Mad Cows and Eco-Pandemic Irish Literature

By Treasa De Loughry (Lecturer/ Assistant Professor (Ad Astra Fellow) in World Literature in the School of English, Drama and Film).

Contemporary reporting on Covid-19 has focused on it’s environmental links—we know that Covid-19 is a ‘zoonotic’ disease, or a virus transferred from animal to human populations which emerged in wet or wild food markets in Wuhan in Hubei province, China.

Early discussions of Covid-19 conflated this fact with a perceived food-system ‘primitivism’ amongst Chinese consumers, and an assumption that China is the world’s virological ‘hot spot’.[1] But intensive factory farming conditions in the Global North are themselves leading to contagious zoonotic diseases, including new strains of influenza (see Davis chapter 7). In the late-twentieth century the Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE) pandemic amongst UK and Irish cows, and the resultant human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), threatened the destruction of Ireland’s food safety reputation, and with it a lucrative export industry.

Ruth Gilligan’s recently published novel, The Butchers,is set in 1996 during the height of the BSE pandemic in Ireland, and depicts a band of enigmatic traditional beef butchers who are subject to local suspicion once the disease begins to threaten local farmers. Meanwhile an undeterred criminal enterprise imports unlabelled Northern Irish cattle, reselling it as Irish beef despite the public health hazards.

Backgrounding the novel are the Northern Ireland peace process, the Republic of Ireland’s nascent economic Celtic Tiger, and a general hubristic celebration of the nation’s reformation from postcolonial periphery to global poster-child. Surprisingly given the dramatic upheavals of the time, and BSE’s easy metaphorization for the nation’s economic greed—it spread partly due to cost-cutting and the cannibalistic processing of diseased animals into meal—it has not until now featured in many cultural works.

A brief note on BSE—it is a prion disease, a consequence of a mutated protein which infects and destroys the nervous system. It initially emerged in eighteenth-century European sheep herds suffering from ‘scrapie’ because sheep frantically ‘scraped off’ their wool. Contaminated offal transmitted the disease from sheep to cows, and the overarching version of BSE—transmissible spongiform encephalopathies—can be found in goats, cats and deer.  It was first reported in the United Kingdom in 1985, and in Ireland in 1989[2], peaking in the UK in 1992 with over 30,000 cases, although there are still new outbreaks of prion diseases globally. In general BSE spread because of intensified factory farming, increased global animal trading, human-animal proximity, larger livestock herds, poor conditions, and climate change (see Lee; Schwartz). In the 1990s the identification of BSE, and then vCJD as a zoonotic disease, hastened public understanding of the epidemiological threat of animal diseases, their links to poor agricultural practices, and Ireland’s dependency on global food markets, with several nation’s banning Irish and British meat (Adam 163-164)—but this awareness has dimmed, with BSE largely ignored in contemporary discussions of Irish pandemics.

Zoonotic Literature

On the face of it Covid-19’s origins in Wuhan’s wild food markets, and BSE’s emergence in infected animal feed in the UK, seem too different for comparison. But the processes by which wild animals and domestic agriculture have been brought into the remit of human consumption are similar. Late capitalist food-systems have ramped up high yield agricultural production through deforestation, monocrops, the medicalisation of reproduction, simplified gene pools, and battery farming, which prime the virulence of zoonotic diseases and antibiotic resistant bacteria, resulting in what scientists call the “third epidemiological transition” (Armelagos et al 757) of zoonotic diseases—examples include HIV/ AIDS, Ebola, H5N1, Hantavirus, and SARS.We might ask how the global uptick in zoonotic diseases has registered in Irish literature by broadening our analysis of ‘pandemic literature’ to include environmental transformations that fester diseases impacting animals, and that signal potential disease ‘species jumps’ to come.

