I was about five or six years old, and sitting on the floor of my great-grandmother’s kitchen, when I first heard the word “vegetarian”.
The story of my great-grandmother’s house is a wonderful one in itself. Prior to her death in 1998, my parents, brother and I lived right next to her. Our back gardens were connected via a small wooden gate. There were few things I enjoyed more than running into her kitchen unannounced to regale her with stories about whatever had happened in school that day.
My abiding love for raw parsley began in her garden, where a beautiful bed of parsley plants would flourish year after year. For the rest of my life, I will remember the gooseberries she had at the very back of the garden too: their exceptional tanginess, the sudden burst of bitter juices that would hit my tongue whenever I bit into one, and the involuntary scrunching of all my facial muscles that would inevitably follow. Since then, no gooseberry I’ve ever tasted has come close.
It is possible that my memories are tinged with the eternally-rosy lens of nostalgia, but I recall a lot of beautiful summer days during the mid-90s, complete with clear skies, ample sunlight, and light breezes that cooled me down perfectly whenever it got too hot. I remember spending a lot of time in my great-grandmother’s house during those summers. On one occasion, I eagerly showed off a new pink dress I had received for my birthday – convinced that it made me look exactly like Emma Bunton from the Spice Girls – and I remember the way she smiled at me, highly amused by my excitement. My great-grandmother is on my mind quite a lot at the moment because the 20th anniversary of her death is coming up soon.
I have a distinct memory of sitting on the floor of her kitchen on the day that vegetarianism was mentioned, bewildered but intrigued by the whole concept. I can’t remember how exactly it was explained to me what “vegetarian” meant, or how I was told that it is necessary for animals to die in order for humans to eat meat. All I know is that I was with a few different adult relatives, and a conversation about vegetarianism was happening.
I can remember musing aloud that it would be a good thing to save animals – I had always loved cats and dogs, and had even adopted a hedgehog who lived in the garden as “my pet” for a while – and it might be nice to become a vegetarian. My mother and great-grandmother told me that it would be better to wait until I was an adult, as they didn’t think children could grow big and tall without eating meat.
I mulled this over for a few moments. I knew that eighteen was the age at which I was supposed to become a serious adult, all set to embark on some big, scary, important career and start claiming a mortgage (which amuses me greatly now), but I wanted to become a vegetarian sooner than that. Sixteen struck me as an age when I would have finished growing big and tall, and would be sufficiently close to adulthood to become a vegetarian without anyone berating me about it.
“Okay, I’ll be a vegetarian when I’m sixteen then.”
I made this impassioned promise to myself there and then – when I was no older than six years of age – and knew, somehow, that I fully intended to abide by it. My older relatives acquiesced and went along with this, saying “yes, Aisling … when you’re sixteen, you can become a vegetarian.” They probably thought that by then, I would have forgotten all about it.
As the years intervened, that promise did fade from my conscious mind, to be perfectly honest, but something in me never forgot it.
One morning in April 2007, I woke up, walked downstairs, entered the kitchen and found myself announcing to my startled mother: “Mam, I’m not going to eat meat anymore. I want to be a vegetarian from now on.”
Before those words escaped my mouth, I hadn’t consciously intended to say them – my announcement surprised even me – but as soon as they were out, they felt right. I didn’t remember the promise I had made to myself as a child until a couple of years later, but when I did, I was amazed. The things that our subconscious minds can remember are truly astounding.
I went vegetarian entirely on a whim, so this decision might have been expected not to last. My dad predicted I would be eating meat again by Christmas (a prediction he continued to make for several years, before finally accepting that this was more than a passing fad)! But somehow, this strange, whimsical notion of mine was one that stuck. From that day onwards, I never again ate any meat that came from land animals, though I sometimes alternated between eating fish and then not eating them again.
For some reason, I didn’t see fish as “meat” in the same way that beef, pork or chicken was.
Every now and then I would read something about the rapid rate of oceanic depletion – which would prompt me to stop eating fish – only to be guilt-tripped into eating it again after hearing that I would be irreparably damaging myself if I chose not to eat them. During those years, I frequently found myself caught between my knowledge that the oceans were being destroyed by commercial fishing methods, on one hand, and on the other, the impact of countless marketing campaigns which stated that omega oils from fish were the best by far and no other source could come close. I now know that there are plenty of other good sources of omega oils – flax and linseed come to mind – and questions have also been raised recently about the levels of mercury and other ocean pollutants in fish oil. In the late Noughties, however, fish oil was where it was at.
