Sanitised was the word of the day at yesterday's Smithfield Horse Fair.
Yes, you need to be mindful of health and safety. Yes, animal welfare issues had to be addressed. Yes, no-one wanted to see a repetition of the incident from two years ago where several people were hurt, but...it still seemed over the top in terms of restrictions. I had a good chat with Frank Buckley who helped revive the Fair thirty years ago, and he mentioned a horse owner who was stopped five times by security checks on the way in and then told by the private security firm "You can't bring your horse in here".
I was struck by the massive amount of people overseeing the event. There were loads of Guards, including the Dog Squad who lent a slightly menacing air to the proceedings, particularly as they interrogated a few kids beside me who had been slamming the door of the fairly unnecessary public toilets that you see at festivals.
"What's your date of birth?"
-"4th June 1998"
"You're a bit slow on that. Where do you live?"
"Whereabouts in Ballyfermot?"
It wasn't exactly the kind of exchange that will encourage that kid to consider joining the boys in blue in three years time.
The signs at the entrance to the central part of the Square stated no unaccompanied children under 16, no buggies and no dogs. This meant that a group of young teenagers congregated up at the North end of the Square on the new green space, looking bored. Two years ago several local councillors attempted to have the Horse Fair closed down completely, and there is a feeling that the event is simply being allowed on sufferance.
Between the Guards and their dogs, Civil Defence in their Guantanamo jumpsuits and Pulse Security in their high-viz vests and uniforms it all seemed a bit too controlled. I suspect Ballinasloe Horsefair and the Spancil Hill Fair have a bit more spontaneity...
On the positive side of things it was great to see a photographic expedition on display, as well as some great outdoor traditional music. There was even a reading from Colin Murphy on "The Strange History of a Dublin Square and its Horse Fair".
Research organised by my colleague Dave O'Connor in the Dublin Institute of Technology has shown that Smithfield is one of the least liked civic spaces in this part of the city. I suspect the polarised debate about the Fair is probably indicative of the frustration that people want to express about some of the changes that have taken place in this part of the city in recent years. The sculptural lights, gas braziers and cobblestones may have been appropriate to attracting activity to the area in the late 1990s, perhaps t is now time to soften the space and introduce more events that the local community can take part in.
The outdoor seating and play equipment towards the river, and grassed area close to North King Street is a step in that direction. However maybe it's now time for a basketball court or something similar down near the Generator Hospital. There's also the issue of an outdoor market. I understand that the lower part of the Square has had underground water and electricity outlets installed. Maybe the next step could be the appointment of a Civic Space Manager to run different sorts of outdoor events throughout the year?
There's no doubt that the City Council means well, and put a huge amount of effort into running a safe and secure March horse fair. but I'd hope that they might be able to tone down the security presence slightly at future Fairs.
Perhaps the savings could be put to better use in managing the Square all year round, and we could have a civic space that could be both hippity-hop and clippity-clop at the same time.