Irish actor Liam Neeson has slammed Mayor Bill de Blasio for his attempt to end the carriage horse industry in Central Park, claiming a “land grab” could be underway.
In a strongly worded letter Neeson states, “I was appalled to learn of your intent to obliterate one of the most deep rooted icons of our city!...
“The horse drawn carriage industry is an integral part of this city and has been since the early 1860s. It has been serving New Yorkers and tourists alike for generations. I have heard you declaring it inhumane and not fitting with the fabric of our city. I am compelled to strongly challenge these declarations.”
Neeson goes on to say that the horses are well looked after, “These horses are well cared for, provided for and, perhaps, most importantly of all, have a job, in one of the world’s most bucolic settings, Central Park.”
He also voices the suspicion shared by many in the carriage industry that some of the animal rights advocates calling for the ban are more interested in making a land grab for the properties the stables are built on than they are in the welfare of the horses they house.
Many of these advocates are members of NYCLASS (New Yorkers for Clean, Liveable and Safe Streets), and a number of them, such as chief supporter and real estate mogul Steve Nislick, have deep professional roots in New York real estate and development. They contributed $1.3 million to the mayor’s campaign.
Neeson asks “Why don’t you come to the stables, meet with the business owners and see the conditions first hand?
“History teaches us that land grabs can manifest themselves in various ways. We all know the land on which these 4 stables sit is most valuable. Please do not become complicit in this type of practice.”
Neeson would seem to have public support on his side. A recent Quinnipiac Poll shows that 61% of New Yorkers want to keep the 150-year-old tradition going.
The Ballymena-born actor has lived in New York City for a number of years and has been a supporter of the horse and carriage drivers for a long time.
Neeson is a close friend of Colm McKeever, a long-time veteran of the industry, who spoke with IrishCentral about what the “Taken” star’s advocacy means to their cause.
It was McKeever's wife, Fiona, who intoduced the two. When the actor was in Dublin filming “Michael Collins," his late wife, Natasha Richardson, was pregnant at the time with their first child, and Fiona was her midwife at Holles Street Hospital. They bonded so strongly that Neeson and Richardson offered to hire Fiona, prompting her move to the US, where she and McKeever met.
Neeson has also befriended a number of the other drivers independently of McKeever. “Liam spends a lot of time in Central Park, and many of the people in the business are Irish, so he’s developed a friendship with them over the years,” he explained. “He knows the park better than anyone. He’s also been to our stables many times and is so impressed with the conditions.”
Carriage horses in New York can only work a set number of hours each day, and never in extreme heat or cold. Their stalls must be at least 64-square-feet (enough room to fully turn around), and both the condition of the stables and the health of the horses are subject to regulated inspection. For at least five weeks of every year, the horses leave the city for farm rest.
“Liam seems to be the only one with the courage of his convictions to come out in support of us,” McKeever said, when asked about the number of celebrities who have spoken out against the industry. “People do support us quietly, but they’re afraid to put their necks on the line. Liam is a real courageous guy. He sees an injustice being done here and he feels really strongly about speaking out.”
The injustices Neeson names include: de Blasio’s rejection of an invitation to visit the stables, the hasty disregard for an iconic New York tradition, and the total impracticality of the proposed plan to simply send the 200 horses currently working “to pasture” and replace them with old-timey electric cars.
McKeever called this plan completely unrealistic, especially since the horses are the property of their owners.
But McKeever is hopeful that with the help of Neeson and the support of New Yorkers they can successfully fight the ban, though it looks more and more like the battle will be legal rather than political.
Shortly before his inauguration, de Blasio vowed to make banning the carriages one of his first priorities when in office. The City Council first has to pass legislation, but that motion looks likely as new Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito sponsored a bill in favor of a ban in 2010.
“Liam has his finger on the pulse of what’s going on with the business and he sees how vulnerable we are,” McKeever said. “Most of us are owner-operators of our own carriages. As a result, it’s really a David and Goliath story, and nobody is more aware of that than Liam.