Saturday 21 April 2018

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'We deserve the 'drunken Irish' stereotype'

Our youth drink to get drunk ...Should we be surprised?

Ciara Kelly
Ciara Kelly

Ciara Kelly

Inever intended to make it my mission to challenge our drink culture. I grew up in it, the same as everyone else from Ireland. I had my first drink at 14 at my cousin's 21st. I was asked what I wanted and was too embarrassed to say - even at that age - that I didn't drink, so I said, 'A Guinness and blackcurrant', because I thought I might be able to stomach that. It was rank, but, sure enough, I knocked it back, and many, many more slightly less disgusting drinks since.

I didn't even know I was going to kick off last year on Operation Transformation about one of our leaders going drinking. I was as surprised as the next person, to hear mild-mannered me, tell a grown woman she was an 'abomination' - a word I think I've used about three times in my whole life. But I know why I did.

I did it because I knew my kids were watching. I knew my kids who were 12 and 14 at the time, were watching the show and innocently enthusing about getting all fit and healthy. And now they would see yet another Irish adult delight in getting drunk in front of them on a our national broadcaster's flagship health show. A show that should be safe for them to watch. A show that should really be a drink-free zone and not have any part in the pervasive Irish message that booze is great crack. And it made me really angry. I already knew our drink culture was coming for my kids, but for the first time as a mother I realised I was powerless to stop it.

Irish teenagers start drinking early. In one local school, in the nice leafy suburb I live in, a bunch of kids went drinking when they graduated from 6th class recently. We can shake our heads and say that's terrible - but the truth is we expect, and indeed hope, our kids will observe and model themselves on our behaviour in most things. So why wouldn't we expect them to drink like us?

Irish teenagers drink to get drunk. Just like us. But more importantly they drink to fit in. It's almost impossible to be part of any kind of cool group as an Irish teenager and not drink. Almost by definition, non-drinking teenagers are outsiders. They're perceived as boring. Odd even.

Our youth in the main has no real concept of social drinking or drinking in moderation - it's all about how much they can get into them, as cheaply as possible, as quickly as possible. I have seen them at 'prinks' (pre-going-out drinks) go from sober to drunk in the space of forty minutes. It's alarming. And even as a parent and a doctor, it appears to be beyond my (often quite formidable) parenting skills to protect my kids from it.

This is cultural and most kids don't want at the age of 14 or 15 to be counter-culture. They want to conform. So they binge drink. And I'm not talking about the medical definition of a binge - more than six units. I'm talking about the Irish definition of a binge - shed loads of units. They drink their heads off until the money runs out. And they put themselves at all kinds of risk as a consequence.

They're only kids, and their judgment is impaired so clearly they put themselves at risk of accidents - falls, head injuries, and the like. They put themselves at risk of being very vulnerable to sexual predators. They put themselves at risk of medical harm too. Choking on vomit. Pancreatitis. Liver and gastric trouble. But also - and it's hardly ever mentioned - they put themselves at risk of alcohol-dependence.

The pattern of drinking they adopt in their youth leaves them exposed to becoming addicted - and we as a society do little or nothing to stop that. Our youth drink like alcoholics, and our response is to hope they'll grow out of it. And lots of them do. And the poor bastards who don't, who continue to drink themselves into oblivion, and lose much of their life to booze? Well, they're just collateral damage. While the rest of us are having the crack. We hate the drunken Irish stereotype - but we completely deserve it. Slainte.


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