Ireland’s alcohol problem

By | November 6, 2007

Here is Sunday’s column. As I mentioned before it is terribly dull and humourless but I got some emails this morning praising it, so having been externally validated I publish it here for you, my most discerning readers.

“Women are always after equality aren’t they? It appears that in some areas, we’re finally getting there. Last year, 47% of the under-17’s discharged from hospital due to alcohol related illnesses were women. Well done girls! This is exactly why feminists fought the good fight : so you could get so completely pissed as a teenager you had to be hospitalised. There are lots of reasons to be depressed when reading the Health Research Board’s report into alcohol consumption in Ireland, but that’s just one of them.

Women’s physiology is intrinsically different to men’s which means that the same level of alcohol affects them more seriously. In other cultures, women therefore tend to drink less. In Ireland, the remorseless ritual of binge drinking by women is destroying their health, putting them into vulnerable situations where at worst they risk rape or at best a casual sexual encounter that will leave them with a sexually transmitted disease, an unwanted pregnancy or a deluded perspective of their supposed sexual freedom. Is this what feminists fought for? So that young women could use their economic independence to get drunk, throw up and wonder who they had sex with last night? Those who think they are above such behaviour should count the mornings they’ve dragged themselves into the office dying with a hangover wondering how much money they spent last night. What a fine way to channel the incredible energy and vitality of Irish women.

Still, I shouldn’t be so hard on the fairer sex. I’ve done it all myself but honestly, that was just a phase and I grew out of it. Why aren’t we as a nation growing out of our habitual excessive drinking? In the general population men suffer significantly more from alcohol related problems as they drink about three times more than women. From illness to violence to simply arguing with a friend with drink taken, on every scale you care to measure, the Irish are top of the European Alco-Pops. Not only do we drink more, we binge, drive drunk, occupy hospital and psychiatric beds and spend more money on booze than any of our European neighbours.

You can argue that if people want to behave in a self-destructive way that’s their business and we should let them at it. But our national love affair with booze is costing us a fortune, not just in terms of money and mental or physical harm, but in the sheer waste of human potential. It’s utterly depressing to think what could be achieved in this country on Saturday and Sunday mornings if the nation’s finest weren’t nursing hangovers.

The worst thing about this extraordinarily destructive behaviour is the way it occupies a national blind spot. We have convinced ourselves that the appalling side effects of our gross alcohol habits are all part of having the “craic”. Going out with the specific goal of getting intoxicated is a casually accepted part of what passes for Irish social life.
As the undeniable and shameful statistics outlined in the report are parsed over this weekend you can expect to read lots of psycho-social analysis about Irish drinking culture. We insist on constructing some Brendan Behanesque romantic vision of the soulful Irish singing and dancing in high spirits with the necessary aid of spirits and whatever you’re having yourself.

It’s the famine, the poitin, the emigration and the poverty. No, it’s the weather, the British and the Catholic Church – the suppression of our sexual desires don’t you know. Does it matter anymore? We drink too much and its time to get over it.

Watch out for other justifications: we’re drinking more wine at home; we’ve more money; we’ve a bigger, younger, population. All true, but look at the other side. Beer and cider account for 60% of our alcohol consumption. Not too much of that taking place at sophisticated dinner parties. The survey showed that each person over 15 years of age drank 13.36 litres last year. However Ireland has a higher level of abstinence : people who never drink : than other European countries so that figure is actually much higher per head of the drinking population.

So what will we do about it? A 2006 EU report compiled a useful list of strategies that do and don’t work in reducing alcohol consumption. Here’s what works: unrestricted breath testing, lower blood alcohol concentration for drivers, licence regulation and taxation. Here’s what doesn’t: advertising self regulation and designated driver campaigns.

What did Ireland do? Some of what does work and more of what doesn’t.
Lower blood alcohol levels for drivers is being introduced gradually. Random breath testing has been implemented, though as far as I can see it’s restricted to the week before Christmas rather than systematic weekends. They tried taxation once and it had an immediate impact. Between 1995 and 2002 consumption of spirits increased steadily (by 49%) but decreased by 21% in 2003 when excise duty was increased. Cider consumption dropped by 13% in 2002 when excise was increased in December 2001. As that was so successful we stopped doing it in subsequent budgets. I imagine the liquor industry wasn’t too impressed.

One noticeable gap in our system is the failure to tackle underage drinking. Here’s a crazy idea that wouldn’t cost anything. What would happen if each Garda station decided to raid one night club in its locality each weekend demanding to see the ID of customers? I wonder what they’d find? Lots of 16 year olds and letters of outrage from the licensing industry?

