Civilised by Beasts, Reviewed

Francis Kelly

Francis Kelly is a historian and author of "Captain Francisco de Cuéllar: The Armada, Ireland, and the Wars of the Spanish Monarchy, 1578–1606". A native of Leitrim, he fell in love with Dublin after discovering Gur Cake while working as a bus conductor for Dublin Bus in the late eighties.


Animals on city-centre streets are something of a rarity nowadays. Amidst the hustle and bustle of shoppers and tourists, of rush-hour tailbacks and traffic congestion, modern urban centres appear inappropriate for animals.

Perhaps that’s why images of them wandering through empty city centres at the beginning of lockdown last year caused such a stir.

The headline-grabbing antics of “Sam the Fox” spring to mind. First spotted sauntering along a near-deserted Grafton Street, it later trotted past astonished onlookers on Fleet Street, a freshly caught pigeon clasped firmly in its jaws.

Further afield deer grazed in London, wild boar roamed through Genoa, and a crocodile rambled through a shopping mall in the United States.

Beyond the confines of zoos, we are not accustomed to viewing animals – both exotic and familiar – in this way in an urban context. We associate them with environments beyond the city limits: the countryside, or via television, the natural world.

When we turn to Juliana Adelman’s fascinating study Civilised by Beasts: Animals and Urban Change in Nineteenth-Century Dublin the cover illustration presents a streetscape from 1820: the entrance to Dublin Castle and the Royal Exchange, by Samuel Brocas.

The presence of horses in the scene is in keeping with the era. Otherwise, somewhat contrary to the title, animals are absent. Adelman addresses this in the introduction while using another of Brocas’ streetscapes (Sackville Street/O’Connell Street) to explain: “The city past and present has often appeared as a human-only space. Nineteenth-century city views for example, often excluded urban animals.”

She continues: “This image makes it difficult to imagine what every nineteenth-century Dubliner knew: one street to the west lay a warren of butcher shambles crowded with cattle, and even passengers in an elegant carriage could catch the scent of bone boilers and piggeries on the breeze.”

With this less genteel portrayal of the city centre the author prepares the reader for something altogether different to Samuel Brocas’ idealised version of Dublin.

In Civilised by Beasts, Adelman explores Dublin’s evolution into a modern metropolis from a new perspective: the complex interrelationship between the human population and urban-living animals.

It leaves behind the monumental setting of Dublin Castle to investigate the city’s back alleys to explain how new ideas on urban improvement influenced attitudes towards animals and their place within the city.

In doing so, Adelman guides us through a city economically dependent on animals, where horses were vital for driving transport and trade, and where hand-reared pigs offered poor households a viable means of supplementary income.

It was a city littered with milking parlours, manure heaps, slaughterhouses, and foul-smelling effluent that choked the River Liffey. Through this smelly, unsanitary mess, the reader is presented with an informative and gritty scrutiny of nineteenth-century Dublin.

The opening of chapter one offers a harrowing spectacle. Juxtaposed with the arrival of an elephant at Dublin Zoo, is the fate of one of the city’s myriad of carthorses in College Green. A crowd of onlookers is drawn to watch the dying animal as it is cruelly beaten by its master. It struggles to regain its footing under a heavy load, but fails.

It is a sobering portrayal of a working-class beast of the era. A few paragraphs later Adelman shifts our gaze to a wealthy young woman in a leather-roofed, mahogany-panelled carriage on her way to visit the zoo. In contrast to the dying carthorse, the steeds that draw her carriage are well looked-after, young, glossy and healthy.

For Adelman the distinction is emblematic of social status: “Class determined whether you used your animals to display economic fortune or depended on them to prevent economic misfortune.”

Through deft use of these intimate cameos the author introduces us to an enduring theme that weaves its way through each chapter: class division. Intertwined with this civic tension is the complexity of religion, politics, and social inequality.

Although animals provide the focus of the book the real subject of the story is the city’s human population and their efforts to improve living conditions, public health, food quality, and transportation. Animal exploitation is used throughout as a lens to reflect the changing social, cultural and ideological fabric of the city as it moved towards a new model of urban civilisation.

The principal agent of change was the burgeoning middle class that gradually gained control of Dublin Corporation, the main vehicle of change. Middle-class opinions and attitudes were also channelled through other newly established institutions, such as the Dublin Zoological Society, the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DSPCA), the Dublin Metropolitan Police, and the Dublin Dog’s Home.

The era was one of industrial innovation, when efforts were made to integrate livestock infrastructure within the city with new transport technology, the expanding rail network and Dublin port.

An important impetus for change, according to the author, was an ideological-philosophical tension termed the “Human Dilemma”: “The conflict between a desire to live in a civilisation dependent upon the exploitation of nature and a feeling that such exploitation is wrong.”

This study explores complex issues – ideas of human ascendancy over animals and how to reconcile their exploitation with concerns over civility, health, morality and class. It does so in a lucid and engaging manner through five chapters that illuminate the story of Dublin through wide-ranging topics: from Dublin Zoo to pedigree dogs, from the Great Famine to vegetarianism, and from pig rearing to Dublin Mart.

The text is enlivened by diverse characters – Denis Doyle, a shady slaughterhouse owner; equestrian author Nannie Lambert Power O’Donoghue; and political activist and confirmed vegetarian, James Haughton.

Adelman’s approach is imaginative, well-paced, and accessible. The reader is not confronted with a heavy tome, but an impressive body of research skilfully crafted into a compelling narrative.

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Francis Kelly: Francis Kelly is a historian and author of "Captain Francisco de Cuéllar: The Armada, Ireland, and the Wars of the Spanish Monarchy, 1578–1606". A native of Leitrim, he fell in love with Dublin after discovering Gur Cake while working as a bus conductor for Dublin Bus in the late eighties.

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