By Juliana Adelman
Urban dwellers are enthusiastically embracing the trend for grow-your-own. Not content with vegetables, they are moving on to animals. I was driving near St Catherine’s church in the south inner city recently when I noticed a community garden which contained an elaborate hen house. A segment on RTE Radio 1’s morning programme recently suggested that people are now also rearing urban pigs. The sanitary reformers of the nineteenth century would be horrified to imagine that all their years of toil to eradicate food animals from the city were being quietly reversed.
The pig is, in many ways, a perfect back garden animal. It eats garbage, needs little space and produces a lot of manure and edible meat in return. As Homer Simpson remarked when Lisa informed him that pork chops, bacon and ham all came from the same animal: ‘Right Lisa, some wonderful, magical animal!’ Irish people during the nineteenth century gained a reputation as particularly fond of the wonderful, magical pig. In the eyes of some travel writers, the household pig was symbolic of the poor hygiene and moral character of the Irish themselves.
According to contemporaries, the pig displayed an array of repugnant characteristics. Its greed extended to the cannibalism of its own young or even human babies. So greedy was the pig, according to one writer, that ‘its great voracity exposes it nevertheless to be at the point of vomiting the good it has eat [sic]’. The pig’s reputed greed was apparently evidenced in its sexual appetites as well. Pigs were also, of course, perceived to prefer filth to cleanliness. Sharing space with a pig, as urban and rural dwellers alike were apt to do, could have nothing but a negative impact on a human.
The Dublin Sanitary Association and Dublin Corporation’s nuisance committee set about the eradication of the urban pig with a particular zeal. While other animals only presented a nuisance when they generated an excess of manure, pigs were themselves defined as nuisances. After the Public Health Act was applied to Ireland in 1878, swine could not be kept within 50 feet of a house. Other animals were also restricted, but inspectors repeatedly targeted the pig.
Anyone who has read nineteenth-century travel accounts of Ireland can attest that unsympathetic writers were quick to point to the spendthrift and imprudent ways of the people. They cultivated ‘lazy beds’ of potatoes (in fact poorly named as they required large amounts of labour), they did not save for a rainy day but spent their money on whiskey, etc. As more perceptive writers realized, the widespread rearing of pigs indicates exactly the opposite inclination. The German traveller Johann George Kohl put it thus: ‘On the pig rest the best hopes of every poor Irish peasant, for it frees him from his greatest load and anxiety [the rent].’ There is a very good reason that a home savings bank is called a ‘piggy bank’. A pig, fattened on food scraps, is a very good savings scheme. The full grown pig can be sold and a profit made off of very little investment. The potential for profit clearly out-weighed the pig’s impact on the home’s health and atmosphere.
I doubt that today’s urban pig farmers see their pigs as a way out of the recession. However, the recession is no doubt contributing to a broad desire to develop sources of self-sufficiency. Should widespread urban pig farming return it will be interesting to see whether current models of public health will tolerate a reversal of the current segregation between a human city and an animal countryside.
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