The tale actually began long ago and far away in the land of Ireland, the Emerald Isle, land of legends and the country of origin for the Irish Red Setter breed. Americans can relate to those freedom loving Irishmen who prize their hunting dogs. There is a sameness with which to identify. The Irish developed an awesome setter dog of red and white or chestnut and white color specifically to hunt the rugged terrain of the Irish moors. Speculation suggests a blend of English Setter, Pointer, Gordon Setter, both land and water spaniel as probable contributors to the Irish Red Setter which became well established as a recognizable breed by the year 1800. Sportsmen of old reveal clues that the finest hunting dog that ever lived was the great Gaelic Modder Rhu. Herewith, the red dog’s reputation spread far and wide and its seed salted the earth. In time public demand for solid red prevailed over red and white, but many modern breed representatives carry traces of white on chest, fore skull, muzzle or feet which is duly accorded by the native Irish Standard. Some hint that solid red marks a lesser dog in the field.
Days of Glory
Red Dogs reached American shores by the 1860s in the embodiment of celebrated forebears Plunket and Elcho, in addition the progeny of Palmerston, Garryowen and many others from Ireland and Great Britain. These imports were of medium size and outstanding working ability. American dog fanciers soon organized informal field trials and bench shows, the same dogs commonly competing in both. Irish Reds were early winners, consistently and decisively. The American Field, also known as Field Dog Stud Book, or FDSB, was established in 1874, the world’s oldest dog registry. It became the magistracy of field trials and sporting breeds, the very center of American birddogdom. Americans of those times, like the originators, had developed their own native strains prior to a later onslaught of purebred importation. The native setters could be registered as “crossbreeds ” in the National American Kennel Club Stud Book which was established in 1878 and later became the American Kennel Club, or AKC. It was conventional practice among our forefathers to interbreed native stock with European purebred and registered imports which yielded registrable get. Thus a routine of double or dual registration was habituated in certain sporting breeds. That era of field trial history was the heyday of the Irish Red Setter in this country. He was at the top of his game as a favorite, even with the English Setter by all accounts, for the Pointer had not yet arrived as a dominant force. The Irish Reds ruled that field trial scene of old and were much beloved of American sportsmen.
People were not much different then than they are now. Soon hot debate ensued among the sportsminded as to the merits of imported purebreds versus the native setters. The question was settled in 1879 in a famous duel between imported Gladstone, the top blueblood English Setter of the day, and the native Irish Red Setter, Joe Jr., America’s own top brag dog. Joe was a product of the celebrated and fiercely competitive Campbell kennels of Tennessee , a son of imported Elcho and the Irish/English crossbred, Buck Jr. He was red with a white blaze and white rear toes and a registered Irish Setter (which America was calling the breed). Both champions performed admirably for three days of intense competition in the foulest of weather conditions. Joe emerged victorious, on but three good legs from a second day injury, by a score of 61 finds to 52. A native Irish Setter had proven to be the best field trial dog in America!
By the turn of the century, America’s Modder Rhu was in decline as a field dog. English bluebloods were more popular and bench shows were the fashion. The show fancy, captivated by Irish Setter beauty, took over the breed and began to call it their own. The Irishman was a huge star in the show ring, but his formerly treasured hunting skills were sadly neglected as a reason for breeding. And though a national AKC affiliated parent club, The Irish Setter Club of America, had been formed for promotion of the breed, show interests dominated many times over. Adding to these troubles, the prestige and popularity of purebred dogs brought an immovable and generally accepted new concept that, once type and character traits were set in a breed, it was not to be disturbed. Since the show-oriented majority established and controlled type and it was no longer following a route of functional need, ability and sporting reputation plummeted simultaneously. The Reds dropped out of prominence at field trials. The inevitable byproduct was a sportsman’s worst nightmare, the unbearable loss of respect among peers. For what true sportsman fails to take pride in his bird dog? Irish Setters became an almost forgotten hunting breed, except for a few diehards who refused to let go and others who mourned the loss of a great competitor. English Setters and Pointers, their breeders of more progressive sporting orientation, leaped ahead to new feats of speed and endurance for horseback application and enhanced expressions of pointing style. White dogs left the Red dog in their dust!
