Ireland’s first dog show: A £5,000 dog and a ‘perpetual growl’

The 19th century saw new breeding methods and growing enthusiasm for pets

Prize Dogs at the Dublin Dog Show, an image of the first dog show in 1864, from the Illustrated London News. Image courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin

In the spring of 1864, Dubliners gathered at a new entertainment. They paid one shilling to enter an inauspicious wooden building behind the Rotunda Hospital while their senses were assaulted by the smells and sounds of more than 450 dogs housed within. Newspapers claimed that the “perpetual growl” of the canine contestants in Ireland’s first dog show could be heard from several blocks away. A military band added to the cacophony.

The dog show was a Victorian invention that ushered in a whole new way of breeding and keeping dogs. Before dog shows, gentlemen farmers kept stud books for prize livestock and racehorses, but dogs were bred less systematically. After dog shows, dog breeding moved from an amateur enthusiasm to a booming business with its own pedigree lineages, stud books and outlandish stud fees.

People had kept and bred dogs for centuries, but the 19th century marked something new. New breeds proliferated and old breeds were remade to new aesthetic standards. The two German shepherds who will be sharing the White House with Joe and Jill Biden are an invention of 19th-century breeders. The red-and-white Irish setter almost went extinct when breeders decided that all setters should have a solid blood-red coat like Garryowen. Breeders even recreated lost breeds like the Irish wolfhound. The English Kennel Club established breed standards that determined the shape, size and colour of most of the dogs we see today.


A better understanding of inheritance helped breeders during the 19th century, but they were also bolstered by a growing middle-class enthusiasm for pets. Dogs became expensive commodities and buyers sought evidence of pedigree. Like gentlemen farmers with prized pigs, the urban middle-classes displayed their status with prized pets. As in shows of livestock, show dogs always displayed a price. One exhibitor to the first Dublin show asked a whopping £5,000 for their dog. The Irish Times reported that visitors gathered to look at the dog “with a view, no doubt, to discover whether he was made of gold”.


<a class="search" href='javascript:window.parent.actionEventData({$contentId:"7.1213540", $action:"view", $target:"work"})' polopoly:contentid="7.1213540" polopoly:searchtag="tag_person">Michael Collins</a> bred Kerry Blue terriers and sponsored prizes at the annual round of dog shows

Shops sold silver dog collars, silver dog whistles and expensive medicines, while breeders offered stud services at prices as high as that for horses. Bereaved owners advertised substantial rewards for strayed or stolen pets. A new dog tax, introduced in 1865, added to the cost of owning a dog and was intended to deter poorer people from keeping “useless” pets. Dogs were to be “logged” or kept on leads, and straying dogs were rounded up and euthanised.

Irish canine enthusiasts established an Irish Kennel Club during the 1870s. Distinctively Irish breeds of dogs, and Irish dog breeders, appeared in shows across the United Kingdom and in America. Artists such as William Osborne (father of the more famous Walter Osborne) made a living by painting portraits of pet dogs.

Household pet

The dog, always a companion, became a household pet who lived in the home and was walked in the park.

And this was not some English Victorian fad that would pass with Independence. At the turn of the century the Irish Kennel Club had been a subsidiary of the English Kennel Club. The foundation of the Free State was swiftly followed by the establishment of an independent Irish Kennel Club with the aim of improving Irish dog breeds.

Irish nationalists enthusiastically partook of the trend for dog showing. Michael Collins bred Kerry Blue terriers and sponsored prizes at the annual round of dog shows. The breed's popularity encouraged the establishment of a Kerry Blue society with its own shows.

Ireland still loves a dog show, but now if you visit the National Show Centre in Dublin, it's because you're getting a Covid test. Instead of paying a shilling at the door you'll be handed a plastic pack with a surgical mask and directions about self-isolating. While you queue, you can look up at the portraits of prize-winning dogs of the past and imagine the hall echoing with their barks in a post-Covid future.

Juliana Adelman’s new book, Civilised by Beasts: Animals and Urban Change in 19th-Century Dublin, is published by Manchester University Press