We’re driving through town at a vantage point I’ve never experienced before. It’s higher than a car, but lower than the bus, with much more of a rattle than either. The clip-clop of horse hooves, the clanking of steel wheels on cobbles and the wooden carriage gently creaking around us are noises that seem odd in these urban surroundings. They’re sounds, I realise, I only know from films or television.
Up in front of me Martin Salinger sits holding the reigns of a horse called Magpie. He talks to us about the streets he drives through and his family business which has been operating horse-drawn carriages in Dublin for generations.
We set off from the Guinness Storehouse. This is where Martin parks every day, with most of his business these days coming from tourists. It’s after ten o’clock in the morning on an October Sunday and there is already a steady trickle of tourists coming from every direction, even with a few selfie sticks being brandished about. Martin estimates that by noon the queue will be around the corner. He chats amicably with a nearby Storehouse employee as he tells us that the visitor numbers were in the thousands the previous day.
There’s something almost stately about this part of the city – the looming Guinness buildings, old and accomplished, the cobbled streets, the iconic lettering to be found here and there on walls and gates, and the fact of all these people making a journey to visit it.
So Martin’s carriage and horse seem to fit into the vista outside in one of the oldest parts of the city – something with a tradition, a heritage and a past.
Dublin Horse Drawn Carriages is a family business which was first started by Martin’s great grandfather, Michael Salinger. As well as working outside the Storehouse, they also park at Stephen’s Green which is where they’re licensed to operate from. Born and still based in The Liberties himself, Martin describes being drawn to the trade and starting to work as a teenager. He tells us there was never anything else he wanted to do.
“I love doing it. Like I'm 34 and I still get excited going to work, and still happy.”
When he first started out almost twenty years ago, the carriage was mainly used as a form of transportation so a lot of his work was at night time, ferrying people from pubs or hotels around town. That all changed when the taxis were deregulated in 2000 and the business shifted to predominantly doing tours alongside weddings, funerals, lots of corporate events for travel companies and hotels, and some film and television work.
Dublin Horse Drawn Carriages has four carriages - two for everyday use, one for exercise, and one for special occasions - but Martin tells us there are fifty-five carriages in total operating out of the area, all with stables in and around Dublin 8.
Martin enjoys the variety of the work.
“Every time you get in, it's like a different job, it's a different [thing], like you're not stuck in an office.”
Summer time is his favourite time of the year for obvious reasons (when it rains the horse has a cover, Martin doesn’t) and meeting the people in the carriage is a fundamental part of the job. He enjoys that he’s mostly working with people in high spirits on their holidays in the summer or at Christmas time too, when it’s mostly Dubliners treating themselves to a trip in the carriage.
“You see them every year coming back, ‘we were here last year’, and you get to know them. Like you never forget someone in the face, if you have them for half an hour, an hour, be hard not to [remember them].”
When talk turns to Magpie though, this is where the real affection shows.
“He's the main bread earner, he's the main man, if he's not looked after, we're not looked after.”
Before we step into the carriage Magpie is still. When we take off and meander into traffic, he’s calm and placid, and never harried as cars and buses roar past. As someone who can barely drive a car in city traffic, I marvel at the horse.
“Someone could let a banger off up there and he wouldn't even flinch. And that doesn't happen overnight, it's experience, he does that himself - we can't make him do that. Like just through kindness, and through [care], that's what happens with him.”
Magpie gets two days off a week, the same as Martin. On days when he’s not working Martin feeds him before nine in the morning as per usual and does any other grooming jobs that need doing. When he leaves the stables, he turns the radio on so the horse has some company. Having been out most days in the city, Martin figures he’d be lonely without hearing some chat.
“He’d be bored, wouldn’t he?”
Magpie particularly likes The Love Zone on Q102 on a Saturday evening, in case you were wondering.
From the way Martin talks, Magpie is treated more like a family member than a horse. He’s also a big part of life for Martin’s own young family. He has two sons, aged seven and twelve and a daughter who isn’t yet one years old. He speaks with no small amount of pride as he describes their involvement with the horses.
