Republican News · Thursday 25 February 1999

[An Phoblacht]

Let the children gallop

The story of communities' efforts to give urban kids the chance to hold onto their beloved horses and ponies

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 McElligott, Ballymun.

``They took the horses off the kids and said we had to own land to own a horse. 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.''

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.''

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.
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 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'', Johnny says.

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 altogether!'

``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?

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