Horses in New York? All against say 'Neigh'
It's Liam Neeson vs the mayor in a storm over banning horse-drawn carriages in the Big Apple
The Irish are again at the centre of a political storm in New York City, and it's nothing about visas or even the role of gay people in last month's St Patrick's Day parades. No, it's about their horses.
It may come as a surprise to those who have yet to visit the Big Apple, but horse-drawn carriage tours of Central Park are among the oldest tourist attractions in the city.
Day-trippers are drawn to the colourful buggies, with their familiar clip-clop a stark contrast to the urban cacophony of the city centre.
But these horses are set to be banned if the current Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, gets his way in a vote due this May.
During his election campaign last year, the Brooklyn native announced that one of his first acts if he was elected would be to eliminate the 'inhumane' horse-drawn carriages from the streets of New York.
The stance has drawn vocal criticism from notable quarters, including Liam Neeson and the editorial board of the New York Times. The 300 carriage-drivers - many of whom are Irish, and almost all are unionised - have also come out swinging, with claims that de Blasio is being played by one of his election campaign backers, property millionaire Steve Nislick.
"Our stables are on the west side of the Convention Centre, where years ago it wasn't that great an area, but now it's very trendy and popular, with lots of high-rises going up," explains Enda Moran, a Mayoman who has spent over 25 years driving horses around central Manhattan. Working with the horses was as close as he could get in New York to the farming way of life he left behind him in Ballyhaunis in 1988, "bar working in the zoo".
"Our stables are the only old buildings left, and the people that own them have been offered tens of millions [of dollars]. But they don't want to sell. They just want to keep their horses and carriages in the city," he says. The stables for the horses are themselves something of a visitor curiosity. Carriages are all stored downstairs, while horses walk up a ramp to their box-stalls on the first floor.
Mayor de Blasio, and his animal rights supporters, argue that keeping horses is New York is out-dated, dangerous and cruel on the animals. Ashley Byrne is an Irish-American working for the ultra-animal rights organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). She has campaigned on this issue, and firmly believes that it is clear-cut. "The ban is long overdue. Horses have no place somewhere like New York City, where it is teeming with buses and loud traffic," she says.
"Something as small as a plastic bag can spook a horse, so it's extremely dangerous and cruel to subject them to this type of environment on a daily basis."
Byrne claims that there have been many accidents involving the horses over the years that have put the lives of the horses and New Yorkers at risk. "Passengers [in the carriages], pedestrians and horses have all been injured over the years, and horses have died out here on the streets. Many of these incidents are not reported," she said.
The mayor has proposed that specially designed electric cars, with a 'vintage feel', would replace the horses that, in turn, the carriage-drivers could operate. New Yorkers for Clean, Liveable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), the organisation that help bank-roll ad campaigns for de Blasio during his election, have offered to look after the cost of 'rehoming' the 200 horses that would find themselves out of a job.
While the logic is clear, the issue has generated a lot of debate. For example, political analysts are asking why so much time is being devoted by this administration to banning some of the most regulated horses in the world.
Indeed, the question has been raised by carriage supporters as to where the line will be drawn. If it is inhumane to make horses walk around Central Park, should horses used by police forces in New York and elsewhere also be banned? Can a city that is too stressful or dangerous for a horse to walk in be a pleasant or safe place for pedestrians, joggers and sightseers?
In reality, this issue is not a big deal for many New Yorkers. In the same way that many of us could not be bothered to visit the Book of Kells, most city slickers have never parted with $50 it costs to take the most basic 20-minute spin in the gaudy carriages.
Yellow cab driver, Jeffery Paul, was more adamant. "It's abuse and it should be banned. It just doesn't work anymore in New York," he says in the forthright way typical of the city's cabbies.
Talking to the doormen and concierges at some of the posh hotels that face on Central Park, you get a very different story. They are convinced that the horses are an integral part of the New York experience for visitors old and young.
To watch Liam Neeson's plea for horses to allowed stay in NYC, see: youtube.com/watch?v=xn NgAKQEN 7U&t=261
To see why campaigners want the horses banned, see: blindersthemovie.com/2011/07 /29/blinders -on-cnn-2/