Ireland has long capitalised on it’s food safety record for an international audience, deploying images of unspoiled verdant landscapes and healthy grass-fed cows to satiate consumer anxieties. Brands like Kerrygold are bywords for good agricultural and food safety standards, and the Irish government has sought to protect the centrality of cow farming to the state, extolling the historical roots of Irish cattle in Iron Age epics such as the Táin Bó Cuailgne. However, Ireland’s recent food history is a troubled one, with the nation’s integration into EU and global food-systems occasioning a decline in subsistence farms, and an emphasis on industrial farming. Novels like John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002), elegiacally depicts the changes facing bucolic rural life due to economic and infrastructural modernisation. McGahern was painfully aware of the misery of mid-twentieth century Ireland, reserving his strongest critique for the transformation of subsistence agriculture in ways that fissured the bonds between small-holdings and animals and hastened the introduction of industrial farming. In an essay titled “Rural Ireland’s Passing” (2000) he writes about a paradigmatic local farmer who emigrated to England, recalling the man’s childhood as one in which “Their life was the life of crops and animals and bog and fowl. Animals, especially cattle, surrounded them. Not a day went by without handling them, and their presence affected every member of the family. Their closeness varied with the seasons; they all had names; some were pets.” In Gilligan’s The Butchers semi-retired farmer Fionn retains his favourite milking cow Glassy, named after mythological and famously plentiful milking cow Glas Ghaibhleann, out of fondness rather than necessity. Cattle are associated in reality and in McGahern and Gilligan’s fictions with paternalistic values, social status and standing in the community. Fionn’s reduced herd is a sign of weakness—once his wife is ill he is unable to afford her treatment, making him easily exploitable by beef bootleggers who prey on his economic vulnerability.  

Twenty-first century cattle farming, writes McGahern, is massified and mechanised, pumped up with toxic fertilisers, resembling battery chicken farming, and governed by complex interwoven regulations and financial demands. BSE’s emergence tracks these changes in agricultural life from the rise of the British colonial empire and the intensification of sheep farming for the global industrial wool trade, through to contemporary appetites for beef and milk. From the early twentieth century onwards farmers resorted to cheap protein-rich meal which contained the meat and bones, particularly brain matter and spinal cords, of infected cows, sheep and pigs, alongside “sawdust, feathers and faeces” (Adam 171) to improve milk yields and plump up beef cows. Inadvertently, Adam notes, this meal turned “herbivores not only into carnivores but cannibals” (171), in a broader analogy for capitalism’s unsustainable autocannibalism of extra-human resources. For Nicole Shukin BSE illustrates the “‘mimetic excess’ created by capital’s closed loops” (238): the tragic irony being that the disease manifests in neurological damage in humans as variant CJD which ‘feeds on’ brain matter. Gilligan’s The Butchers exemplifies these grotesque ironies in repeated references to the cramped beef-filled freezer the butchers’ families eat throughout winter, and the anorexic slimness of Gráinne, the wife of Cúch, a butcher named after the fabled Cúchulainn who fought against Queen Medb’s cattle raiding armies in the Táin.  If Gráinne’s starvation is an austere expression of the dying patriarchal tradition of the butchers, her estranged sister Eileen’s brain cancer is a pointed reference to the devastating and fatal brain damage caused by vCJD.

Pandemic Literature and the Environment

The literature of zoonotic diseases is one that telegraphs rather than tells: it is not strictly located in dramatic tales of human pandemics and deadly viruses, but can be found in stories of Ireland’s rural modernisation, of industrial farming, cramped and sickened herds, mysterious illnesses, fertiliser spills, disenfranchised small farmers, and the porous borders that enabled the spread of BSE and will facilitate future pandemics. Put differently, ‘pandemic lit’ can be found in any text concerned with the incipient environmental conditions that lay the groundwork for animal diseases (which are always downplayed), until the leap to human zoonotic diseases which are quickly, brutally, and spectacularly ground out. If pastoral Irish fictions reflected on the shift from subsistence to “productivist” (Dennis) agriculture, a process sped up by the introduction of EU regulations, then the threat of future pandemics is registered in texts critical of unsustainable agri-industrial food-systems and ecological mismanagement.

We could read here John McGahern’s critique of ineffectual government policy and the crisis of heavily polluted water supplies, next to Mike McCormack’s remarkable stream of consciousness novel Solar Bones (2016) and it’s fictionalisation of repeated West of Ireland cryptosporidium outbreaks which impacted the public water supply of over 100,000 Galway residents, as examples of an expanded ‘eco-pandemic’ literature. Cryptosporidium is a parasite which infects cattle and other domestic animals, it can be found in human or animal waste, and causes serious gastrointestinal illness. In Solar Bones it leaves the protagonist’s, Marcus Conway, wife severely weakened for much of the text and is the background hum to his daughter Agnes’s art exhibition. More than mere theme or content, the outbreak conditions the novel’s slow and circuitous repetition of Marcus’ acts of care, and the uncomfortable scatological detail of shitting and wiping which the text’s associative narration loops back into ideas of public infrastructure, incompetent politicians, and a sense of dystopian ‘end times’ exemplified by Agnes’ appearance at a medieval-like pageant protesting the contamination.