There were a few small victories for Red in the first half of the twentieth century but 1900-1920 yielded only twenty field trial placements, five of which were earned by Otto Pohl’s memorable “Law” strain. The great Smada Byrd of Law lineage, arrived on the field trial scene in the twenties. She was proudly owned by Hall of Famer, Horace Lytle, a well known sports writer who handled her to glory in the field. Lytle followed up with engaging stories of Byrd’s prowess for an admiring public, sparking renewed interest in the sporting Irish Setter. American sportsmen continued to cultivate the sparse working strains and import Irish Red Setters from both Ireland and Britain with modest success, though no notable consistency in sufficient quantity was forthcoming. But the hunting blood was kept alive, nurtured by a scant few devotees across the nation.
Events transpired in the late 1940s that changed the future forever. The Irish Red Setter, Rufus Mc Tybe O’Cloisters of the Berolsheimer Kennels, was winning consistently. In 1950 he was named runner up in the National Amateur Chicken Championship! A national caliber Irish Setter win to celebrate and savor! This unprecedented event was the catalyst that generated an explosion of hope among the diehards and mourners of lost Irish finesse. Horace Lytle, who had by then moved on to “white dogs,” took a stand and courageously released his controversial article in the January 1950 issue of Sports Afield. “Irish Setters in the Field” suggested the infusion of English Setter blood to regenerate the ailing Irishman. The Red Dog was a “goner as a bird dog,” he said, “unless someone seriously undertook its salvation.” Hadn’t the Irish Setter bestowed genetic gifts to the English Setter in previous days and times of wanting? Both Laverack and Llewellin were known to have used Irish Setter blood to strengthen their strains. Why not collect repayment? This very idea and open public criticism inflamed the Irish Setter show fancy but Lytle was soon supported by “Old Fashioned Religion,” a blistering dissertation by Henry Betten in The American Field Journal. The title reference, one can assume, called for a return to the glory days of Joe Jr. and the success of the native bred setters. Back to the beginning and a fresh start from scratch, minus the mistakes and under the direct guidance of the sporting faithful! That was the proposed solution. Other respected men of the bird dog fraternity stepped forward in agreement, Henry P. Davis, John Stetson and Nash Buckingham vocally supported the cause. A challenge of the highest order had been issued and awaited a champion of inordinate courage and heart.
W. E (Ned) LeGrande of Pennsylvania was that champion. The decision was made in the aftermath of his attendance at an Irish Setter field trial in the east in which he observed first hand the disappointing deterioration of it’s hunting skills. According to those who knew him, LeGrande was no ordinary individual by any stretch of the imagination. Once he set his mind on a task, it might as well have been set in stone. He was a leader and a visionary. It was the right ingredients for the dauntless challenge. LeGrande’s plan was well thought out. He knew the road ahead would be long, difficult and fraught with opposition, that he would require expert advice and support, that it couldn’t be accomplished alone if at all. He was determined to do it rightly and openly. He contacted Lytle, Betten, Davis and Bill Brown of The American Field/ Field Dog Stud Book and received their enthusiastic support. It was worked out that upon three generations bred pure after a cross breeding, the fourth could be registered as pure bred Irish Setter. From there it could be registered with the American Kennel Club through existing reciprocal registration agreements. He sought the expert guidance of the renowned geneticist, Dr. Leon Whitney and canine locomotion expert, McDonald Lyon. He read the history books on birds dogs and Irish Setters, saw the ingredients that made up the sporting breeds and kept an extensive library. He drew supporters from Irish Setter ranks to join the effort: Rusty Baynard, Arch Church, Herm David, Dave Hassinger and others from around the country. Herm David wrote “for a time during 1951 we looked to the existent breed club for leadership but found neither interest nor understanding.” As a result, they founded the National Red Setter Field Trial Club and dubbed their sacred mission “The Purest Challenge in Sportsdom.” They would give the resurrected Irish Setters the call name “Red Setters” as they are known in Ireland, their country of origin, reclaiming sporting heritage and differentiating them from American show counterparts that had taken an alternate route. Red Setters are, however, registered Irish Setters. Thus the National Red Setter Field Trial Club banner flew with the Field Dog Stud Book.
The LeGrande team consummated the first of many crossbreedings using Lytle’s “Illsey’s Chip”, a son of the 1946 National Champion, the English Setter “Mississippi Zev”, of known Campbell and Irish Setter ancestry and LeGrande’s, “Willow Winds Smada” of “ Smada Byrd” and “Law” descent. The first step was thus fulfilled. The progeny was bred back to pure Irish Setters as prescribed and ultimately registered as purebreds. LeGrande called far and wide in persistent advertisements for the best remaining sportsworthy Irish Setters in the country and began an extensive breeding/rebuilding program. The founding Irish Setters carried the blood of the native setters, outstanding imports and good old hunting strains. He purchased Willow Winds Mike out of Virginia, our great founding dam, Askew’s Carolina Lady, from North Carolina and imported Sulhamstead Norse D’or from Florence Nagle’s famous kennels in England. Ordinary was not in LeGrande’s vocabulary. He dreamed of a Red Setter that could hunt and compete with class against America’s finest. Said LeGrande much later, “The English Setter repaid it’s debt to the Irish Setter gene pool so that, forever after, it was possible to breed Red Setters with early point, high tails, good shooting dog range, beautiful gait and most of all bird sense, all with intensity and desire.”
It is said that it took ten years to get the Red Setters where LeGrande wanted them, but they soon began to win at the trials. Others joined the Red Setter band wagon and contributed early on: Schnettler, Bean, Flythe, Bruns, Cargo, Martin, Lewis, Head, and many more. It was a time of dedicated men and emerging winners! According to Thompson’s “ New Complete Irish Setter,” “the LeGrande setters and their progeny placed in more than 500 recognized trials by actual count in the first thirteen years following 1952”, adding “What a far reaching accomplishment this is!” Great Red Setter heroes were born and live on in our memories as field trial winners and founders of modern lines. There were many, the great Lady herself, her famous son, Ike Jack Kendrick, The dogs of Willow Wind, Rusty’s Jinx, Youtz’s Red, Mr. O’Leary, Double Jay, The Dude, Moffat’s Apache Bill, Valli Hi Country, Clancy O’Ryan, The Saturday Night and County Clare Dogs, Shawn of Kaymar, Carlisle Emerald Jewel, Budwing and so many others. It was a proud era in the history of the Reds.
No one could have predicted trouble on the rose colored horizon, but there were old and new scores to be settled. Red Setters were beginning to win in all breed competition and they devastated AKC Irish Setter trials, many of which were closed to other breeds in those days. The Irish Setter Club of America was promoting a new fashioned dual type of Irish Setter in the field. This was a much larger dog of more extreme proportions and coat which had the attributes required to win in the American show ring. Simply not bred for performance, they were outclassed by the agile, competent Red Setters in field competitions across the nation. National Reds were reaping titles and dashing dreams. Values and goals for the breed within the two national clubs were worlds apart. The “type and purity” stigma weighed heavily against the Red Setters in the eyes of the show fancy. Perhaps what may have contributed even more to the discord was the heavily beaten path of ISCA field enthusiasts to Red Setter doors for breeding liaisons. Thus Red Setter lines were deeply absorbed into the dual and working gene pools of AKC Irish Setters coast to coast.
In 1975 The Irish Setter Club of America flexed its muscle as an AKC affiliated parent group and directed the American Kennel Club to withhold reciprocity from Irish Setters registered with the Field Dog Stud Book. This negated, for Irish Setters only, a long-standing automatic cross registration acceptance policy between the two registries, but the FDSB left its door open for the breed. The action was one-way and the Irish Setter is the only sporting breed to be denied reciprocity in American history. As a result there are Red Setters with double (both AKC and FDSB) registration and those that are purely FDSB depending upon an individual’s registration status when the ban occurred. The action forced field breeders to make conscious choices about national club affiliations and breeding prospects, limiting the small, combined working gene pools. Red Setters remain synonymous with the National Red Setter Field Trial Club and primarily run in all breed American Field trials. The so called “field Irish Setter” is double registered (AKC/FDSB), generally affiliates with The Irish Setter Club of America and primarily runs in trials sponsored by the American Kennel Club, but the blood of LeGrande’s breeding program flows deeply in each. Even today there is confusion about any differences between them. Both differ obviously and dramatically from the AKC show types but all are registered Irish Setters. The field Irish Setter is essentially a product and benefactor of “The Purest Challenge.” People and dogs continue to straddle the registration lines, run both ways, and sometimes belong to both national parent clubs. Interbreeding between field Irish and double registered Red Setters occurs frequently today, unhindered by the ISCA restriction. But Irish Red Setters registered purely with the FDSB are blocked from both AKC registration and AKC field events. A breeding between AKC and FDSB only Irish Setters results in the loss of AKC registration in the get.
