breed. His “Convict 224” won the Irish Blue Terrier Show in October, 1920, during the Irish Civil War. The event was well attended, despite curfews, by representatives of all political persuasions.
With that awesome name, one hopes that “Convict 224” has posthumously met up with Philly’s own Pep, the only canine prisoner at Eastern State Penitentiary (inmate number C-2559). In 1924, Pep, a black Lab, was admitted to the prison; he died of natural causes six years later, having received much affectionate attention from his fellow inmates.
In the US, the national Kerry Blue Terrier Club was founded in 1922 (http://www.uskbtc.com/), the same year that the American Kennel Club recognized the breed.
Two Kerry Blue Terriers have won at Crufts (the premier UK dog show), Callaghan of Leander, in 1979 and Torums Scarf Michael in 2000.
In an unusual triumph, Torums also won at the Westminster Dog Show in New York in 2003, with a new owner. Despite these victories, the breed is typically described today as “unfashionable.”
Returning to geographical considerations, let’s consider what happens to this breed’s name in other languages. It’s intriguing! We have “le Terrier Kerry Blue” (French), “Kerry Blue Teriér” (Czech), “Kerrynterrieri” (Finnish — I wonder where the “blue,” “sininen” in Finnish, is in that one, or if it’s been left out!), and “Kerryjski modri terrier” (Slovenian).
In many languages, though, the breed’s entire name remains just as it is in English (El Kerry Blue Terrier, Der Kerry Blue Terrier aka Der Blaue Irische Terrier, etc.).
It’s interesting, actually, that English is the primary way this and other Irish breeds are recognized globally. With other languages, dog fanciers learn the breed’s name in the native tongue, adding an interesting linguistic element to dog ownership (e.g. Bichon Frise, Corgi, Puli, Schipperke, Shar Pei), Maybe someday the Irish word for “terrier” (brocaire) will actually be recognized internationally, but that seems a long way off.