Authors: Brian O'Connell
It seems strange saying this now, having invested the last year of my life writing and researching this book, but I never consciously planned on writing about either my own or
Ireland’s association with alcohol. Same way, I suppose, I never intentionally set out to develop a drinking problem. Both just happened organically, taking me by surprise, leading me along a
more scenic, albeit bumpier, route. The seed for this writing lies in an
article I wrote in 2008, which in turn followed a radio interview with Dave Fanning on the ‘Tubridy
Show’ a little time earlier. I owe thanks to Tom Donnelly in
Radio for the platform to begin with and Shane Hegarty in the
encouraging me to turn those initial comments into print.
The reaction to both media outings, and to my thoughts on living sober in Ireland, seemed to strike a chord. I received dozens of letters and emails from a wide range of people, from 18-year-old
teenagers to 80-year-old clergy, expressing support and telling me of their own struggles. Several of the letters and cards went unsigned, and simply offered messages of mutual understanding. I
remember being at a social function some weeks after the
article appeared, and someone whom I had never met before told me of his own battles with alcohol, and the fact he felt
unable to admit it or deal with it effectively. He was a respected member of his community, known as a ‘heavy drinker’, he said, and facilitated as such. He felt unable to discuss his
inner torment with family or friends. We chatted for a while and then he returned to the bar. The image of him—bulk hunched and back turned—putting his arm around the shoulder of a
fellow drinker as he took his seat at the counter stuck with me.
Following this, I began to reflect on secrecy, alcohol and Irish society. How emotionally open and upfront have we really become as a society? Is it still taboo to admit defeat to something like
alcohol in Ireland, and impossible not to feel socially scarred as a result? What difficulties arise as a result of the interaction between society and sobriety in twenty-first-century Ireland? Are
problem drinkers born or do they develop and evolve over time? Is there a place for the non-drinker in Irish social life? These were all the initial questions, flirting for answers in the back of
my mind. Both of those personal media outings came three years into my sobriety, at a time when I was very much enjoying life, both personal and professional. It’s worth pointing out that
sobriety was never something I kept hidden or under wraps. From the start, I was quite comfortable with the fact that I had sought help for my drinking, much the same way a diabetic seeks insulin.
Having said that, I had been careful, with much of my writing, not to fall into the confessional, first-person genre of journalism, which has been gradually diluted by unchecked ego since the days
of Hunter S. Thompson and the everyday descriptive poetry of Robert Lowell.
When fashion journalists spend a night on the streets, so they can write about how it would feel for
to be homeless (minus their haute couture), then you know conscience-driven
journalism has taken a wrong turn somewhere. I feel the need to justify myself, then, in the face of a confessional journalism culture, where shock and awe sometimes replace probing and insight as
the determining factors. We also live in an age where rehab has gone very public, with ‘personalities’ frequently stepping in and out of treatment, from where their tell-all stories are
offered to the highest bidder. Behavioural crucifixion and salvation sell—just tune into Jonathan Ross any Friday night if you’re looking for proof.
This was never intended as an academic endeavour, more a teasing out of some of the issues behind Ireland’s drinking culture through my own personal insights. My reasons for laying down my
thoughts were as much determined by the society I live in as by any lingering desire or need to make public my personal self or to mark a break with my past. My security with sobriety seemed to
climax at a time when Ireland’s problematic drinking patterns had been soaring unchecked for almost a decade. It’s not that I felt a duty, but I felt qualified to examine some of the
reasons for our problem drinking and how it is being addressed. That, coupled with the fact I was also just plain curious.
That’s not to say I don’t have reservations about exercising what I hope will be interpreted as emotional honesty. I’m conscious of family and friends reading aspects of this
publication and not being wholly comfortable with my revelations. I’m conscious of my son picking this up as a teenager and having to deal with my shortcomings as a father during my drinking
and how that may subsequently impact on him emotionally. Perhaps the guilt and shame of abusing alcohol never quite leave you, and there’s an inclination to keep those feelings hidden or
suppressed. It’s something I have thought long and hard about—the dangers of offloading my story at any cost and of being labelled as the guy who pillaged his problem past for a book.
I’m wary, then, of becoming a one-issue candidate who hurts the feelings of others needlessly and recklessly on the road to redemption. These are all issues I have taken into account before
embarking on this examination.
Yet there is, in my view, far too much secrecy around the subjects of alcoholism and problem drinking in Ireland of 2009. There are too many stories that remain untold and far too much anxiety
and stress and trouble that problem drinkers endure and cannot relay because society is the way it is. The irony is that in my personal life I’m careful not to allow my sobriety to become a
defining characteristic. And yet, here I am writing about it! In the end, I guess it came down to the fact that I’m not the person I describe in the first two chapters any more, and
haven’t been for a very long time. Hopefully those who know me will recognise that. And the old cliché abounds: if retelling my struggle with alcohol offers insight to someone, one
person even, currently in the depths of that struggle, then the work will have been worthwhile.
