Thursday 23 March 2017

'What kind of society would we have if everyone in Ireland stopped drinking for a year?' - Gabriel Byrne

Irish movie star Gabriel Byrne says that we need to examine our dysfunctional relationship with drink and to let go of the mythology and denial that surrounds it

Nation in denial: Gabriel Byrne, starring as the alcoholic pathologist in Quirke, the TV series of the books written by John Banville under the nom de plume Benjamin Black Photo: Steffan Hill
Nation in denial: Gabriel Byrne, starring as the alcoholic pathologist in Quirke, the TV series of the books written by John Banville under the nom de plume Benjamin Black Photo: Steffan Hill

Alcohol-related issues like health and crime, as well as reduced economic productivity, costs the country nearly €4bn a year.

 Irish people drink 20pc more than our fellow Europeans and it is estimated that more than a million people in our country have a drinking problem, according to Alcohol Action Ireland.

These are unnerving statistics to contemplate.

Sure, there are genetic, cultural and environmental factors involved in our relationship to alcohol and likely the result of our tragic history as a colonised and brutalised people - which has resulted in a sense of shame as Dr Garrett O'Connor has pointed out in a seminal essay on The Irish And Alcohol.

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both believed that certain people were fated, because of a traumatic history, to act out unconsciously apocalyptic themes of history handed down generationally through social institutions and the collective unconscious.

However, the truth is we don't really know and one theory may be as good or as misguided as another, but perhaps it doesn't really matter. We do know that excessive drinking is linked to cancers and cirrhosis of the liver, as well as many other maladies, and that the disease of alcoholism has destroyed so many individuals and families, yet still remains a shameful stigma preventing many from seeking help.

Alcoholism is still regarded in certain quarters as a moral failing rather than a deadly illness.

Doctors for the most part are not trained in the treatment of alcoholism and there are insufficient funds for the prevention and treatment of the disease.

Education about the dangers of binge drinking - especially which has now become socially acceptable - should begin in schools. We need to teach young people how to process critically the avalanche of marketing directed at them, exploiting their aspirations, fears and insecurities.

We need more responsible government leadership regulating the availability of cheap alcohol and to combat the powerful influence of the drinks industry. Drink is one of the great gifts and blessings of humanity, but we in Ireland need to seriously re-examine our dysfunctional relationship to its importance in our culture and to let go of the mythology and denial that surrounds it.

Here's an academic question: ''What kind of society would we have if everyone in Ireland stopped drinking for a year?'' Not that I'm seriously proposing that, but the answers might be worth pondering.

In conversation with Barry Egan

Sunday Independent

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