THE MANE EVENT
Published 21/01/2012 | 06:00
Given the times we live in, it's hardly surprising that many of us are in search of friendship, serenity and a lost sense of community.
What may be surprising is that a growing band of Irish adults are finding all of this and more in the pastel-pink, day-glo world of My Little Pony.
Meet the 'Bronies', the grown-ups who not only adore the likes of Twilight Sparkle, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, but also believe these tiny, shimmering steeds have important life-lessons for us all.
The Irish Bronies, a small but rapidly expanding community of mostly 20-somethings, are part of a new, worldwide movement which elevates My Little Pony almost to the status of a semi-serious religion.
The global Brony ('bros who are into ponies') fan base has been inspired by latest generation of Ponies -- stars of the animated series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
Since debuting in the US in late 2010, the series, created by leading animator Lauren Faust, has attracted a cult following.
And with fan sites and blogs that attract daily visitors in the tens of thousands, the buzz around My Little Pony may be the perfect storm of '80s nostalgia and pop-culture irony.
Brony communities have sprung up across America, Asia and Europe, including the 300-plus Bronies of Ireland. These communities organise social events, trade merchandise and create their own ponies and pony-inspired artwork, from specially commissioned toys to paintings, knitted jumpers and even tattoos.
The Irish Bronies have created their own mascot, a pony called Shamrock, and regularly organise trips to toy stores to buy the latest merchandise.
The adult fans of the series acknowledge it is primarily aimed at three- to six-year-old girls. But they say the themes of Friendship Is Magic -- tolerance, acceptance and support for one another -- are universal.
This weekend in Galway, Ireland's Bronies will gather at one of the country's biggest animation, toy and comic conventions, Akumakon 2012. A celebration of various comic- and animation-inspired sub-cultures, the convention will cover everything from Japanese Manga comics and Anime cartoons and movies to computer games, real-life martial arts and, of course, My Little Pony.
Dubliner Barry Whiteside is the organiser of Bronies of Ireland and estimates this country now has, per capita, one of the largest Brony communities in the World.
"When I started out looking for Bronies in Ireland, I thought I might find 10, maybe 20 people who were into Friendship is Magic the same way that I was," says Barry (22).
"I never really expected it to get this big and to meet so many people who have become really good friends."
Barry is fully aware that some might look on adults who devote a proportion of their lives to a kids' TV show called My Little Pony as being a bit, well, silly.
"Look, I think it's silly. And it's not something that's always easy to talk about. We call it 'coming out of the stable'," he says.
"But it's a bit like any other hobby or interest. It's maybe a bit of escapism. Other people might do that through football or whatever, we do it through My Little Pony."
It is telling that even within the comic-book and animation obsessed sub-cultures of fandom, the Bronies are considered to be a little bit out there.
"I think some people look at the whole Brony thing as being a little bit weird," says Galway student John Burke, co-organiser of Akumakon.
John, a 21-year-old biomedical student, also believes the growing popularity of sub-cultures is in part down to a need for escapism, and a fondness for times gone by.
"It's a bit of nostalgia as well. A lot of us would have grown up with Pokémon; what we are into now might be a bit deeper, but it is still basically the same as what you were looking for when you were a kid: excitement, something different."
Hasbro, the toy company behind My Little Pony, and Friendship Is Magic creator Lauren Faust, have admitted to being a little taken-aback about the Brony phenomenon.
And Faust, who first found success with another cult-ish kids' cartoon The Powerpuff Girls, says she never expected adult men to find something that would inspire devotion in Friendship Is Magic.
"This might be a little short-sighted on my part, but I just assumed any adult man who didn't have a little girl wouldn't even give it a try," said Faust recently.
"The fact they did and they were open-minded, cool enough and secure enough in their masculinity to embrace it -- well, I'm kind of proud."
The show's creator has hit on an important issue -- the ridicule often rained down on Bronies, usually by anonymous internet "trolls" (somebody who posts abuse online to provoke a reaction).
Barry of Bronies of Ireland admits they have had their fair share of trolls. But they know how to deal with them.
"We always say we will respond with positivity. People can say what they want.
"We will always love and understand the hell out of them!"
It's not easy being a Brony in a world that doesn't understand. But at least the My Little Pony fans of Ireland can point to tradition.
After all, we Irish have always been a nation of horse fanciers.
The Akumakon Manga, Anime and Japanese Culture Conference takes place in NUI Galway this weekend.