No one can be sure for certain when it was first noticed. But it is certainly fair to say that it came to official attention following a row in a pub in Castlebar. The Guards had been called to a heated altercation between a number of customers and the publican, an event not exactly unusual on a summer’s Saturday night. On arrival at the pub however, the Guards had been surprised to discover that drink, although being the issue, was not the usual catalyst.
This was not the usual row between men full of jar. Indeed, it was the lack of jar that was the issue. The three men had been rowing furiously over an accusation by the two that the publican was watering down drink. Others had got involved, some siding with the publican, some with his accusers. But what struck the Garda sergeant the most was the fact that here they were in a pub near closing time and hardly anyone was pissed. There were a small handful well-oiled, but most people in the pub were fully sober. On a Saturday night?
The sergeant calmed the situation, pointed out that watering down drink was a criminal offence, and ordered his younger partner to collect a few samples for analysis.
This was the first submission to the state laboratory, but by the end of the week twenty submissions had been made by both the Gardai and the consumer authorities, all following up complaints by consumers.
Two weeks later the issue had reached the media, as a scandal involving publicans watering down drink.
Except they weren’t, the minister for justice was told as he was being briefed. One or two samples were found to have been diluted, but the vast majority were perfectly normal. Just as the minister started wondering whether some sort of national mass hysteria was beginning to take hold, the minister for health asked the Taoiseach for an emergency meeting.
This drink thing has nothing to do with alcohol tampering, he said. The national infectious diseases monitoring unit had discovered something living in the water supply.
The Taoiseach paled. Normally, being prime minister of a small European country involved just keeping a lid on public expectations about spending. But this was one of those Hollywood moments, he thought, like when the president is told that Martians have invaded. He stiffened in his seat and stuck his jaw out like Martin Sheen did on The West Wing.
The minister was quick to calm the meeting. It’s not dangerous, per se. It’s an unknown parasite that lives and replicates within the human body. Completely harmless. But there is one thing.
The Taoiseach shifted in his seat. He was a fan of zombie movies and his head was spinning.
The parasite metabolises alcohol at an incredible rate. Essentially, it burns up alcohol before it can intoxicate the consumer. If you have it, you can’t get drunk, no matter how much you drink. The European Health Agency and the World Health Organisation have never seen anything like it.
The Taoiseach exhaled. Thank Christ for that. He had visions of blowing people’s heads off in Merrion Square with a shotgun.
Completely harmless, he asked.
Completely, the minister agreed. It got through most of the water supply because it’s harmless. Normally if something dangerous gets into the water supply, outbreaks of illness are what alert us within a few days. But this thing has been active for weeks. It was only when people started complaining about not getting pissed that we were alerted.
What’s the solution, the Taoiseach asked.
Ah, said the minister. That’s the problem. At the moment we don’t have one. This thing is pretty much a superbug. Resistant to everything the doctors have thrown at it. That’s why the EHA and WHO are working on it. We’ve asked the CDC in Atlanta for help too.
I don’t want a load of feckers in yellow spacesuits walking around the place, the Taoiseach said. The minister nodded.
Of course, I’ll have to tell the Dail. How widespread is the infection? The Taoiseach asked.
The minister grimaced. With the exception of Donegal, where we have isolated their water supply, the whole country. Pretty much everybody has it and it has the alcohol neutralising effect on about 98% of those infected.
But aside from the alcohol thing, it’s harmless? The Taoiseach asked.
If anything, the minister replied, it’s slightly beneficial in that it speeds up metabolism. Good for weight loss.
The Taoiseach scribbled that point down. If he was going to tell the Irish that drinking no longer worked, he was going to need every scrap of good news he could find.
The news was met with the usual Irish mix of bemusement, cynicism and suspicion. The leader of the opposition was quick to point out that under this government, even drink doesn’t work.
The publicans and the drinks industry called for a national emergency to be declared, and then proceeded to do the standard Irish two-step of denying the real cause for concern, plummeting alcohol sales, and instead latching onto some other more respectable reason for their anxiety. This is an attack on craic, one spokesman said, raising concerns about the effect on tourism. Another industry voice suggested darkly that this would lead to the Irish people turning to heroin instead. We could all end up out of our heads on horse, he said.
Joe Duffy was inundated with conspiracy theorists suggesting it had been the EU, UN, feminists, the Germans, protestants, Muslims, German protestants and Coca Cola. One call pointed out that this happened after Ireland had voted for same-sex marriage. Is it a coincidence, Joe? I don’t think so. It’s the pill, Joe, said another. It’s turned us all into fairies who can’t hold our drink. Surely the opposite is what’s happening, said Duffy. You’re obviously in on it, Joe. Typical RTE was the reply.
