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Irish and Alcoholic: Are they one and the same?

By Kristen McGuiness 12/04/13

Just because you're Irish, doesn't mean you have to be a drunk.

to be sure to be sure shutterstock

For many who have already confessed to alcoholism, being Irish just feels like part of the title. I know for myself I have often claimed that my Irish and Italian roots left me very little genetic choice in terms of my love for drink. But as I began to meet more and more true Irish—folks born on the Emerald Isle and not just long-lost descendants—I began to wonder if my little quip was true. Does being Irish make you a drunk?

According to Chris, a handsome contractor from County Clare with a thick head of white hair and an even heavier Irish brogue, the stereotype is not without merit. He has been sober for the last 15 years, something of a rarity in his home country. As he explains, “When I first started going to meetings in San Francisco, people would say they were in the CIA—Catholic Irish Alcoholic, and though I wasn’t living in Ireland at the time, I agreed. Where I came from, everybody drank. I didn’t even realize there was something wrong with it until I went to England when I was 17, and though people were partying it wasn’t anything like back home.”

Back home was rural Ireland, where having a beer at the pub was as natural as riding a bicycle, and according to recent statistics, not much has changed. The Health Research Board recently released statistics that “a considerable majority (72%) of people said they know someone, who in their opinion, drinks too much alcohol,” and according to the Chief Medical Officer of Ireland, alcohol-related illnesses cost the country an estimated 3.7 billion Euros a year in health, crime, public order and other ancillary costs. For a country with less than 6 million inhabitants, that’s a stiff price tag for a pint.

The drinking promotes the identity, glorifying it as part of being Irish, and sadly people are still dying because of it.

Patrick, a 25-year old bartender living in Dublin who finally got sober after falling off a building, remembers the warnings about alcoholism from a young age, “My grandfather was a recovered alcoholic and so we all knew what it was. He once told me that Dr. Silkworth went to St. Pat’s [Cathedral] in Dublin and said, ‘I’m looking for some alcoholics,’ and the guy there replied, ‘There are no alcoholics in Ireland, just drunks.’ From a young age, it was normal for all of us to get drunk, that was all we really did.”

Drinking young has become an even bigger issue in recent years. According to James Doorley in the Irish Times, “Twenty years ago people were drinking under the age of 18, but they were drinking wine and beer. Now it’s spirits, and they’re drinking more and younger. They’re also turning up with serious liver problems at a younger age.”

Julia has only been sober for six months, but for her, drinking was expected as a teenager. With bright red hair and an easy smile, she has had to struggle to find friends her age who also don’t drink. As she explains, “The thing was to go out to get drunk. All of my friends—we’re also completely intoxicated, falling all over the place, and if you didn’t get like that, we thought there was something wrong with you.”

The idea of being drunk and Irish isn’t just shared by drinking behavior, it’s a part of the statistics. The Irish Times reports, “The Irish recently came top of the Eurobarometer for heavy drinking. Twenty-eight per cent of Irish drinkers binge-drank and 56 per cent overall drank harmfully, according to a Slán survey of 2007. And Ireland’s per capita alcohol consumption was 11.3 litres per adult, compared with an OECD average of 9.1 litres, according to OECD Health Data 2011.”

On a recent trip to Dublin, I was well aware of the attraction of the pint. It seemed as though the tall frothy glasses were everywhere, and though there were a few homeless people on the streets—a reminder of where alcoholism can lead—drinking heavily was prevalent enough to seem normal. Drinking in the street was common and even to someone with a handful of sobriety under her belt, it looked fun.

Patrick agrees, explaining, “I think part of the problem is that heavy drinking is so accepted, it takes people longer to recognize it as a problem. I remember when I was a kid we would be boasting about drinking and people would be laughing about it. Some of the signs that would point to having a problem wouldn’t be so obvious for us. It's more difficult in Ireland because there’s such a culture built around drinking.”

As Garret O’Connor, former director of the Betty Ford Institute, writes in the Irish Times, drinking as a national pastime has historical roots: “The net effect of religious persecution, land rape, extreme poverty and intermittent abuse of military power by English colonists in Ireland during 700 years of continuous occupation was to produce a national inferiority complex in Irish Catholics which I identify as cultural malignant shame. . .because of [this] shame, there is often a tendency to keep the behavior of problem drinkers a secret from the outside world.”

For many Irish, this shame and other traumas have led to a culture where drink has seemed like the only solution. As Chris explains, “There are a lot of secrets and then there are a lot of group secrets. It’s the ‘valley of the squinting windows,’ where everybody knows everybody’s dirty little secrets. They whisper about them but they don’t talk about them.”

Chris adds, “I don’t know if there is a similar dynamic with the American Indians, but between the shame of colonization and the shame of the famine, we became known as the melancholy race. The drinking promotes the identity, glorifying it as part of being Irish, and sadly people are still dying because of it.”

But thankfully, more and more people are also getting sober. Currently, there are over 1,000 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week in Dublin alone, and according to Julia, there are finally more young people coming in too. “There hasn’t always been a lot of young people who have gotten sober but the more of us that do, the more we can help others. People can come into a meeting and see other young faces and maybe they’ll stay and together we can all begin to change.”

Kristen McGuiness is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about the role of alcoholism in the culture of rape in India.

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Kristen McGuiness is the author of the bestselling memoir, 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life. In addition, she has co-written numerous books in the genres of self-help, business, psychology, and dating, and has written for Marie ClaireAOLHuffington Post, and Salon. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughter, and dog Peter, and recently finished her second book, The Beautiful Lives of Sad Children. Kristen can be found on Linkedin. You can also follow her on Twitter.

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