Speaking of the industry, what happened to licence regulation? The EU did after all prove that regulation is very effective in reducing alcohol intake. Looking for recommendations, the government established a Commission on Liquor Licensing that produced four reports between 2000 and 2003. Its remit included ‘taking due account of the social, health and economic interests of a modern society’. Who was on the Commission? Oh you know, mostly members of the licensing trade. What did the government expect? That turkeys would vote for Christmas?

So say hello to self-regulation. On Thursday night’s Prime Time Rosemary Garth, Director of the Alcohol Beverages Federation of Ireland with a straight face argued that alcohol is not marketed to young people. I missed what she said next because my husband and I were rolling around on the floor laughing. She later claimed the industry was only interested in something called “sustainable profits”.

What’s an unsustainable profit? These are publicly listed companies required to produce year on year growth. The only thing that’s unsustainable is the idea that the drinks industry would forego the opportunity to sell their products to anyone. It’s the job of the government to regulate their efforts. Let’s not kid ourselves. Irish people respond to law enforcement – not appeals to our better nature. If we want to get real about reducing alcohol consumption can we stop asking the drink industry for advice?”

Update: Waters addressed the same issue in his column yesterday. (sub reqd) He argues for more analysis…

” The issue, then, is educational in the deepest sense. The societal abuse of alcohol indicates a serious cultural deficiency, converging on a cultural inability to comprehend how the natural mechanism that is humanity should properly function. To put it as starkly as possible: we have lost the capacity to teach our children how to live.

It is relatively futile to think in terms of restrictions on opening hours, higher taxes or random breath testing. These measures may show results in some narrower context, but they do nothing to address the deeper problem, which just goes underground from such responses. We need first of all to acknowledge what alcohol is, what it does, how we have used it, and why its escalating consumption is not, in hardly any sense at all, a symptom of our increasing conviviality. We need to acknowledge that, in bequeathing such a culture to our children, we are sentencing them to a lifestyle and a way of coping with reality that can have for them but one of two outcomes: madness or death.”

22 thoughts on “Ireland’s alcohol problem

  1. tom

    “each person over 15 years of age drank 13.36 litres last year”

    what a bunch of lightweights.

  2. Johnny K

    It seems to me that the vinters couldn’t give a toss about sustainable versus unsustainable (I presume this means their clients are dead) profits. They simply want to push as much booze over the bar as possible.

    Parenting has a huge part to play here, your 16 year old child shouldn’t be in a night club in the first place.

    From a personal point of view, my alcohol consumption has nearly hit zero since I’ve become a parent. I’m not really into drinking at home. This has been compounded by my move out of Dublin, as I am now living in the sticks and nowhere near a pub.

  3. Sarah Post author

    Johnny, Tesco sorted that for me. Fab Argentinian Shiraz’s for €5.49….I’d say I’d have a glass every second night. Sometimes two! Last night I had a Bailey’s and ice. It was lovely :-) I’m mad I am 😉

    So you see Tom, the 13.36L is the average, dragged down by the wooses like us :-)

    Where are you living now?

  4. Johnny K

    I’m living just outside Kilkenny now. Great spot, and loving being back in the country.

    I have my own stock of very nice Sancerre here. A friend’s brother in law has a small vineyard and he comes over once a year so I get a nice supply from him. Very nice indeed and no air miles (though I hear boat miles are pretty bad as well).

  5. P O'Neill

    I thought the Waters column was very good. It risked sounding like the usual pop sociology but he made a serious point. I also think the “craic” thing is important. Fintan O’Toole had a good line in a slightly different context. It was about the difference between Irish and English soccer hooligans. It’s that the English hooligans do it out of defiance — its purpose is to stand out and intimidate — “we’re here and we’re smashing up the place”. But the Irish hooligan presumes that the onlookers are amused by all the antics — that it’s just a bit of craic. The booze makes them miss the horrified and frightened looks around them. Some of the pub culture is the same. No wonder people prefer to sit at home with their Sancerre. The social drinking culture is a disaster.

  6. Luke

    Sarah, we used to have a higher level of abstinence because of the Pioneer movement which would drag down our average drinking figure but I’m not so sure that is still true. As for Irish soccer hooligans – I was treated to a top volume recitation of bloodthirsty IRA ballads on a tram in Bratislava on the way to the debacle against Slovakia. The culprits? Three Scotsmen and a Londoner in Celtic tops.

