Monthly Archives: April 2018

Civilizing Horses and Travellers in Post-Colonial Ireland

 

Postcolonial Ireland entered the 20th century as a newly minted nation-state hoping to establish itself as a legitimate competitor in the capitalist world system. Having been subjugated under colonial animal agriculture for over four centuries, freedom from British rule would not bring freedom from British influence as Ireland opted to maintain its animal agricultural economy following decolonization in 1920. Not unlike the cows, pigs, and sheeps in their care, Irish humans had themselves been animalized under colonization, a British tactic that heightened as the nationalist movement for home rule became a credible threat. Celtic revivalists sought to reconstruct the Irish as a distinct, noble race in response, even going to far as to depict the Gaelic ethnicity as angelic in appearance and behavior (Curtis 1971). Defining its postcolonial economy by animal agriculture, furthermore, allowed Ireland to underscore its transition from the simian, brutish subhuman status the British had imposed to the civilized European construction of humanity. The Irish were no longer subjects among animals but took the place of the British in ruling over animals. This dominion supported a new national identity.

Concurrently, the animal welfare movement was rising to prominence in the United States and United Kingdom. Its leading tactic, humane education, was predicated on the belief that a society’s degenerates could be shaped into upstanding citizens in learning to care for other animals (Davis 2016). This logic was applied with great gusto to imperial and colonial subjects. Indeed, humane efforts were ultimately a project of civilizing. This project did not bode well for the animalized Irish, who had been relegated to the statuses of mongrels and vermin as they spilled onto American and British soil looking for work and resisted colonial order on their own. Irish immigrants and colonists alike were depicted as unproductive, unredeemable burdens on the state. Much of the early welfare campaigns and humane literature featured the Irish as instigators of speciesist violence who were resistant or even incapable of improvement.

Not surprisingly, then, the Irish state took great interest in humanizing its populace in the eyes of the world. To accomplish this, it emphasized its cultural prowess, economic capability, civility, and very humanity. In the early part of the 20th century, the state also employed an isolationist economic tactic with hopes of raising Ireland to the status of its peers and relieving its dependency on others, investing its resources in the development of Irish agriculture in the process. By the 1950s, this approach had proven a failure, and Ireland began to open itself to commerce in European market. In 1973, it officiated this relationship by joining the European Union. An independent Ireland thus remained under the influence of Great Britain, maintaining the British-imposed and British-benefiting animal-based economy to legitimize itself. It also maintained Britain’s ideological conflation of humaneness with civility. Postcolonial vestiges of animality would put Ireland’s Traveller population, a holdover from the colonial system, at a distinct disadvantage.

Travellers were recognized by the European Union as a unique ethnicity only in 2017. Genetic testing has revealed that Irish Travellers are biologically distinct from the settler population, but they are also distinct from the Roma Gypsies of Europe and America. It is thought that Irish Travellers emerged out of the disastrous famine years in a countrywide strategy for survival. Beginning in the 17th century, colonialists wrested land from the Irish and disrupted traditional property inheritance norms, which would be compounded by a sudden spike in the peasant population made possible by the life-sustaining, hardy, and cheaply produced potato. Famine only exacerbated this precariousness. Hundreds of thousands were evicted from their rented land, and Ireland’s “gypsies” began traveling in search of sustenance and odd jobs. They have been on the move ever since, existing today in the few remaining communal spaces on the literal margins of society. The Travellers’ resistance to the traditional markers of civilization (such as formal education, property ownership, and regular employment) encouraged considerable conflict with the settler community. Eager to prove its membership in civilized Europe, the Irish state took a harsh approach to Travellers in the 20th century, forcing assimilation and enacting policies designed to remove the unsightly and embarrassing Traveller presence that had become an eyesore with its large caravan encampments and raucous activities.

Two of the most damning policies to impact this community was the closing of the commons which transitioned Ireland into the European model of private property, and, relatedly, the 1996 Control of Horses Act which prohibited horses to roam freely. The move to secure horses is especially relevant given that it was couched in rhetoric of public nuisance and animal welfare, much as were the early welfare campaigns of the late 19th and early 20th century that had targeted the Irish. The latent function of the act was the undermining of an important cultural resource in the Traveller community. As Travellers are migrant and do not own land, their ability to keep horses legally under the new law is impeded. Across the country, cities have pushed to ban sulky racing as well, the fast-paced running of horse carts often in busy roads (which only adds to the excitement). The extreme suffering (and oftentimes death) of the nonhumans contenders (frequently young, inexperienced horses who are physically immature) has caused a moral outcry among settlers.

Travellers have responded in fierce protection of their cultural heritage. Horses had been integral to sustaining the community in the 19th century, pulling caravans and acting as economic currency and status symbols. Travellers traded in horses, both live and dead for resale or slaughter. To this day, Travellers are often disparagingly referred to as “knackers” given the importance of horse slaughter and rendering to their survival. More than this, horses were and are integral to their social life. Festivals and get-togethers revolve around horse trading, display, and competition, especially for the men. A machismo culture, the ability to train and compete horses offers a rare opportunity for boys and young men to engage masculine gender roles. Given the extreme discrimination and prejudice that the community faces in modern Ireland, this relationship with horses has become the central avenue for masculine expression. Traditional masculine markers such as successful employment, educational attainment, home ownership, land ownership, and respect in the public sphere are largely unobtainable for Traveller men, necessitating that they innovate through horse culture. The Irish state’s interference with horse ownership subsequently threatens the well-being of Traveller men, who, with a suicide rate three times that of the settler population, are already highly vulnerable. Horses are truly a lifeline for these men.