I have tried also to collate some of the reports, studies and statistics available in relation to Ireland’s current relationship with alcohol. While the information is constantly changing
and being updated, some key facts remain. Firstly, that overall alcohol consumption grew faster in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe between 1996 and 2003. The rise of the off-licence,
accounting for just 19 per cent of sales in 1991 and more than 35 per cent in 2006, is another noticeable trend, changing our drinking patterns to a more insular, domestic practice. The change in
our drinking patterns has also been fuelled by the rise in consumption of wine, which grew fourfold between 1985 and 2003. Other statistics and analysis, such as the rise in alcohol-related
illness, spikes in binge-drinking levels among the young and the rise in alcohol-related suicide, are contained in later chapters.
During the course of the research for this book, I received an email from Dr Stanton Peele, one of the world’s foremost addiction thinkers. He told me he had read what I had written in the
His probing reply took me a little by surprise. ‘I’m glad you’ve stopped drinking, if that makes you happy,’ he said, ‘but rather than being a
revelation to the Irish—that they drink too much—this is of one piece with the Irish binge-purge sensibility, and actually reinforces their underlying alcohol pathology. You probably
don’t want to read my book, where I say, “If you see the choice as being one between abstinence and excess, you’ve already lost the battle.”’
As time has gone on, I’ve come to see sobriety less as a clinical or psychological choice and more as a lifestyle one, like cutting out meat or sweet foods. That way, I manage to sidestep
all the alcoholic definition debates and all the abstinence versus moderation dilemmas that stalk the mind of many a problem drinker in Ireland.
I may have already lost the battle, as Dr Peele suggests, but I’m enjoying the struggle nevertheless.
His point fails, though, to fully grasp the Irish cultural and historical experience. Colonisation, hardship, religious repression, emotional need, greed and economic giddiness are all
contributory factors to the Irish experience and relationship with alcohol. For many in this country, drinking excessively helps numb that experience, and has done so for generations. To paraphrase
Homer Simpson, in Ireland, alcohol is often the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.
My personal opinion is that it is only when we have a sincere national discourse around some of the issues behind our problem drinking that a new relationship with alcohol can begin to assert
itself. It won’t, in my view, come about by importing a café culture, or by limiting or tailoring the current drinking culture by exclusively legislative means or information
campaigns. It will come about only by a change of mindset, by a deeper understanding of why the Irish drink the way they do, and what can be done to tackle some of the underlying reasons for our
behaviour with alcohol.
-based employment specialist I met on holidays was telling me about his experience working with high-flying executives. He couldn’t get his head around the fact
that often when he put forward Irish clients for interview with Irish employers, they would meet in a bar and, in his words, ‘have five or six Guinness to break the ice’. Some of the
jobs they were going for had salaries of upwards of £100,000 per annum, and going on the lash before signing on the dotted line was the culturally done thing. It didn’t happen with
other nationalities, he noted. It’s this accepted embedded relationship between the Irish and alcohol that is the core of our societal issues with drink, and I hope that some of that reveals
itself in this narrative.
I recently read about Chris Matthews—a liberal political pundit on
, and a proud Irish-American. On the
morning show, responding
to a joke by Mika Brzezinski about his drinking at a prominent Irish social event, Matthews declared, ‘Despite the ethnic stereotype, I haven’t had a drink since 1994.’ The
problem is, though: this
the Irish cultural stereotype. As Dr Peele notes, ‘Addiction thinker George Vaillant found that Irish-Americans in Boston were seven times as likely to
become alcoholics as Italian, Greek and Jewish Americans—at the same time as they were more likely to abstain.’
The observation appears to be backed up here by a recent Department of Health study, which found that Ireland is the European country with the lowest daily drinking rate and the highest
binge-drinking rate. Only two percent of Irish men drink daily, while nearly half binge weekly. This is the virtual reverse of drinking patterns by Italians, for instance. Abstinence and excess are
familiar bedfellows in Ireland’s relationship with alcohol. We opt for cut out before cut down. How many of us, for instance, have woken up after a heavy night to vow, ‘Never
There also exists an often tense relationship between sobriety and socialising in Ireland. One of my preferred bars in Cork, and also one of the oldest in the city centre, serves sandwiches
throughout the day. I tend to pop in regularly, enjoy sitting at the bar chatting with staff or local regulars. But after 7 p.m., the bar stops serving coffee and tea. Why is that? Is it saying
that the night is the sole preserve of the drinking classes? Is it saying that my money is okay during the day, when alcohol sales are off peak, but come the dark, I’m persona non grata?
It’s a small point, but a point to be made nonetheless. This mindset needs to change so that the distinction between day and night is blurred, and public houses (those that are left) can
concern themselves less with excess and more with enjoyment, experience and tangible social engagement. Last St Patrick’s Day in Dublin, I organised to meet two friends who don’t drink
or take drugs any more. We were determined to mark the national day of Irishness, and set ourselves the task of getting a cup of coffee post-9 p.m. in the city centre. Bewleys duly obliged, but
given the night that was in it, they closed at 9.30 p.m. Business was quiet. Two of us went looking for a cup of coffee in Temple Bar. Practically every coffee machine had been turned off since 6
p.m. Bar workers shook their heads, looking at us as if we were from a different planet. In many ways we were.