We're no stranger to a few pints, but as Paul Gorby writes, our relationship with alcohol goes deeper and darker than that.
Associations between Ireland and alcohol run deep, and few would deny that we are a nation of drinkers. Our pub culture is a major draw for tourists coming to Ireland, so much so that on the popular tourist site yourirish.com, the tag for ‘Alcohol’ is as popular as those for ‘Famine’ and ‘Language’. On Wikipedia, the page for Irish culture has a section on pub culture which is longer than those for religion or sports. However, it is not just for tourists that Irish people buy into the stereotype of heavy drinking - we also do it for our own pleasure. There are few occasions which do not merit a drink in Irish society: weddings, birthdays, concerts, football matches; if we can drink at them, then chances are we will.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with celebrating someone’s birthday with a few drinks, maybe going out to a nightclub and dancing. There is nothing wrong with going down to the pub and having a few pints with your friends and maybe making some new ones. For those people (myself included), who often feel awkward in social situations, a drop of liquid courage can be the difference between comfortably chatting with a new acquaintance and spending the night feeling out of place. But all of this makes our drinking culture sound harmless, even beneficial, and while this might be true in some cases, the reality is much darker.
The consumption of alcohol in Ireland has increased massively over the past 60 years: the average Irish person drank roughly 5 litres of pure alcohol per year in 1960, and now the rate has more than doubled to 11.5 litres. To put this in context, in order to reach the average level of drinking, you would have to drink 41 litres of vodka per year, or about a naggin of vodka four days a week, every week. This is well above HSE guidelines for safe drinking. All the more shocking is the fact that this average rate includes the 1/5 of Irish people who do not drink, so the average Irish drinker is probably consuming quite a bit more than this already unsafe amount.
With 75% of alcohol consumed in Ireland believed to be consumed as part of binge drinking sessions, more than half of Irish drinkers over the age of 18 are considered to be harmful drinkers. This translates to about 1.35 million people drinking in ways that are harmful to their wellbeing. Harmful drinking and binge drinking is more common among people aged 18 to 24 than it is for any other age group.
Binge drinking involves drinking six or more standard drinks in one sitting, or about three pints. It is known to cause a variety of health concerns: it is detrimental to your liver, kidneys, and heart, and alcohol is a factor in the deaths of over 1000 Irish people per year (an average of three people every day). Our hospitals are massively overcrowded, and every day there are 1,500 people occupying hospital beds because of alcohol related problems.
There is also a strong correlation between excessive drinking and mental health problems, and alcohol is a factor in roughly half of all completed suicide attempts and 1/3 of instances of self-harm in Ireland. Not only is binge drinking and excessive consumption of alcohol harmful to one’s own mental health, it can have a serious impact on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of friends and family members too.
While we might say that we are inundated with warnings against driving under the influence, drink driving still causes about 40% of deaths on our roads, as well as countless cases of injury and property damage.
Irish drinking culture has made it so that almost any social event can be treated as an excuse to drink, however considering the various harmful effects alcohol can have individually and socially it is high time we challenged this mentality. While alcohol can help us to be more at ease in social situations and can help us to enjoy ourselves, the shocking realities of our national drinking issues should give us all pause to stop and think about how much and how often we drink.