Irish horse and carriage drivers in New York’s Central Park are deeply worried that their industry will be a thing of the past after the next mayor assumes office in January, but they’re not prepared to lose their livelihoods without a fight.
Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio has gone on record as saying that banning the horse and carriage trade will be one of his top priorities if he wins the race; his campaign website states that he supports “an immediate ban on abuse of carriage horses.”
De Blasio’s Republican opponent Joe Lhota has not been as outspoken on the issue, but during a radio interview in May he stated that he too would eliminate the industry because “the smell that they drop there is unfortunate. I will get rid of the horses.”
Carriage owners who have made a living for decades driving tourists and locals through the lanes of bucolic Central Park are outraged at the attack on their way of life, and even more furious that animal rights activists allege that their horses have been mistreated.
“Bill de Blasio isn’t just talking about taking our jobs. He’s taking our pensions, money from our families – he’s taking everything,” carriage owner Robert Boyle, a native of Co. Leitrim, told the Irish Voice last Friday afternoon while waiting for customers on Central Park South.
Boyle has worked in the industry for 28 years and knows no other way of life, he said. He estimates that close to half of the drivers are Irish.
Married with four children, Boyle says he has “no idea” what he would do if the next mayor makes good on his promise to take the horses off the streets.
“I thought de Blasio wanted to create jobs. But this is killing jobs,” Boyle adds. The horse and carriage industry employs more than 300 people and generates millions in economic activity.
Boyle’s horse, Betty, is also a part of his family he says. They’ve been a team for six years. Betty had been abandoned in Ohio and was on the way to a Canadian slaughterhouse when Boyle rescued her.
“She’s a beauty,” said Boyle. “Does she look like an abused animal to you? We have to work under extremely tight city regulations. She gets six weeks of vacation. She has to get four medical examinations a year. Humans don’t get as much.
“The idea,” Boyle adds, “that we would tolerate the abuse of these horses is crazy. We love them to death. Horses are born to do something, not just laze around in this fantasy of green fields. She’s a proud work horse. All of our horses are.”
Tommy Hughes from Co. Armagh was also waiting for customers last Friday. A driver for 30 years, Hughes calls de Blasio a hypocrite because of a 2007 vote he cast in favor of the horse and carriage industry while he was a member of the City Council.
“But the so-called animal rights activists dug deep into their pockets and gave him money for his campaign, so now he’s changed,” Hughes told the Irish Voice.
“It’s all about money. It’s not about the animals at all.”
Meanwhile, Hughes and his family fret about their future.
“I have a 14-year-old daughter who wants to go to college. She’s so worried that she won’t be able to if I lose my job,” Hughes said.
“Nobody cares about what we’ll do or what will happen to us,” added Hughes, who also dismissed a de Blasio plan to replace the horses with antique cars as “unworkable.”
Tony Moran, a driver from Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, agrees.
“It will never happen, it will never work,” he told the Irish Voice.
Moran and the rest of the drivers interviewed singled out New York real estate developer Steve Nislick and his animal activist group NYCLASS for the political turn against their industry.
NYCLASS spent thousands sponsoring ads against Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker and pro-carriage industry Democratic mayoral candidate who finished well behind de Blasio in the primary.
“These people don’t want to hear about how well we treat our animals, they don’t want to come to our stables and see how well we provide for the horses,” Moran said.
The busiest time of the year for the drivers, Moran says, is the Christmas period, with couples getting engaged while on a carriage in Central Park, and tourists enjoying a holiday spin. It’s a grand, decades-long New York tradition says Moran while looking at his horse, Duddy, named after the former Irish boxer John Duddy.
“We treat our horses with the utmost care and respect,” said Moran. “Why would we do otherwise? We couldn’t do otherwise, given the amount of regulations that the city has.”
Should the new mayor move against the horse and carriage industry next year, Moran says the drivers will fight back.
“Oh definitely, no way are we going to be quiet,” he says, adding that animal rights activists have wrongly hijacked their industry.
“Most people support our industry and our horses. The activists have it all wrong. We don’t have the money behind us that they have, but we’re not just going to take this lying down.”