During the years when I was a vegetarian/sometime pescetarian, I knew absolutely nothing about the dairy industry. I could never explain exactly why I wouldn’t eat meat either, as I had never really looked into standard industry practices at that time. Whenever anyone asked me why I wouldn’t eat meat, all I could offer them was a feeble, “I just don’t want to.” From the moment I made that on-the-spot decision to become a vegetarian at the age of sixteen, I was being driven forward by an impetus that I didn’t quite understand.
My decision to become a vegan was very different.
It happened when I learned – quite suddenly and brutally – exactly what happens in the animal agriculture industry. This time, it wasn’t a decision that came out of nowhere. I knew exactly why I was doing it.
I was scrolling through Facebook one evening in late January 2013 when my eyes were drawn to an advertisement at the side of my newsfeed. It was advertising a video called What Came Before, produced for a U.S. farmed animal sanctuary called Farm Sanctuary (the creativeness of that name gets me every time) and narrated by Steve-O.
What Came Before shocked me. The video took an excruciatingly detailed look at the lives that animals trapped within the factory farming system must endure: the violence, the deprivation, the unrelenting misery of it all…
I was crying hysterically when I finished watching the video. I immediately turned to Google for more information about veganism. When I learned that cows had to be kept pregnant in order to produce milk, I was shocked (much to my embarrassment). I kept asking myself, how could I not have known something so basic – so obvious?
I had known for many years that mammals – including humans – do not produce milk unless they are nursing offspring, so why had I somehow believed that this wouldn’t be the case for cows? The simple answer is that I had never taken a moment to consider what dairy cows’ lives were actually like, and as I had lived in an urban environment all my life, I had never been exposed to the reality of how dairy farms operated. Instead, I had held onto a nice, but patently false idea – one I had been carrying around since childhood – that cows magically produce milk all by themselves and live blissful, carefree lives out on the pasture until they die of natural causes.
Little by little, I educated myself on all of the various issues involved and slowly began to cut animal products out of my life, hoping to eliminate them in a way that wouldn’t be noticed by people around me. I knew that I wanted to go vegan and remain so for the rest of my life – I knew that just as surely as I had known that I wanted to be a vegetarian as a child – but I wasn’t ready to speak openly about that decision.
These days, my mother is one of the most passionate, dedicated vegans I know, but when I first went vegetarian, she was highly concerned about whether I would receive enough nutrients. When she heard that I wanted to go further and embrace the path of veganism, her concerns were reignited all over again. Other people were also quick to express their fear, confusion or even outright annoyance over my decision.
At the time of watching What Came Before, I had been in one of my pescetarian phases, so the very first step I took from that day onwards was to stop eating fish. Eliminating dairy produce from my diet was a more awkward process that took several months. I didn’t achieve it until the 1st of June 2013, when I boarded a plane to New York, planning to spend a few months there. Somehow, I knew – I just knew – that when I came home, I would be a confident vegan, no longer apologising for it or occasionally taking milk or cheese in an effort to keep the peace with certain people.
Breaking away from home and going abroad for a while turned out to be just what I needed to solidify my intentions. The dairy industry is deeply embedded in Irish culture, with many dairy farming families stretching back for generations. I knew that it would be much easier to adopt a fully plant-based diet and spend time familiarising myself with the ins and outs of this new way of life, away from the pressures of home, the awkwardness of having to constantly answer questions, and my niggling fear that I was being impossibly rude and difficult every time I turned down a piece of cheese.
When I returned from New York, there was no more wavering, no more doubts. I was ready to be clear in my intentions, and I knew that I would never again make myself eat something that contained milk or cheese in order to avoid appearing impolite.
2016 was the year I came into my own, in terms of becoming confident as an activist.
I spent the first two years after turning vegan continuing to educate myself on the state of animal rights here in Ireland and internationally, as well as getting to grips with nutrition, finding new recipes to cook, and making friends among the small number of vegan groups based in Dublin.
My efforts at street activism began in early 2015, thanks to a couple of friends who nudged me out of my comfort zone by gently suggesting that I join them at a vegan information table one day, then staying by my side the entire time, making it clear that I could leave any time I wanted to. I wouldn’t have done it without them.
