Category: Archive

The intoxicating reality

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

A broad range of statistics out of Ireland in the last three years shows a disturbing trend: the Irish really are drinking more — 41 percent more than they did a decade ago, and with dire consequences.
This week, amid growing concern over Irish drinking, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern called for the drinks trade to help deal with the “menace” of alcohol abuse and binge drinking, by requiring health warnings on alcoholic drinks and severely restricting liquor advertising across Ireland.
Ahern’s concerns may be too little, too late. Along with excessive drinking has come its old friends, health problems and public-order offenses: a quarter of Irish weekend emergency room admissions are now alcohol-related and Dublin’s O’Connell Street has been slammed as the disgrace of the capital because of the level of Friday and Saturday night drunkenness and crime.
“We are going to see a dark side to drink before we see any bright side,” said Denis O’Brien, a Galway businessman who campaigns for a healthier drinking culture in his home city.
O’Brien’s gloomy assessment comes after the latest set of statistics from a University College Dublin Institute of Criminology survey highlighted the criminality that is now rampant with the increase in drinking.
Released in May 2003, the Public Order Offenses in Ireland Survey is stark: “drunkenness, disorderliness and threatening, abusive and insulting behavior” have risen by 161 percent in five years.
Eighteen central Dublin streets have high levels of public-order crime, the survey found, with O’Connell Street being the worst: fights, vandalism, vomiting and public urination. Twenty-seven percent of all incidents — usually taking place late at night or in the early hours of the morning at the weekend — occurred on O’Connell Street.
A year ago, the government’s Strategic Taskforce on Alcohol issued its interim report, which offered more confirmation of a sharp increase in alcohol consumption among the Irish, particularly amongst young people.
From 1989-99, “alcohol consumption per capita in Ireland increased by 41 percent,” the report states, “while 10 of the European union Member States showed a decrease and four other countries showed a moderate increase during the same period.” The moderate increases (Britain, Germany, Greece and Portugal) range from about 1-5 percent.
Anecdotal evidence backs up the statistics. Most strikingly, a recent RTE “Prime Time” program showed shocking scenes of drinking, vomiting and hooliganism on Dublin’s main streets. The Irish Times followed with a series of articles further highlighting Ireland’s drinking problem. In last week’s Irish Echo, a columnist also attested to witnessing frightening scenes of drunkenness in central Dublin. Statistics show the pattern is reflected in towns and villages across the country.
While road traffic deaths in the Irish Republic are down recently due to an aggressive police initiative, they remain high in Northern Ireland, where it seems the drinking situation is just as serious.
Indeed, last year’s official report on the Health of the Public in Northern Ireland by Dr. Henrietta Campbell drew this comment from the author in May 2002: “150 people die here each year as a direct result of alcohol misuse, and a further 650 die because of diseases or injuries related to alcohol.”
Overall, binge drinking is highest in the Irish Republic among the 18-30 set, and over half of Irish children start experimenting with alcohol from about the age of 12, according to the Strategic Taskforce on Alcohol Report.
What has brought about this decade-long binge in what has been long considered a confident, mature and prosperous nation with its stereotypical drinking long since left behind?

Long-established culture
Garda interviewed for the Public Order Offenses in Ireland Survey pointed to home life as being a primary cause of Ireland’s drinking culture. Police officers feel the brunt of out-of control drunks even more than taxi and bus drivers. The survey quoted gardai anonymously.
“Some young people [don’t know] any better because their parents are exactly the same,” one officer said. “They see mother and father drinking, they are drinking at home the whole time. Not knowing any better. So drink to them is just a progression, it’s just something that is natural that they do.”
Other Irish people like Denis O’Brien in Galway point to a long-established drinking culture now coupled with a prosperity that has given many, especially young people, extra cash in their pocket.
“The pioneer [temperance] movement was extremely strong in my youth,” said O’Brien, who is 63. “And three people I went to secondary school with have died of alcohol. And the drinking among the young is much worse these days.”
O’Brien foresees a devastating quality-of-life problem in Irish society that he suggests could turn tourist and investor alike away from the country.
But American businessman Gerry Prine takes a more moderate approach. He is chief executive of a software company, Navara, in Shannon.
Prine has done business in Ireland for about five years and lives there most of the year. He said that while Ireland’s social culture surprised him when he first arrived, he is now used to it, and allows a certain leeway with his staff after, say, a Thursday night out, Thursday often being one of the week’s big social nights in anticipation of the weekend.
“It’s like anything new,” Prine said, basing his analysis in Ireland’s newfound prosperity. “There will be a period of time when you will see excessiveness. I think Ireland is going through a period of recognizing a new reality.”
Once he recognized the centrality of pubs and bars to Irish interaction, Prine said that he reached what he called a “gentleman’s agreement” with his staff. And he said that he is confident that one of things he admires most about Ireland will help solve the problem — a strong family structure.
“[The drinking] is one of these pendulum swing things. The baseline family culture in Ireland is one of the nicest things I have ever experienced here. It’s a strength that carries across all boundaries and the family model will do as much as anything else to moderate things.”
Yet the grim crop of statistics suggests that Ireland cannot wait for the pendulum to swing back, if it ever does, nor does the evidence suggest that the family is any more impervious to drunken overindulgence as the individual.
A pilot study cited by the Strategic Taskforce Report on Alcohol showed that one in four patients admitted to emergency rooms across Ireland had alcohol-related injuries, that is, slips and falls, burns, or wounds from fighting.
The same report cites alcohol abuse as “the primary presenting problem in up to 25 percent of cases [of marital difficulty.]”
And a survey of 32 teenage girls attending a sexually-transmitted-disease clinic showed nearly half of them had had unprotected sex on at least one occasion when drunk.