A number of TDs called for the army to be called in to start drinking the national alcohol supply to keep the drinks industry alive. We’re talking about jobs here, they protested. Each deputy was quick to stress how his county was obviously suffering much harder than any other county.
Within a month, the HSE working with its international partners had wiped out the parasite from the water supply. Curing the infected, however, was another matter.
We have found a cure, the minister for health told the cabinet. An American pharmaceutical had amongst many of its obscure patents a forgotten experimental drug which can wipe the infection from the human body, with little or no side effects. We’re fast tracking the testing to make sure, but we should be able to start treatment very soon.
The cabinet applauded, amidst much joking about dying for a whiskey.
The health minister dampened down the noise. I’m afraid, he said, it’s not as simple as that. The company that owns the patent is looking for around €30 billion to provide the medication.
The cabinet erupted. They can’t do that, said the social protection minister.
Yes they can. We can put pressure on them, publicly, but legally they’re entirely within their rights.
Can’t we just copy the drug? One minister asked. After all, don’t we actually have it for testing and analysis?
We do, the health minister said. The problem is that because there are so many pharmaceuticals here we have very strict patent protection laws. If we do that they can take us to our own courts and get the money that way. And that’s assuming you can find another pharmaceutical willing to manufacture 5 million doses for you, and not get sued themselves.
Let’s just change the law, the agriculture minister said.
Hold your horses for a minute, there, said the minister for enterprise. We rely on foreign companies here for huge employment and investment. If they start thinking we’re one of those countries that just confiscate property on a whim…
This is a national emergency, agriculture said.
Nobody is dying, enterprise replied.
You would say that, agriculture replied, jabbing a finger at the famously tee-total enterprise minister.
The Taoiseach raised a hand. We can’t just confiscate the drug. Can we negotiate?
Health shrugged. Possibly, we might get some leeway on the payment period and that, but not much.
The news about the drug and its company, Haardnex of Texas, leaked soon after. The Irish online community were very quick to decide that Haardnex had “obviously” invented the parasite and put it into the water supply to hold the Irish people ransom. Thousands marched in protests, although the size of the protests started to dwindle when they got mocked on American and British television for marching to demand the right to get pissed. Protestors who brought their children, trying to somehow justify how this was “all about the children” were roundly laughed at on Youtube and Snapchat.
Demonstrators got more and more annoyed at the attitude of foreign journalists who refused to take the issue seriously, especially when they attempted to explain that being drunk was part of the Irish culture yet painting the Irish as a nation of drunks was a racist stereotype. Foreign news crews had to receive Garda escorts.
Eventually, the Taoiseach spoke to the Irish people. We have negotiated, he said, a deal for €25 billion to be paid over ten years to Haardnex in return for the treatment. Given that it is such a huge amount of money, it is my intention to put this vote to the Irish people in a referendum.
The run-up to the vote involved bitter debates in the media and amongst families. The Yes campaign ran on the slogan Sure Didn’t We Bail Out The Banks! and that this was all about saving a crucial part of Irish culture. The campaign was well-funded, with the drinks industry and unions representing the Gardai and social workers, two groups that had lost significant overtime since the outbreak calling for a yes vote. The No campaign was much smaller, and open to physical attack in the streets for being Dry Shites.
The polls were much more evenly balanced, with polls recording that whilst the vast majority wanted the cure, they weren’t happy at having to pay for it. On the radio and online some suggested that once the government had dispersed the treatment it could renege on the deal, but lawyer after lawyer dismissed that possibility.
Day after day debates were held about the influence of drink on the country, the fall in domestic violence and road fatalities, and the fact that obesity figures had shown a marked drop. Cannabis sales were definitely up, the Gardai confirmed, whilst pointing out that alcohol-related public order offences had collapsed. A&E waiting times also fell sharply. The argument that it was harming tourism was disproven by the fact that tourists, who weren’t infected, and could avail of a cheap vaccine, could get drunk. Indeed, that tiny percentage of Irish drinkers who either weren’t susceptible to the infection, or lived in Donegal, found themselves being ostracised by friends. Story after story about how Donegal still got drunk continued to irritate the rest of the country, to the extent that drunken Donegal visitors started getting beaten up in Dublin, Cork and Galway.
American commentators were quick to draw a line between the American love of guns and the Irish love of drink, and the fact that both countries were willing to accept a high casualty rate in return for their right to use the product in question.
Is it possible, the No campaign suggested, that this is not the worst thing to ever happen to the Irish people?
On polling day, the last poll suggested the deal would be rejected by a good ten percentage points.