Let the children gallop
The story of communities' efforts to give urban kids the
chance to hold onto their beloved horses and ponies
``They took the horses off the kids and said we had to own land to own
They came in the middle of the night with horse boxes and took the
kids' ponies away, took them from Ballymun to Cork, just as far as
they could go, to a high fenced pound with security men to stop the
kids getting their own horses back.''
It's flesh and blood, caring for a live animal. You can't just take
the thing a kid loves most in the world, you can't just take it away
Victoria McElligott, Ballymun.
Victoria McElligott, of Ballymun, is talking about what has happened
in the working class areas of Dublin since the government began
implementing the Control of Horses Act, introduced three years ago by
the Rainbow government. In the face of a media-led outcry about the
dangers of wandering horses to passing traffic and AA patrol reports
of `snarl ups' as `fleets of uncontrolled horses' meandered their
happy way through the traffic jams, the government resorted to the
usual draconian legislation..
The Act gave gardai or council officials power to seize and detain
any horse which didn't have proper identification or a licence to
live in a controlled area.
Familiar stuff to Republicans, or people in Soweto. The only
difference, of course, is that these restrictionss are about ponies,
not people. But of course that is not true. For kids, dieting on
materialism, wanting and craving consumer goods, dead things, this
was something different.
``It's flesh and blood, caring for a live animal. You can't just take
the thing a kid loves most in the world, you can't just take it away
on him,'' Victoria explains.
But they did. And they did it all over the place, in Tallaght, Cherry
Orchard, Quarryvale, Coolock, and Finglas.
Initially, there were protests to stop or at least alter the
legislation. Ponies came trotting into Leinster House, but to no
avail. No one was very much bothered about the ponies or their owners
or what they wanted out of life.
Johnny Phelan was one of the first to make it possible for kids to
hold onto their horses. In Fettercairn, just beside the community
centre, about 40 kids and parents got together. They fenced off 13
acres on a large stretch of undeveloped land behind the houses. There
were at least 25 horses, of `all makes and sizes'. The Tallaght
Partnership got involved and with the help of a great community youth
worker, Shelann Monaghan, they set about trying to raise funds for a
project which would enable children to keep horses and to feed and
care for them.
Since then, this pilot project has grown to involve a whole
community. It costs money to feed horses. Parents and their children,
if they want to keep a horse in the area, sell tickets every week to
cover their costs. The Fettercairn Youth Horse Project is also one of
several clubs in Tallaght that jointly run weekly discos for the
young people in the area.
The profits are shared out between the different clubs. A lot of
people have backed the project, including the International League
for the Protection of Horses, the RDS, and the Friends of Ireland,
which has subscribed generously, and of course the government, which,
as part of the Department of Agriculture's budget allocated £324,000
to the project.
Already some of the money is on stream and a long stretch of
fenced-in land has been levelled. Big enough for a gallop. The dreams
of the project have grown apace.
There is 13-year-old Gary Gibson, finishing the stable he has built
himself from scrap wood. Damien Wynne proudly shows his handsome
horse called `Tonto'. Someone tells him `Tonto' means stupid in
Spanish. The young people just laugh. Damien also has a foal, as
quiet as a mouse. ``We'd be up first thing before school to feed them.
See they are OK.''
All of which goes to prove how well the kids look after and care for
their ponies. The kids have won a life through the ponies.
The Government set aside £2.75 million to deal with the urban horse
issue: £2 million to lift the horses, and £750,000 to help community
projects connected with horses.
The plan is for stabling for at least 20 horses, plus tack rooms,
food stores, an all-weather arena to trot around, and a jumping
arena. They also plan training modules in stable management and a
veterinary module, hoping, down the road, to enable young people to
work in the horse industry.
Already, a couple of young people from the project work up on a local
farm at evenings and weekends, where the project buys its fodder.
Over the last two years, several young people from the project were
taken on by the RDS to put up the fences that Eddie Macken and others
knock down at the horse show. ``We think it has had a major impact
among the kids, but it's nothing like the impact it is going to
have,'' says Johnny Phelan, who has probably done more than anyone to
get this pilot project going, along with his son Declan and other
older young people who won't have the benefit of keeping their horses
there. ``But they will still be involved in the project, I hope'',
As it was, the Government set aside £2.75 million to deal with the
urban horse issue: £2 million to lift the horses, and £750,000 to
help community projects connected with horses.
