Hoodie and hands dirty, Patrick Nevin comes into Patrick Power’s kitchen in Donabate, late Sunday afternoon.
“He’s [been] out there cleaning a bit of waste ground for his own horse”, Blackleg, in the torrential rain, says Power.
It’s a constant struggle to try and find space for horses, says Power, a Traveller who has owned horses his entire life.
But “horses are part and parcel of Travellers for time”, says Nevin, when he sits down. Blackleg, was bred by Nevin’s father, who died two years ago – he was “a true horseman”, Nevin says.
This interlinking of tradition, horses and family is central to Traveller culture, a point emphasised by a recent report commissioned by Pavee Point and published earlier this month.
The report argued that horse ownership is intrinsic to Traveller identity and that local authorities should help provide supports to prevent this tradition from dying out.
Nevin, manager of the Tallaght Travellers Community Development Project, is also seeking more recognition for the role that Travellers have had in breeding Irish horses in Ireland.
“We bred them on the long mile or the green acre, along the side of the road”, and their contribution to Irish equine culture can’t be underestimated, he says.
A Part of Life
Power, sitting in his kitchen, Japanese patterned ceramics on the countertops, says horses have always been an essential part of his life.
They carried the family home, they carried scrap to be sold, and they were part of leisure time too – to trot in open fields, and along roads.
“When I was 10 or 11 I could probably joke up a horse,” he says. “You would probably call it ‘tack it up’, I’d call it ‘joke it up’. I would go around collecting scrap and stuff with the horse and cart.”
At the back of the house is Power’s workshop, where he spends his spare time crafting a cart for his horse. “I’ve never been without a horse. I still have one and my son has two more,” he says.
Pavee Point’s “Traveller Horse Ownership” report, launched earlier this month, said “The cultural significance of horse ownership to the Traveller community cannot be overstated.”
Nevin says that with the recognition of Traveller ethnicity in 2017, the state must also invest in the infrastructure necessary to allow Traveller culture to continue to exist.
And it’s not just about culture, it’s about mental health too. The report linked horse ownership to “combating suicide among Traveller men, for whom the rate of suicide is 6.6 times the national average”.
Patrick Power’s son John Power, who has joined the roundtable, rolls up his sleeve to show a tattoo of a horse he credits with bringing him through a particular bleak time.
“I was suffering very badly with depression because I buried two children. And I moved up here to Dublin then and a friend of ours gave me a pony. And because I was concentrating on doing work with her every day, it brought me out of it,” says John. “That’s six years now and I haven’t looked back since that, ya know?”
His father, Patrick, says he notices the difference in John if he spends any time away from the horse. “If you have a horse you have to be responsible for it so your mind is focused on nothing else, everything else goes out of your mind, because you have to focus on the horse,” he says. “They call it equine therapy in the States.”
It’s not just that horses are important to Traveller identity in Ireland, says Nevin. Travellers have also made an enormous contribution to horses in Ireland.
“The amount of breeding that has gone into Traveller horses for generation upon generation,” says Nevin. He points to the Irish Cob, also known as the Gypsy Cob.
They’re extremely strong horses, Nevin says. But as well as that, they’re extremely docile because they were bred to be around children.
Supporting Traveller Horse Ownership
The Pavee Point report, which is based on interviews with Traveller horse owners and Traveller organisations, makes a series of observations and recommendations.
It flags up a tension between Traveller horse owners and the authorities, caused, the horse owners say, by the authorities’ focus on enforcement above all else.
“The Control of Horses Act, subsequent byelaws and other regulations have introduced a compliance regime that is viewed by Travellers as imposing an unwelcome formality on their traditions,” the report says.
John Power, Patrick Power’s son, points to licensing arrangements and micro-chipping that Travellers need to go through in order to have a horse.
This, as well as the “economic crisis and the difficulties in meeting horse welfare needs in a constrained economic context and increasing costs”, is making the future of Traveller horse ownership look uncertain, the report says. “The more difficult context for horse ownership is leading to a situation where many young Travellers see no future in this tradition,” it says.
This tension is bad for all involved, the report says. “There needs to be a shift in thinking and perspective on both sides of this divide. This should start with a new definition of success that could be agreed between Traveller horse owners and those concerned to ensure horse care and welfare,” it says.
“Success must involve a combination of developmental work and enforcement work, but an improved balance between these where development work dominates the response to Traveller horse ownership,” it says.
While enforcing the rules around horse ownership, the authorities should also work to provide facilities such as land and stables, give horse owners the opportunity to organise and have their say, and develop employment opportunities for Travellers to work with horses, the report says.
“There’s already a ready-made group of people that have huge history and massive knowledge of horses and horse care,” Nevin says.
The authorities should work on “protecting it, promoting it, supporting Travellers that want to take up culturally appropriate training that will allow Travellers to work in that area, whether that is as farriers, as pony keepers”, he says.
Outside, John Power introduces Blackleg – a powerful mare, with a black and white mane and a shiny black and white coat.
There’s a bit of the run at the back where the horse can stretch its legs and in the shed in front, the cart for bringing her out on the road.
“It’s a tradition we want to keep alive,” says Power. “I’ve fourteen grandkids and they all love the horses.”
[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 27 June at 9.54am, to correct the number of grandkids, rather than kids, that John Power has. Apologies for the error.]