Urban Cowboys

by Oriana Kraemer

I am back in Dublin. My first day back on the island is a Sunday. To be precise it is the first Sunday of the month and that means one of my favourite Dublin events is about to happen, just around the corner from my house: the Smithfield Horse Market. What a spectacle! All morning the air is filled with the sound of galloping horses and young boys speed past my window on unsaddled ponies or light agile carts. The street echoes back their yells and the clip-clop accumulates to a never-ending storm.

The monthly Smithfield Horse market is one of Dublin’s oldest traditions that attracts farmers and horse traders from all over Ireland. Main protagonists among the traders are Irish travellers, a nomadic ethnic minority of Irish origin. However, during the 1960s the market attracted a new type of customer: bored kids from the inner city council estates who have since come to buy cheap ponies at prices as low as 10 €! Until today these so-called urban cowboys ride their animals through Dublin’s tarmac streets, let them graze on public fields and keep them in homemade stables in city housing estates and deprived suburban areas. Complaints about animal cruelty and abandoned horses around town have led to The Control of Horse Act of 1996 that officially outlawed these kids: “In some parts of the country (particularly urban areas), there are problems with horses straying, roaming, causing danger on roads and being ridden without proper restraint by underage riders. In areas where these problems exist, your local authority can name the area a “Control Area”. If you own a horse and keep your horse in a Control area, you must obtain a horse licence, issued by your local authority. Failure to have a horse licence in a Control Area can mean an on-the-spot fine or it could mean that your horse will be seized and impounded.”

Originally designed as a market place and lined with inner city ‘farm yards’ housing livestock,  Smithfield Square has been redeveloped in the late nineties which has created a striking contrast to the horse market. New luxury apartment buildings with public functions on the ground floor, such as restaurants, cafés, a cinema and an expensive supermarket now line the square. With many new residents, uncomfortable with its atmosphere, noise, perceptions of animal abuse and neglect, and occasional bouts of violence amongst a minority of animal traders, the city council is continuing its efforts to move the centuries-old horse market out of the area. For now discreet police presence is established to maintain order. However legal disputes between the city council and the market’s defenders are ongoing without any clear resolution ahead.

At least until now Smithfield square has continued to host this peculiar manifestation of Dublin’s unique subculture every first Sunday of the month. Here you can really get a sense of how Dublin’s street life must have been like not that long ago and how it actually still is in many places. To understand the atmosphere I am talking about, please check out these fantastic photographs on Irish urban horse culture by James Horan. You couldn’t get a better insight…