  7. Sarah Post author

    My uncle was one of 9 pioneers in our parish who last week made it to 50 years off the booze. The trend appears to be (according to the report) that people cut down as they age, with women being slightly more abstemious than men.

    The principal feature of Irish drinking is the binge element. Europeans are daily drinkers. i.e. the wine with the dinner. The Irish don’t drink say Mon-Thursday and then have 10 pints on Friday night…

  8. Sarah Post author

    and may I say too..

    I was out for dinner on Saturday. I drank a very nice Montepulciano throughout the meal – definitely 3 glasses, maybe a bit more with the top-ups… As the dessert arrived and my husband pointed the bottle in my direction I declined. My friend exclaimed “Why aren’t you drinking?”. I HAD been drinking. I had to explain about the likelihood of an early morning, and a busy day ahead. I just knew I’d reached my limit. Another one and I’d be drunker than I wanted to be and I had a long day the next day. (the birthday party). She was a perfectly mature woman and still thought it was odd that I ONLY had 3 glasses of wine. I find this constantly when I go out especially at parties. Judgement if I don’t get pissed. Like there’s something wrong with me…

  9. Andrew Lawlor


    We have a problem with alcohol in this country. It’s not that we drink too much of the stuff, that’s just a symptom of the underlying problem. Consumption of alcohol is so ingrained in Irish culture, in our national psyche that we have developed a remarkable tolerance for what is really dangerous and damaging behaviour.

    The man with an above average tolerance of alcohol is seen among his peers as ‘a fierce hoor to sink pints,’ usually uttered with an almost religious adoration. The explaination of our hangover to our work colleagues often begins with, ‘Jaysus, I must have had at least a dozen pints……and that was before I started on the shorts, man.’ And it never ceases to amaze me how many disqualified drivers lost their licence after ‘only two pints.’ How unfortunate.

    We have a problem with alcohol because we tolerate the behaviour of those who drink to excess.

    Availability is often quoted as a vital factor in alcohol consumption. Alcohol is more available now than at any previous time in Ireland. Every Spar, Londis, Centra or petrol station now seems to have aquired a seven day licence and they bombard us with 5.99 and 8.99 and 10.99 specials on six packs and twelve packs and slabs of super strength continental lager.

    Go to Spain, however, and you can go one better. If you fancy a McDonalds with the family on a Sunday afternoon in Marbella, Mammy and Daddy can enjoy a cold cerveza with the Big Mac and fries while the kids gorge themselves on Coke and 7Up and chocolate milk shakes. Every food outlet in Spain, be it a high class restaurant, a local supermarcado, an out of town hypermarket or even a bar, will sell you alcohol. So, why do mediteranean countries not suffer from the same alcohol related disaster that we see here in Ireland?

    Mediteranean culture tends to be more family-centric and this is reflected in the attitude of restaurants there. Try bringing your children out to dinner in Ireland after 8pm and see the reaction you get from proprieters and diners alike.(
    The prevailing trend here is to get the kids out of the way so that the grown ups can get pissed in peace.

    Every landmark occasion in Irish life seems to be marked by excess consumption of alcohol. Christening? Piss up. Communion? Piss up. Wedding? Piss up. Funeral? Piss up. Is it any wonder that our youths celebrate their milestones in the same manner? Junior Cert? Piss up. Leaving Cert? Piss up. Graduation? Piss up. Friday, Saturday, anyday? Piss up.


    Also, the Catholic Church, in the shape of Fr. Brian D’arcy, waded into the alcohol debate in an interesting manner this week. I expand more on this at – – but let me just say this here.

    ‘Is there, however, something more sinister buried in this story? Is Fr. Darcy dropping a large hint to the Gardai that maybe they should turn a blind eye when a priest is found to be drunk behind the wheel? After all he is only doing God’s work and the rules do not allow him to do that work without taking alcohol. The more of God’s work he does the more pissed he may be behind the wheel. So let him on his way and if he mows down a small child or two on his way, well maybe that’s all part of God’s great plan.’

  10. pete

    >Why aren’t we as a nation growing out of our habitual excessive drinking?

    We probably will. Ireland, as a nation, had a very long, restrictive childhood, and is now going through it’s “18-30” phase, free, having one long non-stop party and avoiding grown-up responsibilities. But eventually it will mature into a grown-up nation, and the national pyche will turn against mass binge drinking.
    Of course, there’ll always be young people going through that phase, there is in every country, but they’ll grow out of it and move on if our society provides an acceptable alternative to move on to. Currently, in most places, it doesn’t.

