Time to wean ourselves off the rashers and milky tea and embrace veganism

Thu, Aug 2, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:Despite the childish and defensive attitudes of some, Ireland may yet be ready for veganism

IT WOULD be hard to imagine alien anthropologists not having a field day researching Irish cultural traditions. One thing that may interest them is the fact that the Irish population – the humans in it, that is – are never weaned.

Our alien researchers would recognise us as mammals, even if we are disinclined to do so ourselves, and may think it decidedly odd that, once we finish with mother’s milk, if we experience that at all, we turn to the food of baby cows and continue to consume such infant foods throughout adult life.

They may ponder at how advertisers and everyday social practices have seemingly convinced a whole community that there is nothing more “natural” but for humans to drink calf food, and make cheeses and yoghurt from it.

They might scratch their heads, assuming they have heads, because humans making use of other species’ milks is a most bizarre yet common and, indeed, commonplace, phenomenon.

“Would you like some baby food in your coffee, madam?” “Yes please.” “Would you like liquid designed to fatten a calf poured on your cereals, dear?” “Why not!”

What, then, when the aliens discover that there is a growing number of vegans in Ireland; when they finally find members of the We Are Weaned movement living on a healthy plant-based diet and inspired by the philosophy of veganism which at its heart stands for a less violent world? What will they make of this subculture?

When I came to live in Ireland, the Celtic Tiger was still on the prowl, and people told me with great certainty that Ireland wasn’t ready for veganism. So enamoured by their love of rashers, sausages and eggs, probably all washed down by that calf food, if only in their tea, the Irish would have little or no truck with the idea of being vegans.

As if to confirm this view, I was soon to hear on a national radio station a young girl of about 10 who said she was a vegetarian and she thought it was wrong that cows are killed to be eaten and have leather made from their skins, or that sheep are killed to be eaten and have their wool taken.

After she finished speaking, listeners were transferred back to the studio and the first thing the presenter said, Homer Simpson-style, was, “Mmmmm, rashers.”

Why did an adult react so childishly and so defensively to a child’s heartfelt view about the use of other animals? As a sociologist, I look towards ideology and the power of cultural norms and values and I see that Ireland, like most other societies, is a deeply speciesist place, and so much so that even the term “speciesism” is likely to be ridiculed by many.

However, Harold Brown, one-time animal farmer in the US and now vegan advocate with his organisation, Farm Kind, suggests speciesism is the roots of all other isms and all exploitation.

So, the prospects for veganism in Ireland were not looking particularly good in the mid-2000s but after I attended vegan information tables and a number of events in Dublin, things looked much more rosy.

Most people in Ireland seemed to know what “vegan” means – someone who does not consume other animals or animal products – and the “V-word” wasn’t such a scare word after all.

Many people seemed curious and even supportive when they encountered vegan literature on the streets. An increasing number of cafes and restaurants appear to have vegan options on their menus and most large food stores in Ireland have numerous vegan items. I have been to several more events staged by the vegans of Ireland recently, and have helped to organise one or two.

They have been fairly well-attended, positive events, again in Dublin in the main. This leaves open the possibility of an urban-rural divide when it comes to a plant-based diet and the philosophy of the vegans.

Whether that divide is a genuine social reality remains to be seen, as does the extent to which veganism may grow here.

Although I was told to the contrary, I think Ireland is ready for veganism, and it may be left to historical and cultural anthropologists, alien or otherwise, to note the oddity that Irish society at one time failed to wean some of its mammalian citizens.


Dr ROGER YATESis an occasional lecturer at University College Dublin with a research interest in social movements and protest

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