Jack McClelland: Ireland's vegan game changer

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» Jack McClelland: Ireland's vegan game changer

RAC member, Dr Corey Wrenn, highlights the extraordinary life of Jack McClelland, The Long-Distance Swimmer from Belfast who Flexed his Plant Power in 1960s Ireland

       McClelland pictured with the Mayor of Galway

McClelland pictured with the Mayor of Galway following a successful swim of Galway Bay in 1963 (Sanderson, 1963).

In 2019, Dublin was named the world’s most vegan-friendly city by Tripadvisor. Reporting on this announcement, the Irish Times bluntly asked: “Really?” (Falvey, 2019). Indeed, Ireland is so heavily stereotyped as a “land of meat and potatoes” that its fascinating vegan history has been largely forgotten.

Irish society has been historically based on cattle trading, with cows representing wealth and defining kingships. However, it would only be with Norman and British colonisation that meat and dairy production would come to dominate Irish food production. Prior to that, cows and other animals were kept primarily for their ability to produce breastmilk or wool. Food historians emphasise that pre-colonial Ireland thrived on a rich variety of plants, seaweeds, fruits, berries, nuts, fungi, and other non-animal foodstuffs. The consumption of dairy, which was a unique cultural adaptation to settlement in Northern Europe, supplemented this plant-heavy diet. Meat, however, featured comparatively very little.

By the height of British colonisation in the 1800s, most of the Irish populace had been reduced to a simplistic vegetarian diet that resulted from poverty and food insecurity. Potatoes, cabbage, and a bit of cow’s milk or butter made up the bulk of their caloric intake. As the 1800s drew to a close, tea, sugar and processed foods also contributed to the standard diet, a trend that worried food reformers.

From the nineteenth century also emerged a number of vegetarian societies across the UK that shared these concerns. Most prioritised the advocation of healthier eating practices, namely the eschewing of animal-based, processed, or “stimulating” foods. Some were also concerned with the negative consequences that animal-based diets posed for animals themselves. Indeed, The Vegan Society formed to address this issue following considerable debate among the membership of the British Vegetarian Society. Established in 1944, it operated primarily in England, but it soon had a number of committed members in Northern Ireland advancing its agenda.

One such activist was established celebrity athlete Jack McClelland of Belfast. Jack regularly amazed Irish audiences with his record-breaking swims across various major bodies of water in Ireland and the British Isles more broadly. Jack’s swims drew huge crowds and celebrations. In an era when the healthfulness of veganism was not yet understood, he served as living evidence to the power of plants. Indeed, he often undertook personal experiments with variations of vegan regimens to ascertain their impact on athletic performance.

As is documented in the heavily streamed 2019 Netflix film “The Game Changers,” scientific evidence is today mounting in support of veganism as a means to improve athleticism. What most audiences are likely unaware of, however, is that super-athletes such as Jack McClelland, had been attesting to plant power many decades prior. Long before even McClelland’s time, the vegetarian movement had been spotlighting the athletic achievements of vegans and vegetarians to demonstrate the safety and superiority of plant-based diets (Shprintzen, 2013). The physical robustness of hard-working Irish peasants (who were athletes in their own right) was also highlighted. Their incredible labour, after all, was fueled primarily by the potato.

Jack was an all-round athlete, having started his career in boxing and dabbling in other sports such as running, cycling and football. He was also an entrepreneur, opening health food shops in Northern Ireland to make plant options more accessible to the community. He was especially concerned about the role that poor diet might have played in fanning the Troubles; he regularly appealed to news channels to advance this point.

He also cared deeply about the wellbeing of other animals. Veganism, as he understood it, was an important political resistance to the violence enacted on nonhumans in meat, dairy, and egg production. Jack and his partner Betty held many important leadership roles with various vegan societies, including The Vegan Society, the Vegan Society of Ulster and the International Vegetarian Union. They campaigned against all manner of animal injustices, including bullfighting and hare coursing.

Jack died on February 7th, 1996 at the age of 72. In this rare footage from the 1960s, we can see Jack in action (he enters the frame around the 1.20 mark). Notice the protective cream he is wearing to stay warm in the frigid waters; he refused to don goose fat as was typical for long-distance swimmers of the era.

Jack’s amazing career is spotlighted in my book, Animals in Irish Society: Interspecies Oppression and Vegan Liberation in Britain’s First Colony, published with SUNY Press in July 2021.

The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.


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