Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Author: Maureen O’Connor (University College Cork)

Animals In Irish Literature

Animals in Irish Literature and Culture. Edited by Kathryn Kirkpatrick and Borbála Faragó. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015, 270 pp.

Richard “Humanity Dick” Martin, Member of Parliament for Galway, earned his nickname by being an advocate for both Catholic Emancipation and animal rights. The Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act, passed by British Parliament in 1822, also known as “Martin’s Act,” was one of the first legislative acts in support of animal rights. Martin was joined in introducing and endorsing the legislation by William Wilberforce and Thomas Fowell Buxton, both vigorous social reformers and abolitionists. Wilberforce and Martin would go on to be among the founders of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now the RSPCA) in 1824. The constellation of causes pursued by activists like Martin and Wilberforce demonstrates the perhaps unsuspected history of what is now referred to as “intersectionality.” Seeing as connected such emancipatory causes as the rights of animals, Roman Catholics, and the enslaved was not unusual in the nineteenth century. Eminent Irish abolitionist, feminist, and anti-vivisectionist, Frances Power Cobbe, for example, was proud of having been born in 1822, the year of Martin’s Act. Though less far concerned with the rights of the Roman Catholic population of her native country than Martin, Cobbe made the (questionable) assertion that the Irish are “more kind to animals generally than the English peasantry.”[1]

Of course it is the English who have a reputation for “excessive” regard, often derisively labelled “sentimentality,” for their pets, if not for hares, foxes, or beef cattle. There is no stable, analogous stereotype about the Irish and their animals, perhaps at least in part due to the legacy of colonialism’s dehumanisation of its others, including the Irish. The longstanding predominance of the rural in defining Irish culture and “authentic” Irish identity also contributes to a conflicted attitude toward the nonhuman, implicitly associated with both the humiliations of colonial occupation and the embarrassing survival of cartoonish images of thick, bumpkin “Paddy.” Certainly, Irish advertising exploits the supposed comic charge inherent in treating animals as though they are worthy of respect and care. A 2006 television advertisement for Kerrymaid butter, which featured dairy farmers pampering their cattle―fluffing the grass to a comfortable and convenient munching height, holding umbrellas over the cows’ heads in a rainstorm, covering their eyes when the butcher’s van drives past, and reading to them at night in their stables―starred Karl Spain, an Irish comedian, in case anyone did not get the “joke.” A more recent ad campaign for Vodafone (2015) was built around the rescue of a piglet named Sue from becoming food, a series of spots that oscillated between the whimsical and the ridiculous, and, when aired by the national broadcaster RTÉ, was often followed by a commercial for ham or sausages, as if to provide editorial “balance.”

Despite the rich and complex possibilities for discursive analysis presented by Ireland’s historical, political, and cultural negotiations of its relationship with nonhuman animals, Animal Studies has virtually no presence in the Irish academy, which has only recently begun to engage in ecocritical work of any kind, mostly to do with landscape. Gerry Smyth’s landmark call in 2000 to reinvigorate “established paradigms” by establishing “an Irish ecocriticim” has gone virtually unheeded. Smyth’s essay, “Shite and Sheep: An Ecocritical Perspective on Two Recent Irish Novels,” includes some innovative animal-centric analysis of Anne Haverty’s One Day as a Tiger.[2] Smyth sees the international discourse of ecocriticism as a corrective to the insularity that has led to the island’s persistent intellectual “strife and underperformance.”[3] If, as John Elder puts it, “critical conversation is itself an ecosystem” (183), there is a niche in the Irish academic ecosystem waiting to be filled by Kathryn Kirkpatrick and Borbála Faragó’s Animals in Irish Literature and Culture. This observation of Elder’s is quoted by Christine Cusick in her contribution to the volume. Cusick’s chapter on birds in contemporary Irish poetry is one of the examples this volume offers of the especially effective work being done in ecocritical Irish Studies and the way in which such work can incorporate Animal Studies.