Confronting the problem
Still, sometimes there seems to be a resistance to confronting Ireland’s drink problem.
Recently, President Mary McAleese tackled the issue head-on in a landmark speech at the Re-Imagining Ireland conference in Virginia. Bertie Ahern’s follow-up remarks this week suggest the government is taking the issue seriously.
But McAleese’s remark that Ireland’s love of drinking was a “bad old habit that has never gone away” drew criticism from some corners.
One writer in the Irish Times, Miriam Donohoe, wrote on May 10: “We do not have to share our problems with an international audience. What business is it of Americans, even Irish Americans, how much alcohol we consume here?”
Donohoe continued: “I take great exception to [McAleese] washing our dirty linen in public in the U.S. Using a stage abroad to repeat her views smacked of opportunism.”
Irish-American Noreen Bowden is from New City in Rockland, N.Y., but has lived in Galway for two and a half years. Her parents were born in Ireland.
Like many people, she enjoys a drink with friends after work and at the weekends, and Galway affords a broad range of comfortable bars and pubs from the trendy to the traditional.
But she is in no doubt that there is a drinking problem in Ireland, and said feels strongly about suggestions that it is no one’s business but the Irish.
“The whole notion that it’s not anyone’s business just doesn’t fly,” she said. “Ireland is not some tiny little family trying to guard a hidden problem — it’s a country that is attempting to position itself as a major-league player in the global economy. The notion that its biggest ‘dirty little secret’ should be kept in the closet lest the neighbors hear about it is just ludicrous and impossible.”
Getting home after a night in a cozy bar is anything but convivial, Bowden said.
“If you are walking down the street after closing time,” she said, “most people are drunk, very drunk. It actually feels unsafe. There is an edge to it.”
Taxi drivers have told Bowden and others just how difficult their working lives are at the weekends, where the norm for the sober is to avoid the city’s central Eyre Square after dark.
If, as in Galway city, Dublin’s main thoroughfare has become a drunken battlefield every weekend, it is hard to see how the problem can be hidden from the eyes of the world — which is also to suggest that hiding it away is somehow a solution, rather than dealing with it in the open.
Bowden’s observations on drinking in Ireland go beyond the conclusion that people, especially the 20-something set, simply have a lot more spare cash to spend on drinks — that the problem is one of Ireland’s economic success in recent years.
“It’s partly the rounds system,” she said. “The fastest drinker sets the pace of each round, so people end up drinking very quickly. Then people drink against the clock, even after the opening hours were extended.”

Gardai alarmed
Garda who contributed to the Public Order Offenses in Ireland Survey also pointed to irresponsible pub and liquor store owners.
“Off-licenses don’t care,” he said. “They are just taking the money. They don’t have to deal with the problems later on. The same with pubs. Let people drink as much as they want and then close the doors on them. It’s our problem then. The pubs could be more responsible.”
Recent years have seen the rise of the so-called “super pub” in some towns and cities: vast bars that hold as many as 2,000 people with a staff capable of serving drinks as quickly as possible. Such establishments do roaring trade during sporting events such as last year’s World Cup, soccer and GAA games.
Alcopops — lemonade and sodas with alcohol already added are popular, as are other lethal combinations, most notoriously the “vodka and red bull” cocktail — vodka mixed with a highly caffeinated drink.
In 2000, an Illinois State University sociology professor Richard Strivers republished “Hair of the Dog,” his book examining Ireland’s drinking culture up to the mid-20th century.
Strivers’s book examined the endemic, centuries-old Irish association with drinking, and established its basis in both fact and stereotype.
For many years, Irish and Irish Americans have fought to defeat just that — the nasty slur, the stereotype, of the drunken Irish.
It seems today that reality has caught up with the stereotype.
As Noreen Bowden said from Galway: “Anyone today who says this just is a stereotype has their head in the sand.”
The National Crime Council’s Public Order Offences in Ireland Survey can be downloaded at: www.gov.ie/crimecouncil.
The Irish Government’s Strategic Taskforce on Alcohol is available from the Department of Health web site at: www.doh.ie/publications/stfa.html.

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