Conor Skehan: 'When we celebrate with winter feasting, it is a good time to think about our farmers'


Newgrange in the winter sunshine. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson
Newgrange in the winter sunshine. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson

Conor Skehan

Since farming began in Ireland nearly 200 generations ago, we have celebrated the turn of the year - the Winter Solstice - at sites like Newgrange. The exact timing varies by a day or two each year - this year it falls today, December 22. For 200 generations we have celebrated this time of year with winter-feasting.

This is a good time of year to look back and to reflect, with gratitude, on the strength and sacrifices of all our ancestors - ancient and recent - who have delivered us to live in this amazing world that we inhabit. Each of us carrying inside us all who went before us.

Contrary to what a world of modern alarmists will claim, we live in a blessed time with more than enough food and vastly improved health and wealth compared to any people that have ever lived before. Every generation before us knew mostly suffering, ill-health, poverty, cruelty and hunger.

Until the mid-19th Century, the months between January and April were known as 'hunger months', yet paradoxically late December was always a time of feasting. This is because the last stored food of the previous year and the excess young animals were all consumed in huge communal feasts at this time of year. It was not possible to provide enough food for both stock and people throughout the winter.

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Winter feasts are evidenced from the earliest sites all over Europe by huge piles of the bones of the butchered animals. Your meal on Christmas Day continues this most ancient tradition. It is part of who we are, and who we have always been - since long before we stopped living by hunting on the frozen tundra during the Ice Age.

In an increasingly judgemental world, Christmas dinner seems to be criticised more and more often. Part of this is a growing revulsion at over-consumption, as well as the consumption of meat.

It is easy to forget that excessive consumption is the whole point of a feast. It makes the event memorable, precisely because it is different from the rest of the year. Then there is the matter of eating a lot of meat. A lot of anxiety about animals arises from killing animals - not eating them.

This is a misplaced anxiety that springs from an inability or an unwillingness to understand and accept that there is no living without killing. Those who object to killing cattle, pigs or sheep are being highly selective. There often seems to be a scale of morality - bad to kill big, but acceptable to kill small. If we don't kill cockroaches, beetles, mice and rats, we lose 35pc of all crops.

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Buddhists face the conundrum of vegetarianism while still having to control the pests and vermin that consume or contaminate their grain. "Keep cats" is the standard monk's answer when asked about how to protect the grain at the temple. This sub-contracting of messy mouse-killing is not unlike how our society works. Killing animals is messy work - not for the squeamish. Averting our eyes from the butcher's blade can blind us to the skill of delivering a clean death. Most people are unaware of the effort expended in abattoirs to avoid unnecessary stress or suffering to animals.

It is wilful self-delusion to ignore the reality that cute calves and lambs are reared for anything other that to be killed and eaten, similarly only a fool would imagine that an apple or a grain of rice is placed on the table without involving the deaths of billions of living bacteria and virus, millions of insects and dozens of mice and rats. These deaths are all the inescapable cost of our lives and our well-being.

Slogans like 'meat-is-murder' are designed to tap into and divert our latent kindness and compassion. The reality of the daily interplay of life and death is in danger of being rapidly forgotten. The engine of life itself involves killing to eat.

Anti-agricultural activism can be ignorant, often bordering on wilful bullying. Nobody who has seen farmers at calving or lambing can ignore the patient care and bloody-minded self-sacrifice that is expended on ensuring the safe delivery of every possible creature.

The real question is not whether we should kill, but how we should kill - to make sure that it is as compassionate as possible. More attention should be given to upholding the welfare of animals, during their lives and death. Farmers, by and large, care for their animals - fields are subject to the gaze of watchful neighbours, who notice the condition of stock. Farmers thrive on a good reputation while anyone who is visibly cruel can become infamous in a rural community.

This time of year, when we eat or feast, it is a good time to think about our farmers. If you take a country walk over the holidays, take the time to stop at a farm gate. The smell of a distant fire mixes with the earthy smells, to the accompaniment of the sounds of animals as they wait for feed mixes with the calls of the rooks and jackdaws. These are ancient sensory patterns all over Europe. These activities have happened every day for 6,000 years - an ancient and unbroken chain that binds people to the living earth. This continuity is a monument - as wonderful as Newgrange itself.

Until four generations ago, most of us were farmers - now they number less than 4pc of the workforce. Increasingly, this small band are subject to urban anxieties that quickly morph into threats to their very existence.

We will celebrate the turn of this year with winter feasting, as we have done ever since we settled down to become farmers and city-builders. Is there a danger that our newly anxious and judgmental world will lead to us forgetting who we are?

Current evidence suggests that Newgrange and many other such monuments were built to revere the ancestors who first settled and farmed Ireland. Since ancient times, people have believed that wisdom and self-knowledge begin by understanding and accepting our origins and ancestors. Indeed, philosophers such as Edmund Burke went further by asserting that "People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors".

We feast with meats to celebrate and give thanks for their achievements, not just this year, but for the 6,000 years that Irish farming has existed. Our winter feasting - our Christmas turkey and our Christmas ham - are the continued celebration of who we are; of where we have come from and of what we have achieved. With so many competing and clamouring voices that seek to belittle the achievements in matters of health, wealth, nutrition and well-being, it is important to use events like feasts for their intended purpose - to count blessings and give thanks.

A failure to celebrate our achievements creates a vacuum that is easily filled by voices that are either ignorant of the past or malicious towards the future. Puritanical forces are gathering that are trying to persuade us that we are bad people who need to be saved [by them]. We should resist the nay-sayers and moralisers. We should celebrate all who went before us - as well as our own achievements. Let us eat, drink and be merry.

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