The collection represents an important early entry into what promises to be a productive direction in Irish ecocritical work. Wide-ranging in their theoretical and chronological sweep, the essays move from what might be the expected categories of narratives about hunting and gendered readings of the animal figure to critical frames that challenge and unsettle the categories of nature and culture, the human and the non-human, as the section titles promise. One of the dominant connective threads throughout is poetry, associated in the Irish tradition with the blackbird and its beautiful song since at least the ninth-century, as in the poem, “The Blackbird of Belfast Lough.” The human and avian encounter central to Cusick’s reading of the work of Moya Cannon, Michael Longely, and Francis Harvey is one that induces humility and encourages a revaluation of “the inadequacies of human perception” (185). Poetry evokes inadequacy, the unknown and the silences that haunt our scant vocabulary. Human culture would seem to have always recognised the inherent poetry of the nonhuman. John Berger has suggested that the first metaphor was animal,[4] and the finally elusive quality of the nonhuman aligns it with the poetic, which may account for the marked strength of the essays here that engage with poetry. Lucy Collins’s reading of blood sports in eighteenth-century poetry considers the “relationship between the ideological and the aesthetic” (13), and goes on to examine the practical consequences of literary representations of the hunt, their impact on the debate about animal cruelty. Donna Potts describes a similar dynamic between the aesthetic and the political in her essay, “Francis Harvey’s Bestiary.” Three of the most ambitious and exciting essays in the collection, Luz Mar González-Arias’s study of Dorothy Molloy, Liam Young’s contribution on Yeats, and Tom Herron’s exploration of Paul Muldoon, take fresh and inventive approaches to reading the nonhuman in Irish poetry. González-Arias ingeniously integrates Elaine Scarry’s work on pain and illness into her analysis of the way in which Molloy’s poetry reveals “the unbearable creatureliness of being” through the suffering body (121). The body is always in a process of “becoming” in the sense that has been theorised by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, a theory indispensable to Animal Studies and which is used to persuasive effect by Young who sees Yeats deploying the “silent” animal as a figure for the “problem of indeterminacy of linguistic structure,” a problem potentially undermining of “authorial agency and human subjectivity” (151). Herron’s discussion of Muldoon also addresses the ways in which the animal allows for abandonment of “a stable or coherent subject position” (245), energizing and complicating the poet’s use of the figure.

González-Arias, Young, and Herron, and others in the collection, write about the suffering animal body, a body helplessly suffering at the hands of exploitative, instrumentalist human practice. Borbála Faragó’s essay, “Transnational – Transanimal: Reading the Insect in Migrant Irish Poetry,” like Ed Madden’s contribution, “’Even the animals in the fields: Animals, Queers, and Violence,” argues for the urgent political and ideological relevance of the representation of the animal, not only for the fate of nonhumans, but for the treatment of racial, national, and sexual others whose suffering is often embedded in the systemic hierarchies and injustice that support the disregard for and exploitation of animals. As Madden argues, “Nature or the natural … is used to condemn sexual difference and to justify violence against the sexual Other” (105-6). Madden goes on to suggest that in heterosexist discourse, the homosexual exceeds the animal, is “not-even-animal” (107), something that could be said of insects and arachnids, the uncuddly creatures of Faragó’s chapter, creatures that challenge narrativity and meaning when literature focuses on those beings most foreign to traditional constructions of human subjectivity. The insect functions as an allegory for the post human and the transhuman, “a life form that metaphorically surpasses human foibles by decentring human notions of exceptionality and supremacy” (233). Animals, both victims and saviors, can map out a “mutable representational space” for imaging that which exceeds the limits of the normative, including “ideas of belonging, origin, and destination” (241).

It is not possible to comment on every essay in the collection, but other outstanding contributions include Kathyrn Kirkpatrick’s “Quick Red Foxes: Irish Women Write the Hunt” and Sarah O’Connor’s “Hares and Hags: Becoming Animal in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s Dún na mBan trí Thine,” essays that recall both the ancient association of the power of women with the mystery of the animal and the ways in which that connection has been denigrated. It is also unnecessary to dwell on the less successful contributions, and they are few, other than to note that there is a tendency in some chapters to betray a lack of familiarity with the specificities of Irish culture, both historical and contemporary, with the result that, for example, literary response to the Celtic Tiger is datable before the economic phenomenon began, and the place of the pig in Irish culture is somewhat misrepresented. The “gentleman who pays the rent” was a symbol of prosperity and good fortune. To this day, being on the pig’s back (ar muin na muice) is even better than living high on the hog. Despite these few minor weaknesses, the collection and its readers find themselves on the pig’s back. The volume is a valuable intervention, both entertaining and provocative, that suggests new, robust directions for Irish Studies research. In the words of Sarah O’Connor’s essay, we have been given the opportunity by the editors and contributors to “see the animal as a possible opening for a new style of perception” (92).

[1] Frances Power Cobbe, “The Celt of Wales and the Celt of Ireland.” Cornhill Magazine (December 1877): 671-2.

[2] Gerry Smyth, “Shite and Sheep: An Ecocritical Perspective on Two Recent Irish Novels.” Irish University Review 30.1 (Spring-Summer 2000): 163-78.

[3] Ibid., 163.

[4] John Berger, ‘Why Look at Animals?’ About Looking (London: Writers & Readers, 1980), 5.