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Ireland's alcoholic curse

About the author
Simon Roughneen works for GOAL, an international humanitarian organization working with the poorest of the poor around the world. Simon previously worked for International Conflict Research (INCORE), and was Senior Northern Ireland and international correspondent for SecurityWatch.

We Irish have a drink problem. But the nature of the problem is such that the reputation that preceded its emergence is actually clouding the very seriousness of alcohol abuse in an Ireland enriched by a decade of unprecedented economic growth. The scenes of young people massing every weekend on city and town streets across Ireland – with a concomitant upsurge in sexual assaults, drink-related road accidents and violent crime – has not generally been taken as seriously as it should.

Ireland has long been known as a drinking culture. But it was not always like this. The self-image of hard-drinking revellers and a general culture of tolerance for drunkenness as opposed to mere drinking, means that many of us are now deluding ourselves as to the scale and nature of the problem.

In short we inherited an attitude, gave it money, and created a virtual epidemic. We now top the European Union league in alcohol expenditure per person and this development has been reflected in weekend binge drinking, addicted youngsters, drunk-driving, late-night street violence and overcrowded accident and emergency hospital wards. So now, it seems the reality is overtaking the stereotype when it comes to looking at drinking culture in Ireland.

The image of the hardcore Irish drinker was something largely created by and among expatriate Irishmen in Britain, the United States and elsewhere. As the Irishman was perceived to be, so he acted. A strange symbiosis emerged wherein the stereotype of the drunken Irishman was lived up to willingly by the diaspora – the image fed the reality and vice-versa.

The origins of this image lie in the roots of the original 19th century Irish emigrants to American and British industrial cities. Then, the Irish – generally landless labourers, illiterate, Catholic and Irish-speaking, arrived in an Anglophone, urban, industrial, Puritan society that regarded their pieties and clannishness as baffling marks of backwardness. Dislocation, poverty, alienation, a sense of failure – all endemic feelings to any migrant group – may well have proven fertile ground for the escapism offered by alcohol.

As the image of the “drunken Paddy” developed, the Irish reacted to and fed into the myth until it became indistinguishable from the reality. As the image of Irishman = drunk came into play, the alienated Irish emigrant found a sort of psychological home for himself in a foreign country, a cultural role offering something other than hard labour or servitude or sedition.

Desperate Chancer vs Paddy Solemn

Until quite recently, the reality in Ireland itself was quite different. A staunchly Catholic and quite Victorian society combined with a relatively low level of socio-economic affluence to deny the putative Irish the material and psycho-spiritual means to become a reckless binge-drinker.

Alongside any excessive drinking culture was a well-established, coherent and prominent temperance movement, led by a group popularly known as the Pioneers which drew on Catholic teaching as a means of tackling addiction and its consequences. The Pioneers were, by necessity and due to the prevailing cultural wind, a busy and prominent organisation.

A century ago, Irish drinking culture reflected a conflict in Irish social mores between what Geoffrey Wheatcroft sees as the confrontation between two eternal Irish types – the Desperate Chancer versus Paddy Solemn. The hard drinker, in this version of the typology, is the desperate chancer, while the Pioneer can be seen as Paddy Solemn.

The lovable rogue may seem to be the more appealing archetype, but in reality has its share of misery, pathos, and physical decline. What we see in contemporary, post-Celtic Tiger Ireland is the triumph of this character over Paddy Solemn. The Pioneers have faded from public attention, reflecting not only the general rise of a hedonistic drinking and narcotics culture – but also the decline of Christian influences in Irish society generally.

All of which is part of an overall dynamic apparent in a dramatic decade of socio-economic change in Ireland – the emergence of a materialistic recklessness fuelled by new money which has lost sight of the good elements of the more compassionate culture that preceded it. Much of this older Ireland (insularity, chauvinism, dependence) had to be shed, but there is a feeling that the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater – and this can be seen most clearly in the aggressive, uncontrolled, drinking and drug-taking culture today.

Celtic Tigers and Feral Boys

Not only has the sheer amount of alcohol consumed changed. Less tangible statistically, but perhaps even more relevant, is the change in attitudes. Rather than people drinking to enjoy themselves, or even for reasons of escapism or addiction, young people in Ireland seem to drink en masse in some sort of new-money fuelled hedonism, or merely search for oblivion.

The results of this behaviour are alarming – doctors, from a variety of hospitals, estimate that from 15-25% of admissions to accident and emergency units in 2002 were alcohol-related. In March 2003, representatives of the medical profession highlighted some of the horrendous consequences of excessive drinking. Mary Holohan, director of the sexual assault treatment unit at the Rotunda Hospital in central Dublin, said the pattern of alcohol consumption had changed greatly. One shuddering statistic that emerged was that in the past five years there had been a four-fold increase in the number of women who had been so drunk they could not remember if they had been sexually assaulted.

What is being done to offset this? As in Britain, whose own alcohol problem Ken Worpole describes in openDemocracy.net, there are proposals to introduce statutory regulations requiring young people to carry identity cards if they are purchasing alcohol, and to restrict the growth of so-called “superpubs” – the bigger, pricier, tackier, noisier, later establishments that pour scores of often drunk clients onto the street at the same time: a recipe for a volatile and often violent street atmosphere.

But the problem is far too widespread and ingrained to be tackled with legislation. And it is not just those earning the high incomes derived from the Celtic Tiger who are affected. Anyone in Ireland can regale you with some horror story of a 12- or 13-year old who either perpetrated or was the victim of alcohol-fuelled violence. The urban myths of drunk youths gone wild are more than real in Ireland today.

The alcoholic underground

Does the answer lie in the past? Under British rule, particularly before the Great Famine in the 1840s, the manufacture of absinthe-potency alcohol known as poitín was a nationwide illegal cottage industry requiring little technical expertise or equipment. This quasi-hallucinogenic brew was widely popularised as both a symbol of defiance of British rule (the Royal Irish Constabulary and its antecedents had special units designed to stamp out the industry/custom, which were met with ingenious schemes to maintain underground production) and a quick, cheap means of “getting hammered”.

So, much like the later designation of the Irish emigrant as drunkard, this earlier manifestation of Irish drinking culture was an underground response to the rigours of imperial rule – a combination that has echoes in arguments over the legalisation of drug use today.

It is possible then that heavy drinking with many of its dangerous consequences was common practice long before the British developed a thorough means of exercising control over the island. So, rather than blame the British scapegoat for this national woe (as used to be the case) maybe we should accept give them credit for foresight.

After all, in Henry V, Shakespeare’s MacMorris was portrayed as the original example of stage Irish drunkenness – “what ish my nation?”. This was long before any mass Irish migration to Britain or elsewhere, or the advent of psycho-social theorising on the roots of alcohol abuse, or the thirst acquired from dodging the “tall men in search of the mountain tea”.


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