By 2009 I was ‘tripping the light fantastic’ as a journalist in the UK. I had landed a gig reviewing restaurants for the Spectator Magazine that once involved flying on a four-seater jet to France to sample the full range of Courvoisier’s Cognac. But as much as I reveled in luxurious dining a sense of guilt gnawed at the inequalities all too apparent on the streets of London: leaving the warmth of gastronomic hot spots, human misery was there for anyone to see.
Interrogating the environmental impact of the global food industry gave me further grounds for concern. In particular, Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma opened my eyes to the damage done by industrial farming, especially of livestock. Anyway, beneath a veneer of glamour I was being paid pittance for my writing, and with an increasingly threadbare wardrobe I was looking for a way home to Ireland.
On the back of teaching experience, and articles that were offering a more scholarly angle on food, I was given an opportunity to teach a course in UCD on the history of food. I also managed to get in on reviewing Irish restaurants for a well-known publication. The more I learnt the more my unease grew with the way the Irish food ‘story’ was being communicated through the media.
So six years ago I decided to quit eating meat. But in order to keep going as a restaurant reviewer – arbitrarily I see now – I continued occasionally consuming dairy products. I managed to get through a few reviews by carefully selecting restaurants with plenty of vegetarian options at a time when there were still no exclusively vegan restaurants in Dublin. But my decision came to a head when I visited Aniar in Galway which purports to present a menu based almost exclusively on Irish ingredients. Their head chef J.P. McMahon is a columnist for the meat-promoting Irish Times Magazine.
By then I had almost completely excluded dairy, and after the meal in Aniar I developed a sickness in my body, which reflected the unease of my soul. So I decided to assert the harsh truth: ‘In recent times native chefs have begun to forge an awareness of the best of Irish, but the gastronomic limitations of our agriculture which places focus on a limited number of commodities, mostly for export, is apparent.’ I then let slip that I had already given up meat and fish.
It is fair to say that my review got a bit caustic after that. I said chefs should not confuse vegetarians with ascetics, and that the lesser caloric value of most plants means that portions should, if anything, be larger than their meat and fish alternatives. I complained that I had received sufficient barley to thread a pearl necklace, which at €18.50 seemed pretty steep.
After filing the review I got no reply from the editor, and was saddled with the expenses from the outing. I did later recover them when my sister, a fellow journalist, met the editor of the magazine, still a well-known food writer, and demanded I should be paid.
It was a form of liberation to be able to write without fear of losing that little sinecure, and I was free to adopt a fully Vegan diet, or philosophy to put it more accurately. I could then let fly with a series of articles drawing attention to the grave damage that Irish farming is doing to our environment.
Not long afterwards I lost my job in UCD. I have no idea whether this had anything to do with my increasingly radical critique of Irish food and farming. So I had to develop career alternatives after that.
Over five years have passed since then, and I have passed through a number of stages as a Vegan. First came self-righteousness. The first Christmas I went to war with the rest of my family over having a turkey on the table. I reduced one of my sisters to tears, and even refused to sit down with them for the meal. It wasn’t pretty, and I realised that approach did nothing to advance my cause.
Next came evangelical zeal. I have long been an enthusiastic cook, so having worked out a number of interesting recipes I began hosting concerts in my parent’s home accompanied by suppers. I hope I opened up a few minds to the possibility of making really delicious meals purely from plant-based ingredients. Some incredible Irish musicians performed in the house, including the late great Louis Stewart – a short film was made of his first concernt. I went on to organise national tours for another band the Loafing Heroes who played in the house.
New interests arrived, and I passed into another stage that of Denial. I no longer wanted to be associated with Veganism, even though I maintained the philosophy, and the hours slaving in the kitchen for little reward brought little satisfaction. I had had enough of being the evangelist and moved to Prague for a year to focus on other writing and teaching.
Having returned to Dublin the stage I have entered is a more integrated form I call Acceptance. I no longer see attitudes to Veganism as a moral index – there are many other worthy causes – but I still earnestly wish that more would adopt the abolitionist philosophy, for the sake of the billions of domesticated animals cruelly incarcerated, and the damage animal agriculture does to the environment, not to mention human health.
Not long ago, a friend who recently converted to Veganism said something quite telling to me: ‘I would have gone Vegan ages ago, but I felt like you would have won the argument’. It shows that it is not good enough simply to win an argument. Everyone should hold on to their principles, but we can accept that even close friends and family may need time to adjust their moral lenses. You don’t need to give up the fight, but don’t target individuals for systemic failings.