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.

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