Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Living in a place where difference is embraced

Irish people are obsessed with being “normal”, but we could all take inspiration from the Swiss, who embrace diversity and encourage individuality, writes Keith Cregan.

Mon, Apr 23, 2012, 01:00


Irish people are obsessed with being “normal”, but we could all take inspiration from the Swiss, who embrace diversity and encourage individuality, writes Keith Cregan.

Keith Cregan on the banks of the River Reuss in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Nothing annoys me more, than one person, or group of people, telling another how to live. As such, I’m quite a pleasant vegetarian to be around: I cook meat for my friends, including my carnivorous girlfriend, who swears my steak is the best she’s ever had, and I assure everyone that I miss eating it. I’m not lying. I do. It’s delicious. The texture of a steak is inimitable – no matter how hard Linda McCartney’s ghost tries to replicate it.

My beef with meat – it’s worth becoming a vegetarian just to be able to use that pun regularly – isn’t that it’s inhumane and causes suffering. It’s not that it’s unhealthy or unnatural – I don’t believe it is, if I’m honest and I don’t believe I have the right to tell people they can’t do unhealthy things. I don’t think it’s necessarily reprehensible to kill animals every now and then. I just find it completely unnecessary to have so much meat on the shelves. The meat industry is a leviathan and it bothers me to see so many aisles of it on sale in supermarkets. Anyway, that’s just me and I’m delighted that I have the freedom to choose not to spend my money on it. I’m a completely non-judgmental, benign-of-intention vegetarian. I do my thing; you do yours.

Here’s the thing though: when you are a vegetarian everyone wants to talk to you about it and it’s a tedious business. A typical – and by ‘typical,’ I mean every – conversation/interrogation goes as follows:

How long have you been a veggie?

Ten years.

Do you miss meat?


What, really?


But why don’t you just eat it so?

Because I don’t like the scale of the industry and I don’t think it’s necessary to eat meat as often as we do.

I couldn’t do it.

I didn’t say you had to.

What about fish?

No, I don’t eat fish either.

No, I definitely couldn’t do that. I couldn’t live without meat.

You’d be surprised.


I thought all conversations with non-vegetarians went like this, until I spoke with a fellow vegetarian at a party recently. He was Swiss – which wasn’t a great surprise as the party was in Switzerland – and he asked, ‘you know what I find weird when you talk to non-vegetarians? The way they always say, “oh. Well I don’t eat that much meat either,” as if you’re going to arrest them for crimes against non-human animals.’ Initially, I smiled and nodded, but then I thought I’d misheard him, ‘wait, what? They apologise for eating meat?’

‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I would love to conduct social research about the reactions of people when confronted with vegetarians.’

I could scarcely believe what he was saying. I had never had that experience in Ireland. In Ireland, you tell someone you’re a vegetarian and you may as well be telling them you don’t drink (which I don’t. So believe me, I know exactly what happens when you do this. It’s not nice). They immediately write you off. You’re not the same as them. They’re in the normal camp; you’re in the big weirdos, who-don’t-eat-meat-and-are-weird, camp. I’m tempted to say it’s unfair, but I am pretty weird and I’ve always joyed in being different, but that doesn’t explain why the people of Switzerland and Ireland should react so differently to being presented with the same fact, namely, that I am a man who does not eat meat.

Keith in Seelisberg, Schwyz

It made me envious, in a way. Here was this guy who, having inadvertently unmasked himself by enquiring what was in the delectable-looking pastry pockets being circulated around the table under our noses, was questioned by the other guests. Soon we were both outed and I grew defensive, anticipating the usual inquest and its conclusion – that I am a freakazoid-animal-lover-who-thinks-meat-eaters-should-be-ground-up-and-fed-to-animals. But that didn’t happen! Instead, the Swiss partygoers were only too eager to tell us how little meat they eat; they go whole weeks without buying or cooking it; that they admire our resolve and discipline and wish they could be more like us. I was confused. The room started to spin. It had to be a dream, or a joke. But it wasn’t a joke; they weren’t being ironic.

When you boil this down, you arrive at the following formula: So you say to an Irish person, ‘Hello, I’m different,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, you f**kin’ are, you bleedin’ weirdo. But I’m not.’ You say the same thing in Switzerland and they say, ‘I wish I could be more different. Please let me worship at the alter of your greatness.’ This seems wrong somehow? Aren’t we a nation of heroes and rebels? Aren’t the Swiss boring, cheese-munching, punctuality fetishists? Well, no, not really.

Irish people are obsessed with normality and we don’t have any rebels left – they all became entrepreneurs and multi-million selling artists who want to change the world and we hate them all with equal vigor. A hallmark of Irish people in my generation is doing what everyone else is doing, even if you don’t want to, because it’s just what normal people do. We’re going to college, and then to Australia; coming home, buying a house and getting married; and we’re moaning about it all the while. How often, in recent years, have you heard people talk about the need to protest in this country? How many protests have attracted the kind of numbers that effect real change? ‘The French, the Greeks’ we lament, ‘ah they know how to protest. They wouldn’t put up with this.’ We’re right they wouldn’t and they don’t but we do.

In Switzerland the preference isn’t for what one ought to do, but what one wants to do and that’s the key difference. Young Swiss kids have grown up in a country, which has attracted people from all over the world and they are learning and growing as a result. They are tired of being boring, and following the advice of their parents: ‘don’t stick your head out too far, or it’ll get cut off.’ They’re discovering new ways of life with every fresh wave of immigration, which weakens support for the once dominant, right-wing, Swiss People’s Party.

When you tell a young, Swiss person you’re a vegetarian they don’t recoil because it’s different, they envy you because it is. They’re not at the point of changing just yet, but at least they’re not afraid to admit they’re curious about living a different way. They’re opening up to new solutions to old and new problems. If Irish people thought like that, maybe it’d be a better place to live. Until they do, I’m staying in Switzerland and going to more vegetarian-worship parties.

Keith Cregan lost his job in an Irish retail pharmacy chain last year, and has been living in Switzerland and working as an English language teacher for the past eight months. He blogs at