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Horse Drawn: Painting Smithfield's Horse Fair

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Dublin artist Patrick Cahill looks back on a bygone Dublin and, in particular, the Smithfield Horse Fair, the unique event that inspired some of his most famous paintings.

In the 1980s Patrick Cahill came upon the Smithfield Horse Fair. A graphic artist by trade and subsequently a full-time painter, he used to get up early on Sunday mornings when the city streets were silent to sketch, uninterrupted. It was one such morning when one of the 'jarveys' at St Stephen's green became his subject.

"I came across a fella with a pony and trap outside Stephen's Green and I started drawing him. I didn't know then but the Dublin City Corporation used to give licences to these horse-drawn tourist carriages and he thought I was someone from the social welfare watching; he came over to me and said, 'what're you doing? Are you from the social welfare?' I told him I was an artist and interested in painting him and his horse and he ended up telling me about the fair at Smithfield where he'd gotten the horse."

A born-and-bred Dubliner, Patrick had never heard of the fair and imagines most hadn't, unless they had business there. Curios, he went along.

"It was barely a fair. There were only a small handful of people, about three horseboxes and two farriers. I was very interested in the farriers," he recalls. Smithfield was derelict then but it was very picturesque; for me it was a great source of inspiration for painting."

Having a chat, seen as Smithfield Fair Dublin by Irish artist Patrick Cahill
Having a chat, seen as Smithfield Fair Dublin

Smithfield, just north of Dublin's centre, was laid out in the mid 17th century as a marketplace primarily for cattle and hay and occasionally horses; the square was lined with inner-city 'farm yards' housing livestock. The horse fair, as such, dates from the early 1960s.

"There were families around that area and they actually bred horses for Guinness and CIE and they had beautiful horses. There were some malnourished horses too of course. But it was totally unique at one point – it was the only horse fair held in a capital city in Europe."

In the 1990s the renowned photographer Perry Ogden documented the horse fair for his exhibition 'Pony Kids in Smithfield', which was opened by then President Mary Robinson. Later RTÉ featured the fair and the city's 'urban cowboys'. Patrick says eventually there were as many photographers and spectators attending the fair as horses and traders.

"I used to go down sketching and drawing but when it took off, the young fellas would be standing in your face saying, 'Do me! Do me!' and grabbing the brushes out of your hands and running off with them. They were the biggest characters I'd have met down there."

Authorities and animal rights groups campaigned for years to end the fair over health and safety concerns. After a shooting in 2011, a bylaw was passed limiting the number of fairs to two a year. the biannual event also now faces tighter restriction and regulation.

Patrick has been once to the fair in its new guise, but it's not the scene he painted in the '80s. The surrounding landscape is also irrevocably altered – Smithfield is arguably one of the capital's most examples of gentrification, or urban renewal.

Patrick still paints scenes of his native Dublin, but also travels regularly to paint and cites Paris and Prague as two cities that have greatly inspired him.

"Around Dublin and all along the quays in the '80s there was a lot of derelict buildings. They were crumbling and falling down. It was in a pretty bad state but it was interesting to paint," Patrick reflects. "And I thought Smithfield Horse Fair was the most colourful part of Dublin at the time."

This article first appeared in RTÉ's Ear to the Ground magazine in 2015. Patrick Cahill was in conversation with Valerie Jordan.


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