Smithfield Horse Fair - Photo by: Madeleine Delp Bergsjø

An almost empty market place at todays Smithfield Horse Fair – Photo by: Madeleine Delp Bergsjø

Ireland, the land of the horse, is in the midst of an equine crisis. The Dublin Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DSPCA) and animal welfare groups across the country are dealing with a major increase in abandoned and neglected horses. 

The problem of abandoned horses around Ireland is a consequence of the reckless breeding during the Celtic Tiger and the following economic crisis in 2008. In 2012, Dublin City Council were forced to put down more than 250 abandoned horses. The horse meat scandal of 2013 made the situation even worse: There is no longer a simple outlet to slaughter the unwanted horses.

The diminishing value of horses is visibly affecting the Smithfield horse fair in Dublin – one of the oldest and most controversial horse fairs in the world. The once monthly fair is a 400 year old tradition and has recently been restricted to be held only twice a year, the first Sunday of March and September. Horse traders attending the fair are now obliged to purchase a trading license at€10 a horse – a small amount of money, but more than some horses are sold for nowadays.

John Behan - Photo by: Madeleine Delp Bergsjø

John Behan – Photo by: Madeleine Delp Bergsjø

John Behan, owner of a horse stabled in Molyneaux Place, is concerned with the situation of the horses in Ireland, but does not see the Smithfield fair as a part of the problem. Behan has been attending the fair for years and blames Dublin City Council for its waning popularity and attendance. He reminisces back to a couple of years ago, when there would be almost five hundred horses at the fair every month.

Anyone can buy a horse for as little as 8 euro in a market like Smithfield, irrespective of their knowledge of horses and lack of resources. DSPCA has worked to shut down the market for years, claiming it is “completely unsuitable for horses” and that more and more horses will be neglected and abandoned if legislation on accountability and traceability is not enforced.

“Before, you couldn’t get a good black and white horse for under €20 000. Now, you can’t give them away. You just can’t give them away”, says Behan.

Yearlings for sale - Photo by: Madeleine Delp Bergsjø

Yearlings for sale at the horse fair – Photo by: Madeleine Delp Bergsjø

A by-law passed on the 14th of January in 2013 established some rules and regulations and reduced the fair to only take place twice a year as a result of a series of violent incidents and objections from residents in the newly built apartments surrounding the square.

“When Dublin City Council modernized Smithfield, they promised that the horse fair would never be removed, but they were only waiting for an excuse to remove it, and when that fella got shot, that was their excuse”, Behan says.

At the March fair four years ago, a feud between two traveller families resulted in a shooting, injuring three people. Irish Army experts also recovered an explosive devise in the area, leading to the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Dublin City Council and the DSPCA calling for immediate closure of the fair. John Behan gets upset when talking about it, stating it was drug-related and had nothing to do with the horses. He says the regulations has ruined what has been a Dublin tradition since 1665.

Smithfield Horse Fair - Photo by: Madeleine Delp Bergsjø

Teenagers at the fair: The closest you’ll get to the “urban cowboys” at the fair nowadays – Photo by: Madeleine Delp Bergsjø

The crowded marketplace used to attract tourists, photographers, urban cowboys and horse traders from all over the country. In 2015, the fair is significantly smaller, but it remains the only European horse fair set in the middle of a city because of an ancient by-law giving traders the right to use the market. The year’s first fair has the square securely fenced and guarded by the Garda. Only about twenty horses are restlessly scraping their hooves on the cobblestone in between modern sculptures and luxury apartments.

The United Farmers Association (UFA) has estimated that there are around 25 000 “useless” horses in Ireland with owners struggling financially to take care of them. They are concerned with the “total melt down” of the small breeders’ section of the horse industry in Ireland and the horses “with no future, no monetary value, no market and whose owners cannot afford to keep them”. The DSPCA work hard to rescue horses that have been dumped out on waste grounds, left to starve in a miserable state because their owners have no other way of getting rid of them. In Ireland, animal welfare organizations and and facilities are at a breaking point while the animal rights activists and the City Council aim to remove the horses from the streets of Dublin.

“It was the Dublin City Council that caused all these problems. They didn’t help the horse situation, they made it worse. They made it worse”, Behan says.