Eilis O'Hanlon: We didn't need any Arthur's Day to lure us into heavy drinking
It's that time of year again. The nights are drawing in, the supermarkets are already filling the shelves with Christmas tat – and there's an annual moral panic about Arthur's Day. This year Christy Moore has even released a new single to mark the occasion.
"Diageo, Diageo have mounted a crusade," he sings of the multinational company that owns Ireland's most famous stout. "Creating Arthur's Day, they've suckered us into their charade."
Meanwhile on 'Morning Ireland', Dr Stephen Stewart, a liver specialist from the Royal College of Physicians, was on hand to add his voice to the condemnation, declaring: "People don't need another excuse to drink."
He has a point. I remember making my Confirmation. My mother took me afterwards for a Coke in the local cafe. Years later, after many years away from home, I was surprised to discover that Communions and Confirmations had suddenly become social events on a par with St Patrick's Day. It doesn't stop there. Parents regularly hire hotels for children's parties, or, if the weather's fine, have a barbecue, open some cans, and party till dawn. What any of this has to do with little Aoife's birthday is anybody's guess, but we'll evidently go to any lengths to find excuses to drink.
If Arthur's Day is a cynical attempt by breweries to lure reluctant drinkers into the pub against their will, however, it's hardly been a huge success. As the man from Diageo pointed out on radio, alcohol consumption in Ireland has declined steadily in the past decade. Despite warnings about it being too cheap and readily available, sales are down 19 per cent overall. The big difference is in the way we drink, rather than the amount. Only three out of 100 Irish people drink daily, compared to 43pc in Portugal, but when we drink we do it in larger quantities. This is the negative 'binge-drinking Paddy' stereotype that critics claim Arthur's Day encourages and reinforces; but the stereotype isn't unfair if it's true.
Arthur's Day is simply being targeted because it's been so successful in embedding itself in the national consciousness. Guinness has always been brilliant at marketing. If the people who make muesli could turn it into a national event, they'd follow suit.
There were even calls for Diageo to be forced to pay for all the extra hospital and policing costs that alcohol abuse brings with it. Why stop there? There's an increase in public disorder at all major events, including bank holidays and All-Ireland finals. Christy Moore certainly hasn't disowned his iconic song about Lisdoonvarna, in which he urges listeners to "ramble in for a pint of stout" and talks lovingly of visitors arriving "with bottles, barrels, flagons, cans".
Is Christy's social conscience equally offended by all positive images of alcohol – or only those backed by corporate money?
All the empirical evidence suggests that having parents who abuse alcohol at home is a far more powerful trigger for future alcohol misuse than any advertising campaign, but of course we can't ban people from drinking at home so attention turns instead to making big public gestures of disapproval. Even there, a certain snobbishness kicks in. No one suggests banning gin giant Bombay Sapphire from sponsoring the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, or demands the Wexford Food and Drink Festival be shut down. Sporting and pop music events, however, are fair game for attack.
We're picking on the wrong targets. The real change, healthwise, has been in female drinking. Twenty years ago, wine accounted for a mere 7pc of alcohol sales in Ireland. Now it's up to 26pc and rising.
How to get women to cut down is the real problem. Mary O'Rourke observed a few years ago how female friends used to offer a cup of tea when having a chat in the evening and now they're more likely to open a bottle. They didn't need the vintner's equivalent of Arthur's Day to trick them into becoming heavier drinkers; the process was quieter, more subtle.
It shows that the reasons behind excess drinking are complex. They can't be reduced to simple causes and effects. Doctors surely know this better than anyone. They're not coming down hard on Arthur's Day because they think banning the event would magically solve the problem; they're simply using the attendant publicity surrounding the day to get a platform for their own concerns, as the doctor on 'Morning Ireland' admitted.
Which is fair enough. They're the ones who have to deal with the consequences of alcohol abuse in A&E wards and cirrhosis clinics. But nor should anyone be fooled into thinking that Arthur Guinness is to blame for our problems. That crusade, to borrow a phrase from Christy Moore, is just another charade.