So far Ballymun has not seen much of this project money. To get the
horses licensed they had to prove they had a place to keep them.
``Sure where are we going to be buying land for to keep a horse on
living in the flats here?'' asks Victoria.
``They came lifting the horses all over the place. There were over 150
horses when this started. Now we've only about 50 left. The kids were
hiding them all over the place. Remember the film `Urban Cowboys' and
the kids riding off out to sea, and the pony in the kitchen? `Get
that pony's nose out of the sugar bowl - in fact, get him out of here
``It was hard for the kids. We went down to Cork to get some back. It
was a huge ritual to get them. They wouldn't let us near the pound.
We had to wait down the road while the security people went off for
them. They charged us for their taking our horses away - £500.
``They wanted to foster our horses for us - give them to people who
were much better off than ourselves. The kids would be allowed to
come and visit them sometimes. One night, a few of our lads went off
down to Cork to take them back themselves. There was security
everywhere. The lads got stuck in a bog, drowned up to their necks.
They got back, soaked into the trailer, and all stripped off to dry
out. What anyone would have thought if
they'd been stopped.'' Victoria laughs.
``In the end we got fed up with it, them taking the ponies away from
the kids. We had a Working Men's club, which was ours. We'd raised
the money for it and it hadn't worked out. They wouldn't give us a
licence for the bar. A bar without any drink. So the horses squatted
it, and that's where we are keeping them now. There's about 46 of
them. Well they are not all in the bar. It was a family centre and
recreation area too,'' Victoria explains.
``We've a bit of trouble with the horse manure. The Corpo won't take
it away - they say it's not domestic refuse. We tried the organics
people, but in the end they wouldn't take it because we use wood
chippings, not straw, and you crunch that in a lettuce and it
wouldn't go down well.''
Now, with the Ballymun redevelopment and the social mix that BRL are
trying to build on, will there be much room for horses?
``They'd want to start off getting a social mix in the prisons first,''
Victoria replies. But so far, subject to planning permission, seven
acres has been set aside for the horses in the Redevelopment project.
``But at the end of the day,'' says Victoria, ``it's their problem. It's
up to the government to pay for the situation they made for us.''
``We've raised about £250,000 from philanthropists. Decent people, who
want to help. A bit like the `Pony Kids' exhibition of photographs,
(now at the Hugh Lane Gallery), where there was Bono and all at the
opening. I mean he is great, but I heard things like `Goodness me!
How much I'd lerve to paint that child'. I'd say he'd love to be
painted if you'd give him a stable.
``And they say they are going to close off Smithfield too, where the
kids get their horses. They don't like the neighing in the mornings
for the people who've moved into the £100,000 apartments. They'll
turn it into some exhibition or other, with traveller's wagons with
bells and ribbons on. `This is what life used to be like'. But that
was someone's life.''
Then there's Cherry Orchard. Like other working class areas, there is
a terrible dropout rate from schools. ``We're using their love of the
horses to get them back into education,'' says Suzanne Dillon of the
Cherry Orchard Equine and Education project. The Cherry Orchard
project is backed by Government and EU funds and Integra money.
Back in April 1997, a group of local people got together to do
something. There was nothing for the people here - just a church, a
community centre and a little shop for 1,200 houses, more than 5,000
people, 82% of them reckoned to be on Social Welfare. This is
Gallanstown, Croftswood, Clover Hill.
So a local group, joined by FAS, the VEC, EHB, and a community
development project called `Link', put together a development plan,
which will cost £2.2 million, with an indoor arena, an outdoor one,
classrooms, a cafeteria overlooking the arena, and a reception area.
They have to raise a further £370,000 to fit out the classrooms, but
11.1 acres have been set aside, and stabling is planned for 30
horses. Already, 17 young people have completed an education course
in horse management. There'll be lots more courses to take: catering,
horse care, computers and so on.
``We did a survey at the start of all this,'' says Suzanne, ``and we
found that one in six of the houses had a horse.''
How many have been taken away? Nobody knows. But Suzanne tells of how
the kids slept out, nights, in the park, to make sure the horses
didn't get taken on them.
Will they all be able to come into the project?
``Suitable local horses can come in.''
Along with suitable owners? Sure, it takes all types. And will the
children of Ballymun still be riding off into the sunset, bareback,
in halters, to surf the waves?