Jamie Goldrick dons his rain gear and heads out for a very wet early morning start to Smithfield Square. There he finds a controversial and almost ancient event. One that lures hordes of camera wielding tourists yet divides public opinion and finds itself being pushed out of the city.
There’s been a couple of incidents at the horse fair over the past few years which stand out. A man was shot with a handmade gun in 2011, more famously a horse mounted a member of the Gardai. The event has since been cut from a monthly to a bi-annual event, the fair is getting smaller and smaller each year. Today March 1st, there are only 70 animals registered.
I am a little curious what to expect as I turn onto Smithfield Square from North King St. Immediately I notice that half the square is cordoned off with large metal fences, the center resembles a large cage. There are hi-vis vests everywhere. The horses aren’t even here and I can spot large groups of Gardai huddled together talking shite and laughing. I haven’t seen this many Gardai since the water meter protests. There are DSPCA in vests walking around, countless security guards, even the civil defence is here. There are some fire extinguishers sitting in strategic spots around the square too. Just in case the cobblestones go on fire
The horses have to walk in from the Bow street side about 200 metres away. At 10am, the traders start to bring their animals in after all formalities have been completed. There are about 200 people here; a mix of locals, Travellers and confused tourists that have come out of the adjacent youth hostel. It’s 11 O’Clock and it soon becomes apparent that no more animals will be arriving. There are no more than 25 here.
The event has become a spectacle. Amongst the groups of trader, there are hordes of photographers skulking around, not conversing, just stealing shots from a distance. The whole situation is pretty ridiculous. At one point, the owner of three white ponies asks everyone to stop taking photos. At 11am it starts pissing rain. First to leave are the photographers and 20 minutes later when it’s apparent that it’s not going to stop, the traders. One visibly annoyed trader tells me what an absolute waste of a time today was. As far as I am aware, no animals were sold.
The West of the square is flanked by a huge development of hundreds of apartments, which were given the go-ahead as part of the Historic Area Rejuvenation Plan of 2007. The square was established in 1664. Horses appear to have been officially sold here from the late 1800s.
In years gone by, the horse fair took place on the first Sunday of every month and was well attended by locals, farmers and Travellers alike. These days, the authorities simply do not want the fair. The city council and the Gardai maintain there are health and safety issues, not to mention animal welfare concerns. Supporters of the horse-fair accuse the establishment of racism against the Travelling community, and acquiescing to (newly moved in) businesses and residents. There’s a repeated sentiment that before urban renewal, the authorities did not give a shit about the horse fair.
These days the authorities do their best to stop the fair from happening. As the space allocated to the market gets smaller over time, the regulation increases. This acts to strangle a traditional market that authorities believe has no place in a modern Dublin.
Smithfield today is a void. It is a space people simply pass through. People do not congregate here, nor are they meant to stay here for any amount of time. The cleverly designed benches see to this. The authorities hope the space reminds us of old Dublin.
There are multiple symbols of the past on the square. The peculiar lights resemble the masts of Viking ships to signify their historic association with the area. The old Jameson Distillery is now converted to an observation deck to view the city. There are three pathetic looking wooden animals outside Fresh supermarket to signify the agricultural heritage that the square possesses. In doing this, the horse fair has been lumped in with the Vikings and the Distillery. Confined to history. Twice a year though, history actually shows up and bites the urban planners in the ass. Culture is to be celebrated here in Dublin you see, but only at arms length. There is no room for horse shit in Dublin Corporations version.
There were plans to move the horse fair to a greenfield site but this fell through after the economic crisis hit Ireland in 2008. Combine this broken promise with a failed opportunity to integrate the horse fair into the existing development plan and what results is a horse fair that has nowhere to go with no alternatives being offered. The state then asserts its ownership over Smithfield using bureaucracy and red tape through the presence of the DSPCA, excessive amounts of Gardai (including the Gardai surveillance vehicle), private security guards and the Civil Defence.
It’s been a depressing morning so far, I am not too hopeful for the future of the horse fair, but subsequent events make me think again. In the center of the square stands a solitary horse and its owner. The last ones left, they cast a lonely shadow out there on the square.
I ask him if he had any potential buyers for the horse and he told me that the horse is not for sale, he is just there to “make up the numbers”. The gang of Gardai and private security guards huddled under a balcony are looking over wondering when the fuck is this guy going to leave so they can finish up.
It’s an act of defiance which proclaims that this is our culture and we are not going away.
Photos by Jamie Goldrick