The connection between the Irish and drink is not something that is likely to go away any time soon, for various reasons. But it’s an association that is increasingly irritating and annoying for a great many Irish people who find it patronizing and insulting.
The linkage gives an impression that is not even accurate. Did you know, for example, that 20 percent of Irish people don’t drink alcohol at all? And of the other 80 percent a majority drink alcohol in moderate amounts, much like people anywhere else.
Yet the association with drinking to excess is deeply ingrained in the way other people see the Irish, not least people in America. It’s impossible not to be confronted with the association on the national holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, or as many call it in the U.S., “Patty’s Day,” the day when some Americans feel they have an excuse to drink too much because it’s just being “Irish.”
You will have seen the T-shirts again this year. My favorite is the one that gives the degrees of inebriation from sober to merry to drunk to totally wasted, with one further, final stage on the spectrum: Irish.
You can see this as a bit of fun, just like the leprechaun suits, the red beards, the plastic shillelaghs, the stick-on shamrocks and the outsize green hats. But it’s a tired old joke and it’s one that feeds a stereotype that most of us here feel no longer represents us.
There’s a growing feeling here that it’s way past time our image around the world was separated completely from drinking. There is so much we have to offer, so much we have to be proud of, so many things other than alcohol that define us.
We don’t want the drinking Irish connection anymore, thanks very much. For a start, it’s impossible to do the two things that we are best known for around the word these days – music and dance – if you are blind drunk.
We need to shift the image of Ireland abroad, not least in the U.S., to something that more accurately reflects who the majority of us Irish are these days. And “Patty’s Day” was a good time to start, for obvious reasons.
Full marks therefore to the Irish tourist board, Failte Ireland, for producing the three-minute video "St. Patrick’s Day 2014: Ireland Inspires," which you may have seen on YouTube or IrishCentral.
It’s gone viral and the last time I looked it was heading for a million views, presenting a positive, upbeat picture of contemporary Ireland that is far more interesting, vibrant and complex than the usual cliches.
The montage of images and facts presented in quick succession to the haunting soundtrack of Irish singer James Vincent McMorrow’s version of the Steve Winwood classic “Higher Love” could not be further away from the diddly-eye, pints of stout image. In fact, as one commentator here pointed out, what was really refreshing about the video was the complete absence of anything to do with alcohol.
The man behind the video, Failte Ireland’s John Concannon, told the Irish Independent that he wanted to get away from the cliches about the Irish. “Everybody knows that drinking is part of Irish culture,” he said, “but there’s so much more to us than that.”
So the video does not have images of people swilling pints or of raucous nights in music pubs. Instead, there is an impressive listing of many of the different things that distinguish Irish people these days and of the energy, creativity and sense of fun that make Irish people – sober Irish people – different.
That perspective captures the new awareness among many people here that having a fun time does not depend on drink. There’s another video on YouTube at the moment that also captures this, made by some young filmmakers in Galway to the soundtrack of “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.
Yes there is the odd pub in the background in the video but that’s incidental and no one is drinking. Imagine! Young people in Galway having the craic and a supremely happy time with no alcohol involved!
Here's the joyous Happy Galway video:
All of this gives hope for the future. Ireland is changing and with it the once obsessive dependence on alcohol. But we still have a long way to go.
It’s not that we have cured the drink connection. But it is more compartmentalized.
As we pointed out above, recent research shows that 20 percent of Irish people don’t drink alcohol at all, and another 40 percent or so are what are categorized as moderate drinkers who rarely if ever get drunk.
The problem we have is concentrated among the other 40 percent who tend to be from the younger section of the population and frequently from the less affluent section of our society (and that includes middle-class students).
It’s in this category that you get the mindset that no night out is complete without getting drunk. In fact the aim is to get out of it as fast as possible.
In this mindset, the craic and drinking to excess are inextricably linked. That’s what leads to the nauseating scenes around Dublin and in many towns around the country on weekend nights when you see people staggering around, urinating in public (and it’s not just the boys), fighting, vomiting, screaming and attacking anyone who intervenes.
This used to be a particular problem on St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin where it was not unusual to see people collapsed from drink just yards from the parade on O’Connell Street. But recently and particularly this year it was better, helped by the fact that most liquor stores and bars now operate to a later schedule.
If you look at the overall figures for alcohol consumption in Ireland, the trend does not look good since we are now drinking twice as much per head of the population as we did 50 years ago. That is a result of our greater wealth these days (in spite of the bust) and the fact that alcohol can now be bought very cheaply in stores and supermarkets.
But it’s a bit misleading because home consumption of alcohol has risen dramatically, and these home drinkers for the most part are not involved in the public drunkenness that creates the wild drinking Irish image.
There are many theories on why the Irish drink so much. Some social scientists say the historical context is important, that 800 years of oppression ground down the national psyche and that release from the pain this caused was found in alcohol.
When we finally did get our freedom, the pain and depression continued because of the strictures of the Catholic Church and the austere new Irish state. Again, release came in the pub.
A constant stream of emigration, from the time of the Famine onwards to the present day, took Irish people to Britain, America, Australia and elsewhere, and the pain of separation and the need for a sense of home brought them to bars wherever they went. The image of the drinking Irish spread far and wide, accentuated by the fondness of the homesick Irish for a party or a music session.
The psychologists will tell you that a person who drinks to get blind drunk is drinking to forget, to escape, to avoid. And there are many historical reasons why the Irish would have had a compulsion to do all three.
Whether this is an adequate explanation of today’s excessive drinking, not just on Patty’s Day but whenever there is an excuse, is doubtful.
Certainly there appears to be something missing in the make-up of many of the younger drinkers who cause much of the mayhem here and whose behavior reinforces the reputation of the drinking Irish whether it’s at home in Dublin or in San Diego or Sydney. The apparent lack of an ability to relax and enjoy themselves without the compulsion to get roaring drunk says a lot about our society and our educational system.
Having said all that, there is still reason to believe that the image of the Irish as a people enslaved by drink is no longer as warranted as it once was.
As a nation we still drink too much, but then so do people in many other countries. More Irish people now drink more often at home (wine sales have soared as a result) and in moderation.
The compulsion to go to the pub and get roaring drunk is not something that the vast majority of Irish people want to be part of anymore. And they don’t appreciate being given that kind of image, by Americans or anyone else.
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