When horses & donkeys ruled Irish transport & haulage | Series 2 – Episode 8
Wheels Mar 28, 2022
In a recent article by the National Library of Ireland (NLI) they were reviewing old photographs of Ireland and stated “Whether it was cities, towns or villages in practically every picture the horse, pony or donkey is seen carrying out a service on behalf of its owner.” This clearly illustrates the importance of the horse and the humble donkey in Irish life. They were used for pulling loads, transporting people, harvesting or carrying of turf. From towns to the countryside, mountains to the seashore, and even war, the NLI photographs demonstrate how the horse and donkey was an ever-present feature of people’s lives.
In the cities, towns and villages horses were primarily used for the transportation of both goods and people. They were particularly important in the days before motor vehicles and mechanised farm equipment. Double-decker horse-drawn trams were popular in cities, whilst smaller long cars and stagecoaches were a vital link between towns and villages. Horses were essential for heavy farm work such as ploughing, harvesting and hay making.
They could pull heavily loaded carts long distances and were essentially the haulage service of the day. On market days produce including eggs, turf and vegetables was brought in from the countryside and surrounding areas in carts pulled by horses and donkeys. They were also important for farmers to bring their fresh milk to creameries which produced butter and cheese.
In the 1850s there were nearly 600,000 horses in Ireland. This means the equine sector was a large section of economic life with thousands of people employed. The most obvious were those dealing direct such as blacksmiths, farriers and stable hands. There were also a wide range of suppliers of feed, saddles / other leather equipment and carts / coaches.
Wider resources and space were needed to stable and store feed and equipment. This was a special problem for overcrowded places like the inner-city of Dublin. The final part of the equine economy was the breeding, buying and selling of these beasts of burden. Around 1900 a first class farm horse fetched from approximately €30 to €40+, whilst horses suitable for ploughing and jobbing went for around €10 or €15.
While there have been many horse breeds over the years the most common in Ireland was the Draught. It was originally bred and vital for work on the farm, but their athletic stature makes them popular as sports horses today. These horses are commonly crossbred with thoroughbreds due to their strong body and ability to easily train. They were adaptive and could handle many different types of terrains and weather conditions.
Ireland has a particularly strong traditional link with donkeys. From the start of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, donkeys played a key role in rural lives, especially in the west. They were the ‘horse’ of the smaller farm equipped with a straddle and a pair of pannier baskets. They had a vital role bringing in winter supplies of turf, shifting seaweed to fertilize less productive land. They were also used to transport people and goods to towns and villages.
We must not forget the tricky issue of what to do with all the manure particularly on the on the streets of cities and large towns. Keep in mind there were around 180,000 horses based in Irish urban areas. On average a horse could produce between 15 to 20 kilos of manure per day and a litre of urine.
Aside from masses of flies attracted to the unholy mess it also fouled water supplies and spread diseases such as typhoid. But Irish cities were not alone in facing this issue. In 1894 London experienced the ‘Great Horse Manure Crisis’. Also the terrible situation was debated in 1898 at the world’s first international urban planning conference in New York.
The advent of motorised transport and tractors meant that horses and donkeys gradually become less important as working animals. Having said this parts of Ireland remained in relative poverty and the horses and donkeys hung on. For example well into the ‘70s CIÉ (Córas Iompair Éireann) used the horse and cart as their local parcel delivery service.
Once a common sight the work horse and donkey has slowly faded into obscurity in Ireland along with the familiar ‘clip clop’ of hooves on the streets. But they have maintained a major role in sport in the form of racing in many locations in Ireland and of course show jumping. While the former is a major part of the economy the latter is more a cultural icon and event not least the Royal Dublin Society, (RDS) annual Horse Show in Dublin’s Ballsbridge. Finally there are a few horses hanging on in Dublin as tourist carriages, wedding and funeral transport. They still cause a stink from the unmentionable at the top of Grafton Street on a hot Summer day!
This post is copyrighted© to Ireland Made®
Not to be copied or reproduced without permission.