There is clearly a moral conflict manifest in the role of horses in post-colonial, civility-conscious Irish society, one that might best be addressed by a vegan feminist perspective in acknowledging the disruptive influence of colonialism and its tendency to manifest and inflame race, ethnicity, and species. This perspective explicitly draws attention to nonhuman animals, who, in becoming political symbols in situations of conflict, are relegated to absent referents. Subsequently, there is a need to rejoin horses to the conversation, as well as a need to emphasize that the construction of animality and humanity under colonialization is harmful not only for nonhuman animals, but also marginalized human groups.

 

Works Cited

Curtis, L. 1971. Of Apes and Angels. Smithsonian Institute Press.

Davis, J. 2016. The Gospel of Kindness. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of science, race, and speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Irish Vegan Feminism: Intersections of Sexism, Speciesism, and Resistance in Postcolonial Ireland

In Animal Rights, Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation, David Nibert (2002) suggests that the switch from an egalitarian economic structure to hunting initiated gender distinction such that sexism and speciesism are most accurately recognized as intersecting systems. Ecofeminists, too, have underscored the deep relationship between the objectification, commodification, and oppression of women and other animals (Adams 2000, Gaard 1993), a doctrine that can be described as vegan feminism. Although vegan feminism has been applied liberally to the experiences of women and other animals in the West, it has primarily focused on the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, severely underserving historically oppressed nations which are well positioned to illuminate patterns of intersecting inequality. This essay applies vegan feminist theory to the postcolonial nation-state of Ireland, explicitly recognizing that the historical processes of anthroparchy, patriarchy, and colonialism in collectively shaping its national identity and political economy.

In the era of colonialism, dietary patterns were employed to rationalize and justify conquest and subjugation (Adams 1990). British “beefeaters” thought themselves morally, cognitively, and physically superior as a result of their carnivorous diets, whereas Indian “rice eaters” and Irish “potato eaters” where rendered effeminate and in need of rule. Indeed, Nibert (2013) argues that the colonialist system acted in tandem with the world capitalist economy, satiating the need for new resources and markets. Domestication, or, as he calls it, domesecration, was instituted across various nonhuman species to increase their exploitability. In Ireland, nationalists were keenly aware that Britain’s imposed system animal agriculture was directly tied to the suffering of Ireland’s people vis-à-vis consistent food insecurity and eviction. Others understood it as a means of pacifying and weakening the Irish constitution, advocating vegetarianism as a means of liberation. In fact, many female activists, who themselves felt domesecrated by the patriarchal rule of British colonists and Irish men alike, acknowledged the relationship between nationalism, feminism, and animal welfare. Many (such as Charlotte Despard pictured here) incorporated vegetarianism into their politics (O’Connor 2016).

Charlotte Despard

Somewhat unique for its time, Ireland’s 1916 uprising and eventual independence in 1922 explicitly incorporated feminism and recognized women’s role in manifesting the republic. Entry into the patriarchal nation-state system, however, quickly soured this liberal streak, and, by 1937, Republican feminism had disintegrated into a deeply conservative Marianism. Women were no longer agential comrades, but damsels in distress and angels of the home. Their second-class citizenry became essential to the functioning of the new society, marking Ireland as a country of traditional values but also providing considerable value in unpaid productive and reproductive labor in homes and farms. This shift coincided with the decision to reinforce animal agriculture as the leading Irish industry. Both women and other animals became livestock for the new Ireland. Although the lowered status of women and the economic exploitation of other animals were both symptoms of colonial rule, Ireland opted to rebrand these systems rather than purge them. According to vegan feminist theory, this correlation was not happenstance, but instead a predictable outcome of participation in the androcentric nation-state system. Economic structures based in the oppression of animals are frequently dependent on gender inequality as well (Wrenn 2017), but, as a feminized postcolonial nation, Ireland was itself vulnerable to exploitation from wealthier core countries made powerful by centuries of colonialist practices.

Irish National Dairy Council advert from the 1970s reads "WATCH IT FELLAS! Women are clever. They know the value of Irish cheese. Great Manfood. So watch it! Cheese is manfood!" Shows three women smiling at camera holding plates of cheese.In the decades since, global influences may sometimes challenge Ireland’s hierarchical structure. Incorporation into the European Union, for instance, has improved wages for women and welfare standards for other animals. Western influences have also ushered in more radical developments in feminism, veganism, and anti-globalization ideology. In its bid to remain competitive and culturally distinct, however, Ireland has doubled down on its misogynistic and speciesist policies. Inflexible anti-abortion and divorce policies are pitted as necessary to protect women and Irish tradition, while ever expanding animal agriculture is also hailed as higher welfare and foundational to Irish tradition. That said, as Ireland enters the postmodern era, the negotiation of global citizenship and economic participation increasingly involves a vegan or feminist perspective. In some cases, these epistemologies merge, much as they did at the dawn of the republic at the turn of the 20th century.

Works Cited
Adams, C. 2000. The Sexual Politics of Meat. New York, NY: Continuum.

Gaard, G. 1993. Ecofeminism. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Nibert, D. 2002. Animal Rights, Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation. New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

——. 2013. Animal Oppression and Human Violence. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

O’Connor, M. 2011. The Female and the Species: The Animal in Irish Women’s Writing. Bern, CH: Peter Lang.

Wrenn, C. 2017. “Toward a Vegan Feminist Theory of the State.” Pp. 201-230, in Animal Oppression and Capitalism, edited by D. Nibert. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Press.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the intersections of species and gender in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

Comments Off on Irish Vegan Feminism: Intersections of Sexism, Speciesism, and Resistance in Postcolonial Ireland

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