The origin of the Irish Setter dates back to the early 1700s in Ireland. By the early 1800s, the breed was firmly established not only in its homeland but throughout the British Isles. While its precise ancestry is the subject of debate, some speculate that the Irish Setter descends from crosses of Irish Water Spaniels and Irish Terriers. According to other experts, it is more likely that the breed’s progenitors were English Setters crossed with Irish Water Spaniels, Springer Spaniels and Pointers, with some Gordon Setter blood thrown into the mix.
The solid red setter first appeared in Ireland in the 19th century. Its earliest ancestors primarily were red and white. The breed was developed to locate birds with its keen sense of smell and, once the prey was discovered, to hold its position (instead of chasing the birds) to avoid entering the line of fire. The first Irish Setters were imported to America in the 1800s to work as gundogs on game, particularly ruffed grouse, quail, prairie chickens, woodcock, partridge, pheasant, wild duck and teal. A legendary setter named Elcho, imported from Ireland to the United States in 1875, was one of the first of his breed to be a phenomenal success in both the show ring and the field. However, most sportsmen did not continue breeding and refining the Irish Setter for public field trial competitions. The Llewellin Setter and the Pointer eventually cornered the market in that sport, although the Irish Setter remains a competent hunting companion and high-class shooting dog, pointer and retriever in its own right.
The physical beauty of this breed, together with its happy-go-lucky, rollicking disposition, made it highly sought after as a show dog. By the mid-1900s, many fanciers bred the Irish Setter more for flashiness than for hunting skills. It has been suggested that some show breeders crossed the Irish Setter with the Borzoi to give it a lankier, more elongated look, although if this practice occurred it was quickly nipped in the bud by breed traditionalists. Today, many breeders are working to reestablish the Irish Setter’s bold field abilities without sacrificing proper conformation, color, temperament and breed type. These attributes are not incompatible.
The average life expectancy for the Irish Setter is 11 to 14 years. Breed health concerns may include arthritis, bloat (gastric dilatation and volvulus), canine leukocyte adhesion deficiency, entropion, eversion of the cartilage of the nictitating membrane, corneal ulceration, epilepsy, hip dysplasia, hypertrophic osteodystrophy, hypothyroidism, insulinoma, Irish Setter hypochondroplasia, congenital idiopathic megaesophagus, melanoma, vascular ring anomaly, osteosarcoma, patent ductus arteriosus, progressive retinal atrophy and von Willebrand disease.