“My young fella's twelve years of age now and he'd be able to do the exact same that I'm doing, he's able to talk to people in the back, yet and he's shy when he's not around people. If you bring him off to a restaurant and ask him to do [something], he’d say ‘I'm not going up there’, he does be shy, but put him on the front of that carriage and he has buckets of confidence.”
The seven year old shares the same interest.
“[He] would cycle from here to Cork for a horse, he'd eat sleep and breathe them.”
And even though it may be somewhat premature to call it, he reckons his daughter will be the same.
“I put her up at his [Magpie’s] head and she doesn't flinch or anything.”
So it’s very much a family affair but what’s striking too is what a community endeavour it is. Martin tells us that most of the other carriage owners in the area are close friends or family, and there’s a sense of them all working together rather than competing with each other. This is especially true for corporate events that require several carriages at once (Martin recalls a recent event that had thirty-three of them outside the Merrion Hotel) or for film and TV work (he mentions the Mrs. Browns Boys movie and Penny Dreadful as recent productions horses from the area featured in).
As we drive around, Martin waves to someone in a car.
“There's a young fella there, only learning, Alex. He has a pony on the northside, he's going over there with his father now.”
A fifteen-year-old called Gareth cycles alongside us and chats to Martin. He’s been working with the horses learning how to look after them and ride for the last few years. He shouts to someone on a balcony, and another kid on a bike. Like us, they’re going to the stables just off Meath Street.
Gareth’s family were never involved with horses but from being in the area he became interested in it and started helping out with them a few years ago. He tells us that he wants to work with them for the rest of his life.
Martin says this often happens with kids in the area. There’s no formal training but they spend time with the adults learning how to manage the horses and practicing. Martin tells us that many of the kids spend every weekend and time outside of school in the yard or helping with the horses. So it doesn’t seem like job or a career, but something else entirely. Martin remarks that his grandfather, who he tells us featured alongside his horse as one of the drivers on the Wanderly Wagon TV show, is still working at the age of seventy-three.
We reach the stables through a laneway off Meath Street and it’s possibly the most unlikely thing you expect to see off a busy city street, but facing the stage doors to Vicar Street, there they are. Martin tells us there’s more further up the lane, some in Smithfield and some in Cabra. These are very much urban spaces and at odds with the traditional notion of country stables. It can’t help but cross your mind that horses are more often seen in green spaces, with more room to roam. And some people argue that the city life or work like this every day is not the best thing for a horse. I ask Martin what he’d say to that and he is unhesitating in his response.
“If you go to the race track, how many horses die? There's no horses [that] anything ever happens them here, no cuts, bruises - nothing.”
Dublin City Council requires that the horses are checked at least once a year by a vet (alongside an annual license for the driver, insurance, and Garda vetting) and the horses all have passports, but more than all of that, the care and love for the horses are what’s most apparent throughout the conversation.
Magpie shares his stable with another horse called Christy but he’s on holidays in Carlow for a few weeks – something that all the horses do every few months.
In terms of the business, they only really shut up shop for three days of the year – Good Friday, Christmas Day, and St. Stephen’s Day – which along with Christmas Eve are the only days that the Storehouse closes its doors. Martin says that it can sometimes be stressful having to work the weekends, holiday days or big events where they can’t pass up the opportunity for business.
But this is fleeting in comparison to the way he beams about the work, the horse, as he chats to people we meet on the short trip to the stables, and the next generation coming up behind him.
That over fifty horses would live amid the maze of laneways that run through the city seems unlikely but they’re there and at the heart of a business and a tradition that offers a very singular and vivid perspective of Dublin. I never expected to drive through town and feel like it’s a place that I have no knowledge of or that there’s a whole other thing happening all the time, but to sit behind Magpie as he canters along is to feel the city from a different pace and a different vantage point entirely – one that has nothing to do with the height of the carriage.
Written by Sinead Fox / ©2015 Project Bowes
Photos by Adam O'Keeffe / ©2015 Project Bowes