Why Irish eyes aren’t smiling

The Irish authorities have declared all-out war on alcohol - and in some parts of Ireland it is now virtually impossible to get drunk without committing an offence.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

When you think of the Irish, what image comes to mind? A partying people who like nothing more than the craic and a stiff drink? Think again. The Irish authorities have declared all-out war on alcohol and plan to ‘purge’ the demon drink ‘from Irish culture’.

Arriving in Ireland in July on the lookout for booze, friends and I were greeted by anti-drink headlines. ‘Drink now the number one enemy on Garda hit list’ screamed the Irish Independent, explaining that ‘drink has replaced drug offences at the top of the Garda [Irish police] agenda’ (1). And the Garda mean business – following a rise in public disorder offences in June 2001 they unleashed a campaign of zero tolerance of drunken behaviour and clampdowns on adults who buy alcohol for kids. ‘There is a prevailing attitude that this kind of behaviour is acceptable’, said Garda commissioner Pat Byrne, ‘and it is a sad reflection on how society is today’ (2).

So how bad is Ireland’s ‘drink problem’? The Irish authorities are forever citing a report published by the World Health Organisation in February 2001, which found that 25 percent of Irish teenagers surveyed said they had been drunk 20 times or more. Leaving aside the fact that the survey included 18- and 19-year-olds, and that teenagers have been known to lie about their drinking habits, Ireland still didn’t top the European young drunks’ league. It was well behind Denmark, where 41 percent of teenagers claimed to have been drunk 20 times or more, and even behind Finland (28 percent).

What about public disorder? According to the Garda there have been ‘huge increases’ in public disorder offences over the past year, with 44,660 such offences committed between October 2000 and April 2001 – and most of them by 17- to 30-year-olds between the hours of 12am and 3am. But it pays to break the figures down.

Nearly half of these offences (19,560) were ‘offences of drinking in a public place’ – and 4979 were ‘disorderly conduct incidents’, which can include anything from drunken behaviour to vomiting in public or loitering. If the Garda are going to make being drunk into a public disorder offence, they shouldn’t be surprised when public disorder offences shoot up.

But still the Garda wage war on drinkers. Emerging from a pub in Galway City, we were shocked to see how many police were patrolling the streets – especially outside pubs. Aoife, a bar worker in Galway, explained: ‘It’s been like this for a few weeks. The guards want to arrest drunkards and people making fools of themselves, so they hang around waiting. Which means no more lock-ins and no more chatting to mates before going home. It’s like a curfew – just unannounced.’

Further west, in rural Connemara, the Garda have launched a huge clampdown on drink driving. As friends and I walked the five-mile journey from a local town to our digs after a night on the tiles, we could see Garda cars parked in tiny side-streets and behind trees – with their lights switched off – ready to pounce on motorists. But in rural Ireland, people who want a social life have little choice but to drive after a few drinks. Where we stayed there are no buses, no taxis, no trains, and the nearest pub is five miles away along unlighted, pitch-black roads. What are the locals supposed to do – stay at home?

With the guards on the lookout for people drinking or being drunk in public – and with one report claiming that drink-driving ‘now almost as shameful as sex abuse’ (3) – it is virtually impossible to get drunk in some parts of Ireland without committing an offence.

The authorities are not just clamping down on drunkenness – they are clamping down on drinking itself. According to the Irish government there is an even bigger problem than drunken kids and boozy drivers – namely, how drink is ingrained in Irish culture and seen by almost everybody as ‘culturally acceptable’. The solution? A national programme of re-education and renewal.

In July 2001, the Irish Ministry of Health launched an alcohol awareness programme, to educate the nation about how alcohol is a drug; to teach adults the dangers of buying booze for children; and to raise the question of how alcohol advertising should be made ‘more responsible’. According to the Irish Times, ‘The extent of the symbiotic relationship between personal enjoyment and alcohol consumption is so deep in Irish culture that the minister of health has set himself a Herculean task to change our behaviour when it comes to drink’ (4).

So the Irish authorities want to change how people think about drink – to wake them up to the fact that booze is not all fun and games but can also ‘destroy families and individuals’. And because alcohol is apparently ‘deeply embedded’ in Irish culture, they have little choice but to re-educate everybody – including adults.

The Ministry of Health has launched a poster advertising campaign encouraging adults to stop buying and giving alcohol to children and teenagers. The campaign was welcomed by anti-alcohol campaigners – but criticised for not going far enough. According to Barbara Johnston of the National Parents Council, ‘We need to educate our generation, we need to educate the generation coming up, we need a huge education programme around the fact that alcohol is a drug.’ Or as the Irish Times put it, ‘Adults must be educated on alcohol dangers’ (5).

One of the authorities’ biggest concerns is that adults are giving alcohol to children and teenagers – and that even parents are giving alcohol to their own kids. But are Irish parents really turning their children into gibbering alcoholics? When I spent summers with my grandmother in the west of Ireland as a child, she fed me on mountains of potatoes, meat and veg, and a bottle of stout – every night. But her aim was, as she put it, ‘to put hairs on my chest’, not to get me pissed. Like others, she saw stout as a good way to ward off colds and coughs – the equivalent of giving a child a spoonful of cod liver oil (except it tasted even worse).

Yet the Irish authorities and media see more sinister motives at play. ‘Parents have a major role to play’, says the Irish Times. ‘Collusion in under-age drinking starts at home and adult abuse breeds imitation.’ (6) So you can’t be drunk on the streets; you certainly can’t be drunk behind the wheel of a car; and now there’s a question mark over getting drunk at home. Why not go the whole hog and enforce prohibition?

There was a time when alcohol was seen positively in Ireland. Of course, some went too far and ‘destroyed themselves with the drink’ – but for most, going to the pub was the best way to socialise. Anybody who has been to an Irish pub (a real Irish pub in Ireland, that is, not a fake Irish pub in Britain) will know that it’s meeting place, where people catch up on news, debate the big issues, meet friends and family. And, of course, get blind drunk.

Now the Irish authorities see booze as the ultimate evil – an ‘addiction’ passed down from generation to generation, turning teenagers into criminals and adults into unthinking drunks, with re-education on a national scale as the only solution.

It’s enough to make you hit the bottle.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

License to drink – soberly by Jennie Bristow

Craic good, cigarettes bad by Patrick West

(1) Irish Independent, 18 July 2001

(2) Irish Independent, 18 July 2001

(3) Irish Times, 14 March 2001

(4) Irish Times, 11 July 2001

(5) Irish Times, 11 July 2001

(6) Irish Times, 11 July 2001

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Topics Politics


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