Viruses and contagion are analogised to economic crisis, as Solar Bones grasps for a condensed vocabulary to describe how neglected public projects, and an emphasis on recouping profit during and after the Celtic Tiger, leads to the defunding of rural water-infrastructure and with it the degradation of bodily health, as demarcations between public and private are collapsed by the “heft of bodily and civic catastrophe” (228). Likewise, Davey, the son of a beef smuggler in The Butchers critiques the small-mindedness of those in thrall to the “Celtic Beef Boom” and it’s promise of a lucrative windfall, which leads to the importation of contraband beef, an ineffectual tribunal against meat baron Eoin “The Bull” Goldsmith (a thin fictionalisation of the 1991 Beef Tribunal), and a devastating and reactionary attack against the butchers as though their “sinister curses” (loc. 2025) are the cause of the BSE outbreak and not an emphasis on profit.[3]

The Butchers’ five-part narration is split between teenagers, Davey and Úna, and adults, Fionn, Gráinne, and Ronan, who are each differently marginalised by Ireland’s uneven modernisation, and lingering homophobia and patriarchal family structures. But without spoiling the novel’s dramatic conclusion, teenager Úna finds emotional and physical strength in her father’s traditional butchering practice. She reverses the legend from which the butchers emerge, “ The Curse of the Farmer’s Widow,” which required that eight men be present to slaughter cattle to maintain the memory of the widow’s grief—rather Úna finds strength in the widow’s self-possession and exhortation to memorialise the dead as a way of exacting revenge on the perpetrator who causes the butchers’ downfall.

Reading Irish literature through an expanded environmental definition of ‘pandemic lit’ means foregrounding it’s emphasis on economic modernisation, contiguity with other zoonotic pandemics, and world-systemic qualities. Given how dependent Irish food industries are on international consumption, all texts from or about Irish food or agriculture are necessarily global. Although there is no room here to provide such examples,[4] an ambitious transhistorical world-literary analysis could theorise the global links between pandemics, colonialism and the dispossession of indigenous societies and lands, and capitalist agriculture; processes which have ramifications for human and animal health, and are registered in fictions about the dwindling capacity for small-farming within a model of boom-bust agri-industrial farming predicated on high-yield but high-risk processes. Viewing the pandemic through the optic of economy, ecology, and epidemiology thus offers a reminder that productive comparative literary analyses can and should be made between global zoonotic diseases and their emergence.

[1] Chinese wild food consumption is state sanctioned, regarded by the Chinese Communist Party as a key ‘pillar’ of development for rural agricultural workers and a way of meeting middle class food demands (see Chuang Collective).

[2] Ireland has identified over 1400 cases of BSE or ‘Mad Cow’ disease to date. 1996 was an important year for the pandemic as Ireland tightened control measures, and a link was identified between BSE and human vCJD. As of the time of writing the latest case was identified in May 2020.

[3] This is a well-worn gesture by governments desirous to ‘stamp down’ on viral outbreaks, in ways that are generally beneficial to large scale industrial farming (see Shukin chapter 4).

[4] See the special issue on “Food, Energy, Climate: Irish Culture and World-Ecology” edited by Sharae Deckard and Lucy Collins, Irish University Review vol. 49, issue 1 (2019).

Works Cited

Adam, Barbara. “Mediating Knowledge: Of time-lags and amnesia—reporting on BSE.” Timescapes of Modernity: the Environment and Invisible Hazards. Routledge, 163-192.

Armelagos, George J., Peter J. Brown, and Bethany Turner. “Evolutionary, historical and political economic perspectives on health and disease.” Social Science & Medicine 61.4 (2005): 755-765.

Chuang Collective. “Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China.” Chuang Collective. February 2020. Accessed 17 March 2020.

Davis, Mike. The Monster at our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. The New Press, 2005.

Dennis, Ryan. “‘Out of Proportion to the Small Loss’: Productivist agriculture in the farming novels of John McGahern and Halldór Laxness.” Irish University Review 49.1 (2019): 74-89.

Gilligan, Ruth. The Butchers. Atlantic Books, 2020.

McCormack, Mike. Solar Bones. Tramp Press, 2016.

McGahern, John. “Rural Ireland’s Passing.” 29 Jan. 2000. Accessed 3 June 2020.

—. That they may face the rising sun. Faber & Faber, 2002.

Lee, Jeongmin, et al. “Prion diseases as transmissible zoonotic diseases.” Osong public health and research perspectives 4.1 (2013): 57-66.

Schwartz, Maxime. How the Cows Turned Mad: Unlocking the Mysteries of Mad Cow Disease. Translated by Edward Schneider. University of California Press, 2003.

Shukin, Nicole. Animal capital: Rendering life in biopolitical times. University of Minnesota Press, 2009.