Ireland’s drinking culture: Is it time for a change?

Stephen Edgar via Flickr



Yesterday was Good Friday, one of the two days of the year that the pubs in Ireland are shut. Regardless of the fact that you can drink the other 363 days of the year, some see this as an absolute disaster. I watched a TV3 news report on all the places where you can still get a drink- trains, boats with passenger licences. Do we really need to find loopholes? Can we not go one day without buying drink?

On Thursday outside the coroner’s court in Cork, two heartbroken parents spoke to the media about the loss of their son, an “incredible young man.” Caolan Mulrooney is a familiar name to many. The 18-year-old engineering student disappeared after a night out in Cork last December. His handsome face smiled out from newspapers, posters and Facebook pages as appeals were made to help locate him. Sadly, the searches by family, friends, classmates and strangers would not find him alive.

Caolan Mulrooney (via Studenty)

Cork native Caolan, whose blood alcohol level was three times the legal driving limit, left his friends in Cubins on December 2. He had gotten lost on the way home, but was attempting to take a shortcut. He jumped over a wall, but he didn’t realise there was a 30-foot drop on the other side. His body was found five days later by a local businessman.

“There is a challenge for us as a society — how do we create an environment where young adults, young good adults, can go out on a night and enjoy themselves, socially and financially, in order to get a good mature drinking habit,” Eugene Mulrooney, Caolan’s father, said after the inquest.

“We are asking ourselves that question and we don’t know the answer.”

Ireland’s drinking culture has been a topic that has been under the spotlight for quite a while. Junior Health Minister Roisin Shortall plans to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol, but it’s unclear whether that will make much of a difference to a nation that is determined to keep drinking.

The real issue is that excessive drinking is a central part of Irish culture. Also on Thursday, RTE broadcast the heartrending documentary Men of Arlington, which was shown originally on the BBC last October. It followed the lives of three men who lived in Arlington House, a hostel for men in Camden Town in London.

One resident, Peter, did not drink, but was unlucky enough to be born out of wedlock in the 1940s. He had spent his entire life in an institution of some kind or another, and it was hard to see how he could live independently. Seamus had been very successful but had fallen on hard times when his property business failed. Joe, the film’s central focus, now married and living in Australia, had been an alcoholic for many years.

Joe’s account of his early years in London tells of a drinking culture not dissimilar from that of today’s students. “It was a macho culture. All the pubs were just full of working men, in working clothes, so I decided I’d behave like them. Which was what? You drunk hard, you worked hard, and I suppose you fought hard. Maybe I didn’t really want to go out drinking on a Monday night, a Tuesday night, a Wednesday night or whatever, but I found I was doing it for company.”

Take out the references to work and it being an exclusively male thing, this drinking culture still exists today. There are students that spend their three or four years in a drunken stupor- most do not continue on this path after college, but some do.

Joe found that the work dried up yet the drinking continued. He spent over twenty years drinking, an existence he calls a “living death”.  In one of the most poignant moments of the programme, he takes a drink from a bottle of Evian and says, “What did I enjoy about it?” He takes a deep breath and does not continue.

Arlington House (via Wikimedia Commons)

Most who drink heavily do not end up like the poor elderly men shuffling zombie-like around Camden Town. They do not end up like Caolan Mulrooney, a life of unfulfilled potential snuffed out by a drunken accident. But some do.

There are people who have problems with alcohol in every society. But most countries’ culture does not enable excessive drinking to the extent that Ireland does. There is a world of difference between an alcoholic dying of liver disease and a young man dying in the manner Caolan did, but a culture which promotes heavy drinking is the common denominator.

Personally, I am in no position to preach. I enjoy a drink and like most college students I’ve drank too much on occasions. It is easy to get sucked into a culture which believes in drinking to get drunk. However, tragedies like Caolan Mulrooney’s death hammers home the message that Ireland needs to change its culture.

Simon Walsh in another article here on Studenty traced alcohol’s progress in the life of an Irish person from the cradle to the grave. I would argue that excessive drinkingis becoming a little less acceptable in Irish life- for example, there is hardly anyone left now who believes that drink driving isn’t a big deal. And I don’t know too many families who would get drunk in a pub on their child’s communion day while the kids run around, dying of boredom, like in days gone by.

It’s difficult to change something that is so ingrained in Irish society. Unless we do, more deaths like Caolan Mulrooney’s will be an inevitable result.

This article appeared on on April 6 2012. 

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