I am a committed introvert. I’ve never been the type of person who feels comfortable being “pushy” in any way. I think it’s important for everyone to find their own niche when it comes to this kind of work. Shouting at people is not my style. Pontificating is not my style. My street activism basically involved standing at an information table alongside a few other people, ready to hand out leaflets or engage in brief conversations with anyone who voluntarily approached us or wanted to ask questions.
The many fears I had harboured about getting involved with activist groups – including that it would be an endless parade of people yelling “bacon” at us, or that I would end up being violently confronted in a way that I couldn’t deal with – proved to be accurate on a few occasions, but I enjoyed the far greater volume of positive interactions that we had with members of the public who simply wanted to know more about veganism. Facing my fears, too, made me stronger. By the time early 2016 rolled around, I had gathered a strong group of friends at the table and I felt comfortable discussing veganism from a wide range of different angles, after all the practice I had received!
The cause of making this world a kinder, more loving place for animals will always hold a special place in my heart. Nothing and no one can ever sway me from that.
Nevertheless, I feel it is important to highlight some of the challenges that can arise when doing on-street activism, so that if anyone who is interested in getting involved with this type of work comes across this post, they will know what to expect.
- Mistakes will be made. I sometimes received questions about nutrition or agricultural practices that I couldn’t answer. I soon learned that the best thing to do when that happened was to simply admit that I didn’t know a lot about the particular subject that the person had raised. I used to turn to other, more experienced activists who knew more about the subject in question. These encounters always proved to be invaluable learning experiences for me, as well as the person asking the question.
- Be aware that differences in opinion will arise between different activists. Everyone involved is human, after all!
- It is okay not to be close personal friends with every fellow activist you encounter. See point above regarding differences in opinion! I was fortunate enough to find a tight-knit group of friends through my work with the information table. These are the people who always have my back, no matter what, and I could not be more grateful for them.
- Know your own values and know that you have the right to remain strong in the face of those who would try to break them down. I experienced a few incidents of misogyny while volunteering at the table, and I was also made deeply uncomfortable by a few people who approached me professing an interest in veganism, while also making casual racist statements and expecting me to agree. I will not entertain anyone who expresses support for animal rights while simultaneously espousing homophobic, sexist, anti-choice or racist views. My decision to embrace veganism was an extension of my core belief in the dignity, autonomy and inherent value of all other individuals on this planet, whether they are of my own species or not. I have sometimes been disappointed to witness a few vegan activists appearing to pander to the toxic beliefs that some people approaching the table have held, so long as they express some sign – however faint or implausible – of being willing to consider veganism.
- It is absolutely, 100% okay to stay at home sometimes, rather than engaging in the sometimes draining interactions that street activism can involve. Putting your own mental health first is a necessity, not a luxury. How you can effectively assist animals if you yourself are running on empty?
I am currently taking a break from on-street activism, due to a change in circumstances for some members of the group with which I was involved. I’m now taking time to think about how I can move forward and advocate for animals in other ways, until the opportunity to engage in face-to-face activism arises once again. This website – my own little corner of the Internet, where I can sound off on anything that crosses my mind – is one way in which I intend to do that.
Image Source: The Vegan Society
As far as the nutrition aspect of veganism goes, I don’t worry too much about it. I must admit that I love vegan ice cream, chocolate and other treat foods, but I aim to keep them to a minimum within my diet. I am well-known for chomping through bowl upon bowl of radishes, while my penchant for eating an entire bag of kale in one sitting has frequently sent up howls of protest amongst my long-suffering friends!
Five years after becoming a vegan, I am fortunate enough to be feeling strong, healthy and vibrant. I don’t like it when extravagant, over-the-top claims are made about veganism’s health benefits. These overblown claims are often accompanied by an insidious undertone which suggests that vegans must constantly be seen to be in top physical condition, because if you dare to be any other way, you are a poor role model for the cause: hindering, rather than helping animals. That perfectionistic attitude can be greatly detrimental to the mental health of vegans (there’s a topic for another post, I think).
I’m vegan for the animals. My primary motivation was not health. A plant-based diet has indeed been linked to a lower incidence of certain cancers – particularly colorectal and bowel cancers, which are heavily connected to processed meat consumption – but as with any other diet, there is no magical solution that guarantees you will never, ever get sick. Common sense advice about eating plenty of fruit and vegetables (especially leafy greens – this is the excuse I use for stuffing my face with kale every chance I get), drinking plenty of water, exercising regularly and keeping processed food to a minimum has seen me through very well in life.