Ireland: The Land of Meat, Dairy, And…Vegans?
Ireland is often stereotyped as unsympathetic to the ethics of plant-based eating. Its foodscape is portrayed as carnivorous and uninspired, and it is true that the Irish economy depends on meat and dairy production. But while Ireland’s history of invasion, emigration, and trade created a culture of speciesism, it has also brought diverse values and a knowledge of alternatives. Now, concerns are growing about the health and environmental impacts of animal foods. Indeed, the Irish seem more receptive than ever to animal interests.
Ireland’s relationship with non-human animals is complex. During the animist Celtic and early Christian period, animals were viewed almost as equals. Diets were heavy with grains and largely plant-based. Animal foods included only small amounts of meat, but dairy had a prominent role, prized for its calories and nutrient quality. As the British began to colonize Ireland in the 1500’s, the suffering of both the Irish people and their animals increased greatly. Meat and dairy produced by the Irish was sent to feed the wealthy English. During that period, Irish subsisted on a plant-based diet because they had to. Large swaths of the population could not afford the animal foods they themselves produced. They found themselves without political representation, land rights or food security.
Later in this period, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Irish became reliant on the potato. Both the Irish and their pigs depended on them for sustenance. Disastrous blights left a million people to starve and 250,000 were evicted from their homes. Many more left Ireland if they had the means. At the end of the great famine, Ireland’s population sank from 8.2 to 6.6 million. Over the next 50 years, an additional two million more were lost, mostly through emigration. Irish culture today has its roots in that period of oppression. Through this experience, the Irish recognize a kinship with their animals as subjugated beings.
Today, increasing prosperity and economic security is leading to a change in Irish eating habits. Ireland ranked 10th globally in meat consumption in 2003 and was also quite high in dairy consumption. The production of meat, dairy, and seafood employs 39,000 Irish workers. To capitalize on this sector’s success, the government is intensifying efforts to expand meat, dairy and seafood production for export to international markets. At the same time, Ireland is also moving into local and sustainable agriculture. The Irish desire to support the local economy is strong, and a Love Irish Food survey found that 75% of Irish seek out Irish-made products when shopping.
But even with an economy still centered around animal agriculture, Irish animal advocates are creating a new narrative. Ireland is starting to play a key role in the development of the non-human animal rights movement. Advocates are promoting veganism and fighting against speciesism. And Ireland’s rapidly expanding mushroom sector is bringing attention to new options for plant-based eating. The industry is considered one of the best in the world and so far, accounts for 3,000 Irish jobs. Vegan alternatives are showing up more and more in grocery stores and restaurants. A variety of animal welfare and rights organizations across the country highlight the progress towards social justice for all beings.
So, what is the takeaway for animal advocates? This essay demonstrates that veg*ism can take root in unlikely places. A wide variety of groups, from professional organizations to grassroots efforts, are working to encourage veg*ism in Ireland. Most large Irish cities now have vegetarian restaurants, and vegan options are more and more available. All major grocery chains now sell specialty vegan foods. And at the grassroots level, people meet up to share food and socialize. It is through these efforts, both large and small, that ever so slowly, a movement is born.