A Google search for “Boatswain” will return literally millions of results all explaining that the word refers to a Naval officer. Add the word “dog” to the search for Boatswain, and roughly 500,000 entries will show up, all having to do with either the Newfoundland dog named “Boatswain” owned by the British poet, Lord Byron, or the poem he wrote, “Epitaph to a Dog” after Boatswain died of rabies.
Born in 1803, Byron’s Newfoundland was the original “Boatswain,” but a little over thirty years later, another Boatswain would be born who would be recorded in history books not because of a poem written in his honor, but because the dog is considered the father of his breed, the Irish Water Spaniel.
Irish Water Spaniel Boatswain’s story begins with Justin McCarthy, a 19th century Dubliner sportsman who kept a kennel of superb working water dogs. While he is often credited with “inventing” the IWS, it’s more likely that McCarthy isolated and refined the Irish Water Spaniel out of two well documented breeds in their time, the wavy coated Northern Water Spaniel, and the curly coated Shannon Spaniel of southern Ireland, and honed the results into a distinct and repeatable type. In truth, no really knows what dogs went into the final version. What we do know for certain is that with Boatswain’s birth, the first Irish Water Spaniel as we know the breed today came to be, a fixed and individual type with no inclination to diverge from it. We also know from letters that McCarthy wrote to the periodical, The Field, that “bitches from all parts of Ireland ‘of the proper type’ had been sent to Boatswain for breeding.”
Boatswain’s descendants were first shown at the Birmingham Show in 1862, and most believe that this is how the IWS became listed in the First English Stud book making the transition from a working water dog to one of our oldest breeds.
Boatswain, himself, lived to the age of 18 and was active and in good condition, but if one account we read is to be believed, McCarthy had the old dog destroyed when he needed to go abroad, and feared for what would become of old Boatwain when he left. The rest of his dogs were given to a Mr. Tuffnell, of Dublin. It was one of Boatswain’s sons, “Jack,” who would prove the value of his sire, noted as he was for breeding winning dogs. The rest, as they say, is breed history.
Image of Irish Water Spaniel found on Pinterest and happily credited upon receipt of information