The world knows Ireland as a country of pubs, and happy, hard working, hard drinking folk. Right, wrong, or indifferent, that’s the world’s impression, and it’s not entirely undeserved. In fact it’s often a proudly displayed badge of honor for the Irish. You’d think that after two years, I’d have some notion of what’s behind the stereotype. I really don’t. I’ve had thoughts and ideas, but nothing firm. That may have changed a few weeks ago
My wife took a taxi ride, and the taxi driver began to rant, as is their way in this fair city.
“So the Irish are alcoholics. Who cares? It’s nobody’s business but our own. Who does it hurt?” And on it went.
When she came home and related the story to me, my first thought was, “He’s right. It is nobody’s business but the Irish.” But it got me thinking. And that is always a dangerous enterprise.
Coincidentally, several friends of ours (both Irish and expat) have, in various ways, put forth the notion that Ireland, as a country, exhibits many of the characteristics of an alcoholic.
Since then two questions have continued to sizzle in the ol’ brainpan:
First, why do the Irish drink?
“Who is hurt by Irish drinking?”
For an answer to the first question, we ought to look at what and where the Irish drink. Though broad generalizations are always suspect, today’s popular drinks seem to be stout, cider, and whiskey taken in liberal amounts at the local pub. Given recent economic swings, many have taken to wine. And now that pubs are unaffordable, many drink at home.
According to the website Ireland’s Drinking Culture, the first pub dates back to 1198, and whiskey dates back to the 1400s. There is also evidence to suggest that beer has been around in Ireland since the Bronze and early Iron Ages. It’s also known that early monasteries had very active breweries.
Could the sale of alcohol have been an early means of supporting the church? Could Iron Age stout represent the first tender shoots of the church’s, by turns, nurturing and smothering vines? And what of the ubiquitous pub? Did the Irish begin drinking in pubs because it was a place where they could gather and sow sedition without drawing the suspicious gaze of their imperial masters?
Honestly, I don’t know the answers to these questions, but would like to. As for who the question of “who is hurt by Irish drinking”, modern times seem to offer a few clues.
Since I moved to Dublin, I’ve found it interesting that young people seem to be the most concerned about drunk driving. I think the public awareness ad campaigns have pretty well done their job on that score.
It’s actually the older folks (60s and up) who seem to have the most troubling giving up drunk driving. These are the folks who, at the pub, waste no time in telling you that they are “experienced drinkers” (their words not mine) and have enjoyed their pint (or six) and driven home just fine for 40+ years. Further proof of Ireland’s aging alcohol problem can be found in the recent epidemic of depression in seniors who now feel trapped at home by the drunk driving laws, and have lost all sense of community.
All of this is to say that Ireland’s drinking problem is nothing new, and is clearly an accepted (and somewhat tolerated) part of the Irish psyche. Doubtless, many see “growing old with pint in hand” as their right, due, and fitting inheritance.
Now, how has alcoholism penetrated Irish society?
Apart from the obvious, drunk driving, wrecked families, and such, let’s look at the notion of Ireland as a “functional alcoholic” that shows up for work on time, and generally keeps its act together in spite of the drink.
Beyond the drinking entitlement, Ireland’s feast or famine economic view, and things work “well enough” attitude are all fairly common symptoms of an alcoholic. The fact that the country has precious little in the way of improved infrastructure to show from the Celtic Tiger is not a surprise. It’s now widely viewed throughout the country as having been a bit of a bender, and just good craic.
Damning as this may seem, it’s not until you add Ireland’s chronic low self-esteem, “poor us” victim syndrome, and “I’m not hurting anybody” defensive outlook that you really get the picture of a functional or “dry” drunk.
I know that this will be seen as just another anti-Irish screed, and I’ll get my fair share of “Yankee Go Home” comments. But I’m genuinely curious to know more about the history of drinking in Ireland. Why is it such a huge part of the country? Does it have roots in colonialism, and religion (as these are huge parts of the Irish psyche and identity in and of themselves)?
I know I can count on my readers to help set the record straight. I welcome your constructive comments.
Ireland’s Drinking Culture
A History of Beer in Ireland: from John & Sally McKenna’s Guides
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
Property ownership n Ireland