“More money in more pockets has visibly lifted standards of living, but it’s being badly spent too, on bad habits that have never gone away,” McAleese said.
“The Irish love of conviviality has its dark side in the stupid, wasteful abuse of alcohol and its first cousin, abuse of drugs.”
While Ireland has witnessed periodic public hand-wringing over drug abuse in the past, our dysfunctional relationship with alcohol has generally been tolerated and, aside from the nuns trying to get you take to take the pledge on your confirmation, ignored. But it’s become a hot-button issue in recent times.
“Prime Time,” a current affairs program that airs on RTE, shattered our barstool complacency last November when it presented graphic footage shot on a typical weekend night in Dublin highlighting the problem of binge drinking by young people and its aftermath. According to “Prime Time,” half the admissions to the emergency room at one large city hospital on a weekend night are related to the effects of alcohol, and many of those admitted are young women. The program was much talked about and it’s airing was followed by a televised debate. It is now shown in schools around the country in the hopes of deterring such behavior.
But a “Prime Time” update on the issue two weeks ago showed that it’s going to take more than graphic news footage of young people drunk and out of control to change Irish people’s relationship with alcohol, not least because the alcohol abuse is not restricted to the 18-to-early-20s set.
According to journalist Keelin Shanley, Ireland now has the dubious honor of being the top European Union nation in terms of alcohol consumption.
Each Irish person consumes an incredible 11 liters of pure alcohol a year, she reported. You might ask why the sudden desire to scrutinize Ireland’s longstanding love affair with booze? I did.
Having spent most of my adult life here in New York, I have on many occasions been more than a little irked when Americans casually allude to the Irish love of booze. I hotly defended my country against what I thought was unfair stereotyping. But while spending a few months living and working in Dublin in 2000, I found an environment where alcohol is more socially acceptable than I had remembered.
Had it become more accepted in my absence? I wondered. In truth, probably not. I think I had simply grown more accustomed to a different and more tempered approach to alcohol consumption. And perhaps I was more than a little guilty of selective memory. If I delve back into the unofficial history of my university days, we drank a lot. And a visit to any bar in New York or San Francisco where the new influx of Irish immigrants congregate will quickly clarify that little has changed.
While staying with my parents during my time in Dublin and on numerous visits home, I always thought my mother was going a little overboard with her dire warnings about the dangers of late night Dublin. After all, as I would explain, I’m a woman in my 30s who survived New York’s Alphabet City prior to gentrification. My mother’s retort: “You don’t know Dublin anymore — it’s frightening.” And it is.
Leaving the pub at closing time in Dublin usually means having to negotiate streets filled with groups of drunken people looking for somewhere to go. The problem was a lot worse when all pubs closed at 11 p.m. or 11:30 p.m. and simultaneously disgorged their reluctant patrons onto the street, usually after they had crammed several drinks into the last half-hour of drinking time. As you can imagine they were not particularly happy over the sudden change in venue.
A couple of years ago, the government loosened the pub licensing laws, a move partly aimed at reducing binge drinking and — dare I say it? — at staggering the crowds of staggering drunks. But I’m not sure it’s working. As the president said, the Irish have more money to spend on booze, and now they also have more time in which to spend it. The crowds are simply drunker, noisier and liable to rove at a later hour.
Walking the streets of late night Dublin, one always gets the sense that what looks like a normal crowd of people waiting for a taxi or a bus could soon morph into an unruly and aggressive mob. Then there are the dangerously drunk staggering home on foot, in many cases stopping to deposit the contents of their stomach onto the sidewalk.
And I can personally testify that traveling at night is a very risky business following my close encounter a couple of years back with a brick hurled from the rear to the front of the bus I was on. It missed my head by inches. Now I am quite happy to pay for a taxi.
Can the Irish correct a bad habit honed over hundreds of years in just one generation? I doubt it. The problem is not just binge-drinking teenagers and people in their early 20s. Drinking alcohol is intricately woven into the social fabric of Irish life. When Irish people of all ages go out to meet socially, they usually do so at the pub.
Alcohol, and its after effects, are even tolerated in Ireland’s new post-industrial high-tech workplace, where it appears it’s quite acceptable to go public about your hangover the day after the night before.
Still, I suppose we should be grateful for the fact that people are actually talking about the issue. I just hope the discussion doesn’t always take place over a pint.
(The opinions expressed represent those of the writer, not necessarily those of the Irish Echo.)