German hearts bleed for the hungry horses of the Green Island


BERLIN LETTER:The media have picked on an odd image to illustrate Ireland’s economic misfortunes

IT’S REMARKABLE the sympathy the Irish get in Germany these days. But it became clear to me this week that these understanding nods and words of support are not intended for us at all.

When a friend this week asked how things were, she interrupted my noncommittal answer with a question: “But what about the horses?”

It seems my German friend is better informed, and more concerned, about the plight of Irish horses than Irish homeowners.

People here have been watching and reading reports filed by German journalists parachuted in from London or further afield. Struggling to grasp events, they have often settled on a narrative of Ireland’s recent history that runs from Wild Man to Wunderkind and back again.

But how to illustrate it? Enter the horses.

The phenomenon of horses abandoned because of the crisis is a real one and has been reported widely in the Irish media, including in this newspaper last September. But reports in Germany and across Europe have conflated two stories, telling shocked viewers that the raggedy pony hobbling across their screens – probably bought at the Smithfield market for €50 – used to be a trophy racehorse.

Told this way, the reports from Ireland seem like some sort of equestrian version of Operation Transformation, but in reverse: from Black Beauty to Francis the Talking Mule.

One particularly egregious report was shown on German public television, its worldwide broadcaster Deutsche Welle, and again on a private German television station.

Like many other reports, it starts with shots of Smithfield horse fair.

“Horses sell here for a few meagre banknotes,” the voice-over says.

“The prices are in the cellar.”

Was it ever any other way at Smithfield? Over footage of a teenage girl riding a pony bareback in the drizzle comes a narrative non-sequitur: “Young men and women from the suburbs with barely enough money for a decent rain jacket wouldn’t necessarily let their horse starve if they lost interest.”

Step two in the wild horses reportage involves a pilgrimage to Dunsink, where German viewers learn that Ireland “used to be one big meadow”. Ireland’s horse problem, viewers are told, stems from a people taking their love of horses too far.

“Every animal has its own story,” continues the serious voice-over, showing a horse apparently abandoned by a jobless banker. “The first thing he did was stop feeding [the horse]. Horses are at the bottom of the food chain. The most visible victims of the crisis.”

After five bizarre minutes the report ends with the pay-off line: “The days are over when every Irish person could have their own horse on which to speculate. Horses are only of limited use for speculation.”

The European media obsession with Ireland’s wild horses began in the late autumn. Germany’s Spiegel Online website reported last November that “20,000 horses are said to be wandering around the island”.

The website later admitted the claim was “incorrect” but not before the 20,000 figure established itself in the heads of German journalists. They must be disappointed not to find a pack of horses circling when they emerge from Dublin airport.

In the German television report, Liam Kinsella of the DSPCA is asked about the number of wild horses roaming the country. Under his dubbed answers, after prompting from the journalist, he can be heard answering: “Your figure of 20,000 quite possibly could be true.”

Now the wild horses story has taken on a life of its own, galloping through the German media landscape under increasingly outlandish headlines: “Horse Crisis in Ireland”; “Poverty in Ireland: Taken out on the Back of Their Horses”; “Hawked, Starved, Forgotten”.

Similar stories have run in Poland and other European countries. The reaction from audiences has been as excitable as the reports. Not since the wild dogs of Mallorca and Bucharest has there been a story like it.

“Shoot the speculators and save the horses, not vice versa,” wrote one viewer on a German internet forum. “Thrown away like an unwanted toy. I’m sorry but that this a disgrace and perverse, into the bargain.”

Another internet poster makes an appeal: “How can I adopt one?” Setting up an adopt-a-horse programme might be a good get- rich-quick scheme. It’s not quite the shaggy dog story it appears to be, but your German donors won’t care.