James Horan is an Irish photographer based in Sydney. On trips back home, James has documented the horse-riding teenagers living in and around the housing estate he grew up in. The horses are raised in homemade stables, ridden bareback around parking lots and abandoned buildings, and shown off once a month at the infamous Smithfield Horse Fair. Many of their young riders are children of settled gypsies who, adapting to city life, have brought with them the time old tradition of horse ownership.
We talked to James about his pictures, the horses, and the drugs, violence and poverty that surrounds them.
VICE: How did you end up shooting this story?
James Horan: It wasn’t until I moved to Australia. I had a girlfriend that was into horse riding and I told her stories of where I grew up: how the kids have horses and how they didn’t have any saddles to ride the horses and kept the horses in the back of their houses. No one ever believed me because I didn’t have any photographs to prove it. So when I moved back home I decided to go back where I used to live and take a walk around and see if that culture still existed. And it did exist. As a kid I always kept away from the people who had horses, my parents would never let me talk to them. I think a lot of Irish people in general kind of turn their backs to the gypsy population, almost like how Australians turn their back on the Aboriginal people here.
Why didn’t your parents let you hang out with the horse kids? Was there a social stigma around it?
Yeah definitely. Some people that live in housing commissions are gypsies that were settled by the government, so they went from travelling the country around in caravans to the housing commissions. Some of them took it up but they brought a culture with them. They brought the horses and you’ve got to remember that in that society if you own a horse, you have status.
Are the horses traditionally for young people?
Yes, for the kids in the city it’s almost like a rite of passage. They would have a horse and ride the horse through the housing estates and then race between themselves. It’s like a test of bravery. And then the Smithfiled Horse Fair used to be the first Sunday of every month and they would ride the horses from the outskirts of the city very early in the morning before the police would see them. And they would all gather at Smithfield Square to show off their horses and their skills in riding.
I saw a crazy video on Youtube of a shooting in Smithfield Fair.
Yeah, that was the only time I wasn’t there. That day a pipe bomb was exploded and a guy got his arm cut with a machete. But it was an isolated incident – it was a feud between gypsy families, nothing to do with the horses. It would have been something like somebody was dating someone’s sister.
What are the rest of the kids at the fair like?
Some of the kids are little bit crazy, they don’t have any formal equestrian training. They are riding horses in a dangerous manner in a public area so the police don’t like this and they try to stop them. And they also don’t have any papers for the horses so you get animal welfare people as well. Some teenagers use Smithfield and the horses to sell drugs. There’s a gang culture around the horses as well as some lovely people.
The countryside horse fairs are different. They’re more farmers and gypsies.
What happens at those?
People gather the night before and camp in the fields and stay there all night. They get up very early and show off their horses and buy and sell them. The purpose, from what I can see, is like a big social experience for the community. They might be living in the other side of the country or travelling through Europe and they always come back to the big horse fairs in Ireland. It is a very traditional thing to do.
The very young gypsy girls use it as an opportunity to look at the boys. So the boys often dress in really nice clothes and the girls are dressed up to attract guys. The gypsy girls are very young, like 15 and they dressed provocatively to try to attract the males. If you see the two sisters posing and the van in the back, there mum brought them to the fair to find boyfriends. Sometimes marriages are arranged between them.
I have to say these kids look pretty cool.
Yes, the kids from the city all have Nike or Adidas tracksuits and wear runners. It is almost like a dress code in the housing estates in Ireland and in England. They ride bareback it is a sign of how tough they are. It’s really fascinating, and a lot of the culture is actually disappearing.
A lot of the kids don’t know what they are doing, they get the horse because their friend has one and they live in really poor neighbourhoods where there is high drug problems, high unemployment, and bad family backgrounds which sometimes make them forget about their horses.
How do you feel about that?
I think the tradition needs to be kept but I also think they need some funding for some proper stables and for proper education. They are very proud of their horses. They have limited resources and limited knowledge.
Last question: what happens with all the horse poop everywhere?
I would usually stink like horse poo at the end of each shoot. The cobblestoned Smithfield square in Dublin gets covered in horse dung and pee and is really slippery. Luckily I have never fallen over. When it's busy you need to be careful to keep away from the business end of ponies. They get a bit excited and they kick a lot.
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