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On the road: Horse markets in Dublin

I’ve been to Dublin several times before. The first was in the late nineties, not long after the Celtic Tiger had swaggered into view and U2’s hotel, The Clarence, was the swankiest place in town – indeed, the only really swanky place in town – with a sighting of Andrea Corr and/or Robbie Williams pretty much guaranteed in the room rate.

The last time was a couple of years ago, when I barely noticed the city at all. I was there to meet a boyfriend’s family for the first time, and was so concerned about the impression I was making that I wouldn’t have noticed if the statue of Phil Lynott at St. Stephen’s Green had come to life and performed for me a personalised medley of Thin Lizzy hits.

This time, I had no such distractions, and was determined to get a measure of noughties Dublin. As we all know, the Tiger has since sloped out of Ireland, leaving destruction in its wake, but the capital’s centre doesn’t appear too crippled. Shoppers cram down Grafton Street like migrating salmon, a wealth of coffee shops indicates a buoyant market for EUR 3 flat whites and, in the posh Georgian district, businessmen emerge merry from long, expense-account lunches. The city’s trademark conviviality is still evident: those tiny transactions you have dozens of times a day are noticeably more good-natured here than in other capital cities.

Of course, however bad an economic downturn there will always be rich people, and a city’s commercial centre often isn’t representative of the place as a whole - particularly so in such a compact, well-visited place as Dublin. Its centre is populated with non-Irish, be they students, Guinness-soaked stag parties singing along to the buskers or tourists getting their photos taken in front of Molly Malone’s exposed bronze bosom. 

However, not much effort is needed to see a different side of the city. The working class Liberties neighbourhood is right next to touristy Temple Bar yet appears barely touched by gentrification, whilst other areas, particularly on the north of the river, feel halfway through the process, resulting in an interesting juxtaposition of the traditional and the new.

It was during a Sunday morning walk through the Smithfield district on the northern side of the Liffey that I came across the horse market. I knew that the area had been famous for its equine fairs but believed that they had been phased out since the regeneration. However, as I passed, I noticed a police presence, and then heard an unmistakable whinny. 

It was, admittedly, a small gathering, but a striking one nonetheless: in Smithfield’s large cobbled plaza, surrounded by million-euro flats, empty office units and a sizeable contingent of bored-looking police, were around twenty horses. Most were small, scruffy ponies in the charge of those I believe are known as ‘urban cowboys’: tracksuited men too big for their steeds and whose attire and conduct – cantering on hard ground, no hats - would certainly not pass muster with The Pony Club.

I discovered that, despite attempts by authorities and animal protection agencies to close down the markets, an ancient by-law meant that people were still entitled to trade at Smithfield, and these gatherings occasionally sprang up. Horses were often sold very cheaply, and not in good health, hence the controversy.

As I watched the proceedings, along with a small group of passers-by, into the motley crowd rode a pretty young woman on a magnificent Dutch Friesian stallion. They could have been from a different planet: thoroughbred, perfectly groomed, ready for the Horse of the Year Show. Dazzled, I approached and asked if I could take her picture; she agreed, and explained that she was here not to sell her splendid beast but to advertise it for breeding purposes.

A while later, as I continued on my way, I thought how the scene seemed a good portrait of contemporary Dublin. And also, how, by approaching the woman for a photo rather than one of the men, I had fallen prey to the common temptation when exploring cities – to favour the good-looking and smart over the scruffy and modest, when it’s often in the latter that you find the real story.  

Lottie@GuidePal in Dublin.