Reading an interesting piece in the Irish Times by Suzanne Harrington about alcoholism had me reflecting recently on my own experience with alcohol. I don’t drink. I’ve never drank, and it’s at this point that other Irish people always ask one of two questions: Am I a Pioneer, as if the only valid reason for not drinking is religious piety (I’m not) or, more bizarrely, am I anti-drink?
This question is always asked with an air of suspicious defensiveness, as if the questioner is getting ready to fight my unacceptable anti—drink bigotry. But I’m not anti-drink. My family all drink, my girlfriend drinks, although, it has to be said, no one in my immediate social circle drinks (at least openly, as far as I can tell) to excess. I don’t mind other people drinking, I just don’t drink myself. Having said that, I am finding as I get older that I’m less tolerant about listening to the opinions of drunks, and tend to quietly absent myself from events at a certain point.
One other thing: It’s taken as read in Ireland that most people start drinking young, as a result of peer pressure. This argument has never worked for me, in that I never found myself subjected to particularly harsh peer pressure. I was in an Irish boarding school for six years, and drink was an important part of it, and whilst there was pressure to drink, it tended to be more of the “you don’t know what you are missing” variety than any sort of social ostracism. Once it was clear that I didn’t want to drink, it was accepted by my peers, and I wasn’t alone in that either.
I’ve only ever encountered one Irish person I was closely involved with whom had a serious issue with my non-drinking, and actually stated that she “didn’t trust people who don’t drink” (that’ll be the drink talking!). She drank what seemed, to me, to be a lot, but because it did not affect her work she didn’t regard it as an issue. But I was genuinely surprised at her constant remarks about my non-drinking, in that I found it to be very un-Irish in its intolerance.
As a non-drinker in Ireland, it’s perfectly possible to have a satisfactory social life, and the smoking ban has, I suspect, brought many non drinkers back into pubs because it has improved an atmosphere that drinkers just did not notice.
Having said all that, this country does have a drinking problem. I’ve seen people choking on their own vomit (and having had to clear their blocked airway myself), men and women urinating in public view and regarding it as the norm, guys with gaping head wounds staunched by a torn shirt trying to get into pubs instead of A&E, and that’s before we even touch the black hole of domestic violence. It’s fair to say that this country has a drink problem that, like Catholic child abuse in the past, it is well aware of but does not want to confront.
As with most Irish social problems, there is an acceptable casualty rate.