Holly Ward was interested in horses since around the time she learned how to walk.
She was a child when a man lifted her and put her on the back of his horse for the first time.
“He just picked me up and I was happy as Larry,” she says.
Soon after her first encounter, she began to go to the communal meeting point for horse enthusiasts in the Liberties — Molyneux Yard.
The yard, which is tucked around the corner from Meath Street and sits behind Vicar Street, is where Ward learned to ride horses and look after them.
When she got her carriage licence from Dublin City Council three years ago, Ward was turning some heads within the council.
“When I got it they informed me that I was the first-ever female to be given a license by them,” she says.
Just three months ago Ward fulfilled a lifelong dream of buying her own horse, Chico. Now, caring for Chico is Ward’s full-time job, she says.
The Liberties has been a hub for horse lovers just like Ward in Dublin for decades now, but this could all come to an end soon.
In October 2019 an application for a 261 bedroom hotel was submitted to Dublin City Council on the site of Molyneux Yard. Demolition for the site was approved by the council but has been delayed due to a planning appeal submitted to An Bord Pleanála.
In the meantime, a group of local horse owners and locals are organising to try to save the lane and preserve the long-standing tradition of urban horse culture in the Liberties.
A 261 bedroom hotel is planned by Midsal Homes Limited for the area which would be complete with a bar, café, and a landscaped garden where a concrete football pitch sits beside Molyneux Yard.
“The development will principally consist of the demolition of all shed structures on site,” the planning proposal says.
While Dublin City Council approved the demolition of Molyneux Yard, an appeal was submitted on 6 August 2020.
“An Bord Pleanála try to decide or dispose of all appeals within 18 weeks,” a spokesperson for the council said.
The site can’t be demolished and work can’t begin on the hotel until the appeal is dealt with, the spokesperson said.
Midsal Homes Limited did not respond in time for a comment.
There is another application for a hotel attached to the Molyneux Yard premises behind the Vicar Street theatre, which is planned to be eight-storeys tall, with 185 bedrooms.
Demolition has also been approved by Dublin City Council for this site.
More than a Hobby
“Would you like a receipt?” says the man working in Fusco’s Cafe on Meath Street.
Christy Gaffney, a labourer and horse culture advocate, taps on the cafe’s card machine as he pays for two cups of tea.
He’s wearing a black and red tracksuit. Two gold earrings hang on each ear; a cap sits on top of his head and a black face mask is wrapped around his mouth.
“No thanks, I don’t think I’ll be looking for a refund,” Gaffney says to the man as they both laugh before he leaves the cafe and heads down Meath Street.
“For an awful lot of these kids it kind of boils down to the saddle or the needle,” he says.
While Gaffney doesn’t use Molyneux Yard he says that the horse yard gives many people a sense of purpose.
“You’ve to get up at five or six o’clock in the morning and get down to your animal. You water it, feed it and rub the horse down,” he says.
Gaffney walks past a smaller horse yard on Spitalfields, a two-minute walk from Molyneux Yard.
“There’s another one,” he says pointing to a mural of a horse standing on its hind legs which is painted on the gate of this yard. “It also provides them with equestrian skills. You learn how to ride a horse and drive a horse on different types of rigs.”
Horse yards are not just a hobby for people, they can create employment opportunities for some, Gaffney says.
I know of one person from a stable on the northside that worked his way up as a farrier, somebody who makes and fits shoes on horses, who is now working in Leopardstown Racecourse, he says.
“That’s phenomenal, that’s a big deal,” says Gaffney now walking past a mural of comedian Brendan Grace on Mark’s Alley West.
Losing Molyneux Yard would not just be the end of an era but the end of opportunities for many local people in the Liberties, says Gaffney.
Pat Harris, 67 years old, drives a horse and carriage for a living. He has been a regular face at Molyneux Yard since he was a child.
Over the years he has noticed a decline in horses and carriages around the city, he says speaking on the phone last Thursday.
“It’s just getting smaller and smaller,” he says.
Harris knows firsthand what it’s like to lose a horse yard after the yard he kept his horses was sold on North King Street.
“The yard is being developed. We could be there for four weeks or six months or twelve months. We just don’t know,” he says.
There’s a chance that Harris will be able to find some space at another friend’s yard for his two horses but besides that, he’s not sure about what the future holds, he says.
Says Ward: “Trying to find a yard for your horse nowadays is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
Save the Lane
A Facebook group entitled SAVE THE LANE! (Molyneux yard, the Liberties) was set up by Kristin Vollset in an attempt to stop the developments.
Vollset is a Norwegian musician who stumbled across the yard in 2011 when she bumped her car into a wall in the lane and broke a backlight.
She ended up living in the area for the next three years and became a regular face in Molyneux Yard.
In 2016 she recorded a song, “No Plan” with the people in the yard.
“There is one actual appeal from one of the residents and on the back of this appeal there is a further four observations from residents,” says Vollset talking on the phone on Tuesday.
“The yard is an integral part of who these people are,” she says.
Says Gaffney: “One thing that people do not understand is that it is not illegal to own, keep, drive or ride a horse in an urban environment.”
None of the stables in Molyneux Yard are squatted, they all have the right to be there, he says.
“A lot of people say that we are mad or that we are part of a bygone era,” says Gaffney with his tea now finished as he stands at the top of Meath Street opposite the National College of Art and Design.
“Some people say that we are fighting a losing battle and if we are, we are. I want to be able to look my kid in the eye in ten years and say even if we were on the losing side we were on the right side,” says Gaffney.
[Correction this article was updated at 11.55 on 30 September. A former version said that the Vicar street development is delayed by a planning observation.]