In recent years The Field Advisory Committee of The Irish Setter Club of America has twice voted to lift the ban, going so far as to enlist the support of the Red Setter Club in a combined committee. The overall presumption, it is in the best interests of field oriented breeders to expand the limited working gene pool and mutually advance the cause of the sporting Irish Red Setter. Though a proposal was placed before the ISCA Board of Directors, it met with no acknowledgment, no hearing and no success. The American Field, on the other hand, has never doubted the integrity of the National Red Setter throughout its entire timeline of development.
Red Setters Today
Today’s Red Setter is medium sized, lean and well muscled, red or chestnut, often with traces of white on head, forechest and feet. Excepting it’s traditional American high tailed lofty stance, and application developed for American conditions, terrain and game, it is very similar to its working Irish forebears. Indeed the National Red Setter Field Trial Club continues to identify Red Setters with Ireland, the country of origin.
Today Red Setters are considered not only superb gunning companions but class competitors in all venues of field trial competition. From all breed walking stakes such as grouse trials, National Shoot to Retrieve, National Birdhunters and North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association trials to horseback shooting and championship stakes of the highest prestige, Red Setters are competing with honors. The Club holds a one hour National Open Championship and a Futurity each spring and a fall National Amateur Championship on some of America’s most hallowed championship grounds under distinguished judges. Championships and regular stakes are executed from horseback but an Amateur Walking stake is also offered at each Championship event.
To date nine Red Setters have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, the first of which was Askew’s Carolina Lady, elected in 1972 by popular vote. As a club we have never strayed from our original goal of breeding a class Red Setter performer. The key to improvement, we believe, is routine measurement against the toughest all breed competition. Today Red Setters hold their own in proportion to numbers competing. More than a few stand out in modern times for their impressive all breed championship wins: the great Abra and his remarkable record of 156-84-1298, Bearcat, Desperado, Celtic Sua Sponte, Fireboy, Zan Sett Pebo, Restless Red Rose and so many others. Our crowning glory, the legendary victory at Di-Lane Plantation, the 1996 Region 13 Amateur Shooting Dog Championship where Desperado was named champion, his illustrious sire, Bearcat, claiming Runner Up in a field of eighty top Pointers and Setters in their own heartland. With intense pride we acknowledge the late great Bearcat’s record of 158 wins. That beats out all other pointing breeds in the history of American Field trials including the “white dogs”! Incredibly, a Red Setter also holds second place in that category, Abra’s awesome record of 156! The promising trend continues in their descendants with banner carriers Prosper and Rock The World. Our eyes are fixed on the road ahead and the world.
Only the spirits can define or foresee the limits of Red Setter achievement. With heart and hunger, the luck of the Irish, we behold the distant moor. Forward pattern! Steady! Steady on the course!
The search for greatness in the course of pointing breed history can be likened to the quest for the Holy Grail. What inspiration drives dedicated men to feats of honor in the name of bird dogs? In the case of the Red Setter, perhaps distant memories of former glory when native, Joe Jr. was America’s best and Rufus proved it could still be done. Prefacing the compelling 1950 Lytle article that started a revolution in Irish Setters is the following introduction by an unknown author, speaking of the unforgettable Smada Byrd: “ Surely the bright flame of her fame cast a ray of encouragement through the gloom of a lot of dark days of little hope. Thank you Byrd, for keeping us in the search. And thanks to Horace Lytle for sowing the Red Setter seed.” Out of it came the dam of working Irish Setters in America, Askew’s Carolina Lady, and the rest of the Rebel Reds.
Old spirits urge us onward!
A persistent nagging thought moved me to search for the date of the popular Jim Kjelgaard novel “Big Red,” which endeared the entire world to the Irish Reds so many years ago. It was 1949……..when stars proceeded to line up a certain way, as if preordained, and a time of hope and vision was born in men who prize the Irish hunting dogs of flaming red hue.
For additional historical details, please feel free to refer to founding writings, articles and assessments accessible at this web site and the recently released book by our old friend, renowned bird dog journalist and Hall of Famer, the late Truman Cowles.