What's left for the cowboy kids of Dublin's estates?

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In colloquial speech, horse is another word for heroin. And in the bleak outer suburbs of Dublin, horses are a substitute for heroin, an alternative source of cheap thrills for bored, alienated kids. In Ballyfermot and Ballymun, Clondalkin and Finglas, the large public housing estates that ring the city, an extraordinary equestrian culture has evolved spontaneously in the past decade. In parks and back gardens, on greens and waste ground, the teenage children of mostly unemployed families keep their ponies. And until this month, no one tried to stop them.

The Control of Horses Act, though, has just come into effect in Dublin and it may mark the end of the phenomenon. According to the new law, horses have to be licensed (at a cost of pounds 25) and must have a microchip implanted in one ear to identify the owner. But licences will not be issued unless the horses are kept in well-regulated stables and unless the owner is over 16 years old.

Most of the suburban equestrians are too young and too poor to be able to meet these conditions. And if they don't, the law provides that their horses be impounded and eventually destroyed. The pony kids, long identified with a Wild-West image of Dublin suburbia, are now to become literal outlaws. And in the process, the framers of the law have set up a whole series of culture clashes - between rich and poor, between the old and the young, and between the modern Celtic Tiger economy and the more angular, less respectable place from which it has emerged.

The suburban horse culture is a fascinating example of what happens when the poor appropriate the pleasures of the rich. In Ireland, horse ownership is generally the prerogative of farmers and of the wealthy business and professional class. Quite how it became fashionable among the children of the urban dispossessed is not entirely clear, but three pieces of what is probably a more complex explanation can be discerned.

One is that, because Dublin was much less intensively industrialised than similar-sized British cities, working horses were around much later. When I was growing up in the Crumlin housing estate, then on the outer limits of the city, in the 1960s, horses were not an unusual sight. Milk and coal were delivered by horse; scrap was collected the same way. And the divide between city and country was still blurry - some of our neighbours kept hens in their back gardens, one local man even kept pigs. Most of that vanished in the 1970s, but it left enough families with a recent tradition of keeping horses to make the idea plausible.

A second piece of the explanation lies with Travellers, Ireland's ethnic nomads. Many Traveller families were settled in the outer suburbs of the cities and some retained the love of horses that has long been a central part of their culture. The horses that used to pull caravans around country roads ended up tethered in the gardens of council houses. What is fascinating, though, is that kids from the settled community had no difficulty identifying themselves with this aspect of Traveller culture. Whereas Travellers have long been despised and discriminated against by mainstream society, many of those growing up on the margins of Ireland's economic miracle didn't feel particularly mainstream either.

And the third factor is the simplest one - the easy availability of cheap horses. Once a month, in the Smithfield area of north Dublin there is an almost medieval horse fair, at which Travellers, again, are a prominent presence. Men with green wellingtons and Range Rovers bargain for the best of the horseflesh, but there are plenty of ponies left for the kids to buy for little more than the cost of a pair of designer trainers. The whole thing reached a point where something had to be done. Half-wild horses roaming the parks and fouling the roads are not good for old people, small children or general hygiene. Horses wandering into traffic have caused fatal road accidents. And the animals themselves are often subject to ignorant neglect or wanton cruelty. Some of the young owners ride their horses without saddles and have no idea how to care for their hooves. The Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had to put down 120 horses last year, and rescue another 268 from cruelty, starvation or disease. Not surprisingly, the DSPCA has been a strong supporter of the new licensing system.

The problem, though, is that the law looks much more like an attempt to eradicate the urban horse than an effort to control abuses. The authorities seem to find the very idea of working-class kids keeping such animals amid the wind-swept concrete of the ill-planned suburbs they slapped up in the 1970s and early 1980s offensive and embarrassing. As well as the genuine concerns about animal welfare and human health, there is a distinct sense of a newly rich city anxious to bury the more awkward aspects of its image.

Little attempt has been made to appreciate the good aspects of the horse culture and to test whether they can be disentangled from the abuses. There is no obvious effort to see the world from the point of view of the pony kids, to understand just what gap is being filled by the elemental sense of freedom they get from galloping across a piece of waste ground. There is a vacuum in their lives where education, ambition and hope should be. And there are other forces waiting to fill that gap.

These kids may not be old enough to get a licence for a horse, but many are old enough to have seen junkies shooting up on the steps of their flats, or to have seen close relatives die from Aids-related illnesses. And time and again, they contrast horses with drugs. To them, the alternative to keeping ponies is not a neat, hygienic environment. It is crime and heroin. The new law doesn't address that bleak choice.

There are ways of doing so, and, at various times, local adults have attempted to get land, to set up proper stables with decent fodder, to run schemes that educate the owners in the correct care of horses. Keeping horses can enrich the lives of these kids, help them to develop a sense of responsibility, and divert them from available alternatives. Starting from those assumptions, these groups have tried to provide the benefits while avoiding the dangers. But they have received little help, and few have been able to sustain the cost and effort. In that sense, the row about urban horses is just a microcosm of far bigger conflict in Ireland between the desire to announce the arrival of a gleaming modern economy on the one hand and the persistence of large-scale poverty on the other.

Joe Higgins, a member of parliament who represents some of the sprawling working-class estates of west Dublin most infested by horses, pointed out that the luxurious K Club golf complex in County Kildare had received pounds 600,000 of state funding, while the pony kids have received nothing. Last week, too, the K Club was playing host to the European Open, the kind of event that suits Ireland's chosen image - lush, cosmopolitan, and perfectly organised. If the same amount of money was provided for stables in deprived housing estates that would be an acknowledgement that such places not merely exist but have evolved a life of their own. At the moment, though, cleaning up the mess is easier than asking who has caused it.

Alan Watkins is on holiday

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