Wednesday 21 February 2018

We need greater understanding of what it is that drives this nation to drink

Most of us know someone who drinks too much. John Greene says alcohol casts a dark shadow

Flight horror: Jockey Timmy Murphy went to jail over his drunken behaviour aboard a flight from Tokyo to London.
Flight horror: Jockey Timmy Murphy went to jail over his drunken behaviour aboard a flight from Tokyo to London.
John Greene

John Greene

He stood before the judge. He had been told to prepare himself for the prospect of prison. The judge was speaking: "It is a tragedy to see a successful young man from any profession standing in the dock of a crown court having pleaded guilty to being drunk on an aircraft and, more seriously, indecently assaulting a member of the crew."

On a flight from Tokyo to Heathrow in April 2002, Irish jockey Timmy Murphy got so drunk that he became loud, frightening crew members and other passengers. He was also accused of grabbing an air hostess by the leg and moving his hand up her skirt. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

"I couldn't refute it," Murphy wrote in his autobiography. "I had no right of reply. I couldn't remember what happened on flight BS901. An alcohol-induced haze had drawn a shroud over the ten hours following take-off. Ten hours from hell, by all accounts."

Paul McGrath reckons he had been walking the streets for close on 13 hours before he arrived at the door of a friend. He had no money in his pocket, he was hungry and dishevelled and in need of a bed for the night. He had nowhere else to go.

Earlier, he had walked out of Manchester Crown Court, remanded to appear at a later date, after pleading not guilty to affray. He had spent the night in a cell in Stretford Station after an incident outside the home of his ex-wife. McGrath had, he later admitted, hit a new low.

Murphy and McGrath are two Irish sporting heroes whose battle with alcohol has been played out in the full gaze of the public. They have spoken openly about the harm caused to those closest to them by their drinking and their battle to beat their addiction. It is a battle being fought every day, in every part of the country.

One person I know is lucky to be alive today. Another dear friend, whom I had known all my life, died tragically 14 years ago.

Apparently, almost three-quarters of Irish adults believe they know someone who drinks too much, and for over half of those people it's actually a person in their immediate family. As Murphy and McGrath so vividly portrayed when they opened up about their drinking, and as pointed out by Alcohol Ireland, family members, friends, colleagues and even innocent bystanders can be left to bear a huge burden.

This is the reality of the Ireland we live in. Drink casts a dark shadow.

The evidence is that although we consume less alcohol as a nation now than we did 15 years ago, we are still among the highest in the world when it comes to drinking, and harmful drinking.

According to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, the number of deaths due to liver disease has doubled in the last 20 years. Furthermore, up to 1,500 beds a night in Irish hospitals are occupied by people with alcohol-related problems. The cost of alcohol to the Irish economy - in terms of treating alcohol-related illnesses (including mental illness), crime and public order costs, work-place absenteeism, and so on - has been estimated at €3.7bn a year.

Surveys show that we have an awareness of the problem, that the majority of people accept that levels of drunkenness and alcohol consumption are too high. Yet despite this, and despite the number of people whose lives have been adversely affected in some way by alcohol, Ireland remains a permissive society. We regale each other with stories of our drunken escapades, we celebrate our hangovers almost as a badge of honour, we welcome our new-born with a raised glass, we recall our dearly departed over a few drinks and we toast the milestones in between. And yes, many of us still eye non-drinkers on a night out with suspicion.

The debate around Ireland's alcohol problem has recently been more focused on introducing measures such as minimum pricing, banning high-profile sponsorship of sporting events by drinks companies and increased restrictions around the sale of alcohol. Experts say these will make a difference. But it is not as simple as price or availability - our relationship with alcohol is clearly far more complex. Still the question remains: Why do we drink so much?

Taking action to control the sale and promotion of alcohol is one thing, but we need to develop a greater understanding of what it is that drives this nation to drink.

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