History of Irish Red Setters


Irish Setters are the oldest of the setter group, proceeding Gordon and English Setters. It is believed that the breed developed from “spaniels established in England, mostly white with red patches" in the 14th century. (Leighton-Boyce, 1973) It does appear that the name "spaniel" was used to describe dogs used for sport and not a particular breed type at this time. Dogs were described as “setters” whose job was to locate game for falconing or netting: “but this does not mean there was a specific breed”. (Roberts, 1978)

By the mid eighteenth century "setters" had become an essential and prized possession for the sporting country gentleman. Irish Red SetterThe colour of the "setters" varied from almost all red, red with white paws, white with red patches to almost completely white dogs. I suspect that the “whole red” was bred then for much the same reason as it is today – for its beauty. Many books on shooting at this time give reference to the difficulty of seeing the red dogs as opposed to the red and white or white and red dogs at the time. In fact handlers often tied large white handkerchiefs round their necks to make them more visible. The opposite view was put forward by Mrs Florence Nagle, a breeder of dual purpose Irish Setters in more recent years in that as the handler had a problem seeing the red dog so did the birds!

In 1859 the first dog show for Setters and Pointers was held which was probably an indication that their owners welcomed comparison and competition. The entries at early dog shows indicate an interesting pattern of Irish Red Setters dominating the Irish Red and White Setter. “At Dublin, in 1875, Irish Setters made sixty-six entries, of which twenty-three were red-and-white. A year later at Cork the figures were ninety-six entries and thirty-six were red-and-white dogs.” (Roberts, 1978)

Irish Red Setter Wendover GameIn 1865 the introduction of field trials increased the comparison of dogs for their working abilities. However as showing became an acceptable pastime the difference between the show and working Irish Red Setters became apparent. This divergence is demonstrated well by the career of Ch. Palmerston. “He was bred, about 1862, by Mr Cecil Moore, who had a kennel of working gundogs. Palmerston was not considered a good worker but was most successful as a show and stud dog.” (Roberts, 1978)

If you are interested in finding out more about the history of this beautiful breed then please contact me via email or through the Cormallen Gundogs Blog.


Leighton-Boyce, G. (1973). A Survey of Early Setters. (S. Dangerfield, Ed.) London: Arthur Barker Limited.

Roberts, J. (1978). The Irish Setter. London: Popular Dogs Publishing Company Limited.