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Dublin’s enduring horse and carriage tradition

Stephen's Green horse and carriages

The carriage trade is a stable attraction in Dublin’s tourism industry, but is it becoming threatened by the city’s move towards modernity?

Dublin has long learned to market its history towards the tourist trade and the Liberties area has not been slow to get in on the act.

Tourists might soak up the Dublinia exhibition, gaze at Christchurch Cathedral, and pause to photograph the impressive façade of John’s Lane Church in Thomas Street before moving on to Kilmainham or the Guinness Hop Store. Which is a shame, because in doing so they will have unknowingly walked past a tiny microcosm of Dublin’s history that is both real and uncontrived. Probably, just the sort of thing they were looking for.

Opposite St John’s on Thomas Street is a tiny, disregarded archway. No-one notices it; no-one ventures through it. If you find it once, you are by no means guaranteed to find it again. But to walk through this portal is to travel back in time.

It leads into Molyneaux Place, a narrow alleyway which is deserted at most times of the day and night. But here, directly behind a pizza take-away and the Vicar St Venue, are stabled a dozen or more horses.

Today a horse stands patiently between the shafts of a buggy, nearly filling the alley. The stable doors are thrown open and the business of the day goes on.

Leather horse tacks festoon one wall, while feed and straw bales are stacked against another, and a second carriage is squeezed inside. The air is heavy with the sweet scent of hay and the pungent aroma of horse dung. Molly, an elderly and crotchety terrier, has her kennel in one corner. Horses snort and stir back in the furthest recesses.

John is rousing the bedding with a long-handled dung fork. “That’s my lad over there,” he says proudly, waving the tines in the direction of a piebald in a loosebox. “A lot of the horses here work, pulling the tourist carriages; but not him. Me and him go out purely for our own pleasure.”

Kevin Keller is the owner of these stables, and he and his horse, Del-boy, work the carriage trade. I catch up with him in Stephen’s Green.

Kevin reckons that stabling in Molyneaux Place goes back to at least the seventeenth century if not further. “The horses really do represent a continuation of history,” he says, “Some of the older guys in this game were actually the last of the old horse-drawn coal and milk men, so it’s good to see traditions live on.”

“Of course, it’s all regulated these days and Dublin City Council issue licenses subject to strict conditions. Now we all have to have insurance and that was initially a problem; no company would touch us when it first became mandatory. Thankfully that was eventually sorted out, largely with the help of the lads down in Killarney.”

“These days we get on pretty well with DCC and the Gardaí, and Bord Fáilte give us backing.”

Somewhat surprisingly, it is the Luas which may pose the largest potential threat to their trade.

DCC stipulate where the horse-drawn ranks are to be located. The Liberties men currently have a choice of two; one being at Guinness’s, and the other on Stephen’s Green at the top of Grafton Street. There are plans to extend the Luas from its present position, around the corner and down Dawson Street. This would obliterate the existing rank and cause it to be re-located. The carriages are heavily dependent on this rank.

Another driver complained, “We have never been consulted or offered any sort of reassurance. Moving us further around the square would be a disaster because that would put us away from the passing trade. The best we can hope for at the moment is that, like everything else, the plan will be stalled for want of cash.”

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