Friday 30 September 2016

Ciara Kelly: No cheers for our seven drunken nights

Ireland's relationship with drink is very like America's relationship with guns. We won't give it up no matter how much harm it does us

Ciara Kelly

Published 26/10/2015 | 02:30

Hitting the bottle: four out of ten of us binge regularly. Photo: Shutterstock
Hitting the bottle: four out of ten of us binge regularly. Photo: Shutterstock

I realise that it's a subject I've discussed before, but this week I'm once again compelled to talk about our dysfunctional relationship with alcohol.

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What caught my eye initially was the Healthy Ireland survey published last week, which showed that while we have improved health-wise in certain areas - more people are now non-smokers than actual smokers; 1pc extra of the population every year is embracing an active lifestyle; obesity has plateaued - there are still considerable issues, very notably the fact that the majority of Irish adults continue to drink more than is good for them and way more than adults in other countries.

The survey refers to the fact that the misuse of alcohol in Ireland has been normalised, something that's very apparent if you tell anyone here that an alcohol binge is six units: three pints or more. The usual Irish response to that is derision - as opposed to the polite interest or curiosity you get elsewhere.

The hard fact is we've up to three alcohol related deaths per day here. Can you imagine if that was the figure for road deaths or suicide? There'd be an outcry. The survey also puts paid to the idea once and for all that we're mainly drinking responsibly - with only the minority having an unhealthy relationship with booze. You should invert that. We mainly drink irresponsibly, with only the minority having a healthy relationship with alcohol. Three-quarters of the poor drink excessively and three-quarters of the rich do too. It's across the board. Four out of ten of us binge regularly and three quarters of all alcohol consumed here is consumed during a binge.

Those stats starkly reflect our society's issue with alcohol, but what really prompted me to write was that recently, a 12-year-old girl in first year was out in her school uniform doing a sponsored 10k walk for charity with her whole class. Some of you might remember those first few weeks of first year - the nerves; everything's new; you try desperately not to stand out as clueless, when, of course, everyone is clueless. That 12-year-old girl on her school walk, happened to pass a pub on her route and as she walked by at midday, a drunk man standing outside, grabbed her by the throat and tried to pick her up - for a laugh. He then threw her in a hedge. He then slapped the female teacher that rushed over, across the face. Other men dragged him off, saying 'Sorry, he's drunk' by way of apology or explanation.

That's Irish society there in a nutshell. A drunk assaults a schoolgirl, but it's only because he's drunk. It mitigates it. Judges take it into account all the time.

In other drink-related news - because I've got two secondary school kids now - I've been talking a lot with other similarly challenged parents, about the fact that alcohol is a constant feature of young Irish adolescents' lives and what we might do to manage it. Should we try to enforce abstinence? Should we try to promote moderation? Should we turn a blind eye? Should we attempt to bribe them? No one, simply no one, believes it possible they might not be exposed to it until they're 18. No one believes it can be avoided - it needs instead to be managed. Our kids have zero chance of a childhood without either being, or seeing their pals, sick with drink.

Simply put, Ireland's relationship with drink is very like America's relationship with guns. We won't give it up or restrict it adequately, no matter how much harm it's doing to us. No matter how many lives are damaged. We want it this way. From a distance we can see clearly what the US needs to do about guns. But from right up close we seem completely blind to our own problem.


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