    American comedian: “If you’re worried that you’re drinking to much, the solution is to visit Ireland. There, you’ll discover that you’re not drinking too much, in fact you’re not drinking enough!”

  11. Gordon Davies

    A major problem with alcohol abuse in Ireland is due to the poor quality of the drinks available. The Campaign for Real Ale made no inroads here, leaving the beer market dominated by two major players who only produce a fizzy ersatz of real beer, usually served at a taste numbingly low temperature. Even the micro-brewers are selling pasturised fake beer. For real beer travel to Britain or Belgium

    It is increasingly difficult to find “normal” wines (11-12.5° alchohol). In my local wine merchants most wine is 13.5° plus, often over 14°. It is well known that the process used to produce such strong wine leads to a drink that is dangerous if consumed regularily. So I take the car to France at least once a year to stock up on real wines.


  12. Maria

    I find comments like that woman made to you Sarah tedious. She’s obviously a crushing bore who thinks a few bottles of wine will make her interesting. One of the reasons I loved living abroad was that people were not fixated on whether you were or were not drinking, it wasn’t an issue.

  13. Luke

    Jesus I could murder a pint.


    (off the gargle for November)

  14. Martha

    John Waters: “we have lost the capacity to teach our children how to live.”

    Really, John? When did we ever have that?

    We learnt a lot of things from our Holy-Catholic-Ireland mentors and parents, but teaching our children how to live – and that means to love (as in respecty) – wasn’t one of them. It’ll take a while, but once we rid ourselves entirely of that destructive psychosis, we’ll start to drink in a civilised manner.

  15. Dan Sullivan

    Sarah, ID is an area that we need to go down but only if everyone is in it instead of the current farcical situation of requiring those 18-21 to carry ID. If the parents of those underage aren’t willing to carry ID then why expect other adults to do so?

  16. EJP

    At this point alcohol abuse is so culturally embedded that it will take generations to reduce it to somewhat more healthy levels. As to why that is I can do no more than anyone else and speculate as to reasons.

    Instead of suppression of sexual desire I would cite our relatively emotionally suppressive society as a contributory cause. It’s related to the fact that mental health has always been a taboo subject in Irish society, and that our society, for one reason or another, has never encouraged the individual to open up and relate to, express, or communicate their real feelings. Destructive feelings, without being acknowledged and vented in some way, will make their way out behaviourally.

    I read a book by occasional New Yorker essayist David Foster Wallace recently where he put binge drinking among young adults down to the need to temporarily regress to a state of childhood, after a week of shouldering responsibilities for which they secretly believe themselves completely unequipped to deal with. I have to say I hold some truck with this argument.

    It’s a recurring motif in zeitgeist comedies about the American dream of eternal adolescence (anything starring Will Ferrell, etc.); fully grown adults coming home from their ostensibly responsible jobs, if they even have one, ditching the suit for shorts and t-shirt and firing up the bong. There are immense societal pressures on young adults currently and getting oneself through the week with one’s guard in place is hard work. How better to reward oneself than to cut loose and let the inner child out?

    Ally this with the respect, mentioned in a number of comments above, that has always been attributed in Irish society to those who can drink to excess, a previously unknown level of disposable income, a further pressure upon young women to be at least the equal of their male peers in all endeavours way and it’s a dangerous cocktail.

    The advertising, while dangerously well crafted, and availability are to me red herrings. Neither stimulate desire to any great degree in my opinion, they merely tap in to and channel a pre-existing want. The real fight is to identify the reasons for and to tackle the base compulsion.

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  18. LM

    Well there is NOTHING to do in this country! The weather certainly doesn’t help, especially during the winter. (I am not using this as the ONLY excuse) Why is it that in a mega-hot climate like Melbourne can you go to an indoor beach volleyball centre? There are plenty of beaches and the weather to boot. but still these resources are there! This country needs a serious wake up call in terms of sober social interaction with other human beings. More of a focus on sport and family recreation is what’s needed. The government needs to wake up and fork out also. Everything they put in place revolves around restrictions and taxation they never provide alternatives, always restrictions. Where are the better roads, the community centres, the public transport systems in rural areas? There are NO effective intervention models in this country such as are evident in New Zealand. Young teenagers ‘knacker drink’ in fields failing that they are plonked in front of the TV over eating. Exercise, activity and resources please!

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