The Irish enjoy a reputation around the world as being big drinkers – but that may soon be about to change.

New figures reveal that alcohol consumption in Ireland dropped dramatically last year, falling by about 6 percent.

This is the first time that alcohol consumption had fallen in Ireland in over a decade. 

The drinks industry blames the worsening Irish economy, which has been hit hard by the global recession. Furthermore, many drinkers in the Republic of Ireland go to Northern Ireland to buy their alcohol, which is much cheaper because of a strong Euro and because of higher sales taxes in the Republic. A bottle of whiskey can be around $13.50 cheaper in Northern Ireland.

In the 1990s and in early 2000s, alcohol consumption in Ireland soared, as the country began to splash out on its newfound wealth. In European alcohol consumption surveys, the Irish, especially the younger Irish, tend to feature very highly. A 2003 World Health Organization study found that the Irish were the fourth biggest drinkers in Europe.

And in recent years, as the country’s economy plunged deeper and deeper into crisis, more people began to drink at home rather than in pubs and restaurants.

Drinking in pubs in Ireland can be expensive, with a pint of beer costing up to $9 in some parts of Dublin. Pubs, which have also been hit by tougher drinking driving laws, have been especially hard hit, particularly in rural areas. In the past six years, around 1,500 pubs have closed in the country, according to the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland.

Ruadhan Hogan, a 29 year-old from Nenagh, Co. Tipperary says that there are noticeably fewer people drinking these days.

“There’s definitely something in the zeitgeist,” Hogan, who describes himself as an “ex-seasoned drinker” says. “People are saving more, or just trying to spend less. It’s just a general attitude that people have these days.”

“With little sign of an upturn in the national economic situation, the prospects for the next 12 months are even worse,” says Kieran Tobin, the chairman of the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland, the trade association that released the new figures.

He predicts that in 2009 10 percent of off-license sales (that is, alcohol purchased in stores rather in pubs and restaurants) will migrate to Northern Ireland with the loss to the state of over $130 million in tax revenues. Up to 9,000 jobs could be lost in all sectors of the alcohol industry in 2009, Tobin adds.