Should you consider giving up alcohol for Lent?
Hardened drinkers are faced with a yearly choice, says Liam Collins: do I give it up for Lent or November?
As Lent approaches, the Irish answer to abstinence revolves, like most things, around 'the drink'.
"I've given it up for Lent," people who haven't darkened the door of a church - apart from christenings, weddings and funerals - will tell you with a particular Irish sincerity. Many of us need a valid excuse for not going to the pub or declining that glass of wine.
Solid drinkers, who still have a healthy distrust for anyone who insists on drinking sparkling water after midday, can be divided into two categories - those who give 'it' up for Lent, and those who give it up for the Holy Souls.
I'm a November man myself, but we'll come to that.
Once, at the bar of a brothel in Copenhagen (I was with a group of Irish civil servants, and it seems it was the only place that we could get a drink at that hour of the morning), I got chatting to a stout German, who told me that, for the sake of his liver, he abstained from alcohol one day a week and one month a year. That, he said with German certainty, gave the organ time to recover and regenerate.
I hadn't thought much about it until I noticed that Lent is just around the corner, and I happened to be leafing through a copy of Ivor Kenny's fine book, Out On Their Own, which is a compendium of interviews with well-known Irish businessmen.
One of the interviewees, Gerry McGuinness - who is best known for founding the Sunday World newspaper - gives another perspective on the Irish obsession with abstinence, although things may have changed since the book was published in 1991.
"I adore wine and I drink nothing else, but, two days a week, I drink nothing but water. Tony [O'Reilly] gives up drink for January; Mike Smurfit gives up drink for November; Jim Stafford would stop drinking for Lent. January is thirty-one days; November is thirty days - I give up drink for 104 days!
"But if somebody said to me or you, 'You can't drink a glass of wine or Champagne for three-and-a-half months', you'd cut your throat!"
Lent is with us on Wednesday, and I'm still debating the issue.
It's not a dependency, I tell myself, but the fact is I get no pleasure from being in a pub without having a pint.
Albert Reynolds, our late Taoiseach, didn't drink at all when I first worked for him in Longford, in the early 1970s.
Yet, he could stay up until two or three in the morning, in the company of drinkers, and enjoy himself.
In later life, when he did take a glass of wine, we sometimes dined together in what was then the Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge.
"You pick the wine," he'd say, handing me the wine list.
"What would you like?" I'd ask in return.
"Pick one of those bottles with two names - you know, Chateau Something-Something; I like that."
I'd pick the least expensive, but still shockingly priced bottle, and end up drinking most of it, as Albert had no real interest in drink - talking and smoking (until he gave the cigarettes up) being his addictions.
As a wayward young man, I lived in Mullingar, above a pub run by my auntie Kitty and my uncle Tommy. She never took a drop in her life, and was upset some nights, when I came home after "a rake of pints", as they used to say in those parts.
Although still a young woman, she developed cancer while I was living there, and, on her death bed, she asked me to at least give up alcohol for November, the month of the Holy Souls.
I promised I would, and have more or less kept to that promise in the intervening years.
But I do find a little abstinence goes a long way.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine