Opinion

Monday 22 July 2019

Ban the booze brigade up in arms for Patrick's Day

A delight in getting drunk isn't unique to the Irish character, but you wouldn't know that to listen to middle-class nanny staters, says Eilis O'Hanlon

TWAS ALWAYS THUS: Part of Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’
TWAS ALWAYS THUS: Part of Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’

Eilis O'Hanlon

People crawling along the pavement on all fours. Girls swaying precariously on high heels, unable to walk in a straight line. Revellers out cold in pools of their own vomit. Revellers out cold in pools of other people's vomit. Rivers of urine snaking down the middle of the street. Broken beer bottles and chip wrappers everywhere. Incoherent couples yelling abuse at one another. Fights breaking out over the most trivial matters, leading to injury and sometimes worse. Sex in public.

It's a terrible indictment of how the Irish celebrate their national holiday - or it would be, except that these aren't descriptions of St Patrick's Day. They're a mixture of accounts by writers from the classical world talking about the ancient Celts, and more recent eye- witness testimonies, as recorded in the local press, of what goes on in town centres in England on any given Friday or Saturday night.

Which disproves the myth, if nothing else, that the Irish are uniquely awful when it comes to drunkenness, as some of us delight in believing, or that getting wasted is a particularly recent phenomenon. You wouldn't know that from the annual bout of handwringing and self-flagellation that occurs around Paddy's Day. Every year the same cry goes out: What's wrong with us? What is it about the Irish that makes us drink so much, then behave so badly when we do?

In deciding that the answer lies in national identity, we're making exactly the same mistake as Plato did when, 400 years before Jesus was born, he included the Celts among the six races who were most prone to "downright drunkenness".

Two-and-a-half thousand years of being caricatured as problem drinkers. That has to be some kind of record. And the fact that we're now the ones peddling the caricatures only makes it worse.

A different picture emerges if you take the trouble to Google the name of any random British town, together with the words "binge drinking". From Devon to Durham, Suffolk to Shropshire, they're every bit as rowdy as we are. Even in posh leafy Harrogate, MPs can be found bemoaning local drinking habits, whilst students in Canterbury caused consternation last year by downing the largest ever number of Jagerbombs at a single sitting (5,000, if you're interested).

Chaucer wouldn't have been surprised. In his Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th Century, he notes: "A lecherous thing is wine, and drunkenness is full of striving and wretchedness . . . You fall down just as if you were stuck swine."

It all generally leads to the same conclusions as here. Ban booze advertising. Introduce a minimum price for each unit of alcohol. Outlaw special promotions. Only allow drink to be sold in designated outlets, in plain packaging, preferably with a prescription. British Prime Minister David Cameron even announced once that he was declaring "war" on the country's "booze culture" in the dramatic way that politicians tend to do in the face of alarmist headlines.

Good luck with that. It really can't be stressed often enough how familiar all this would be to previous generations. In the 1750s, the artist Hogarth released his famous etching 'Gin Lane', showing the effects of cheap alcohol on the poor. Neglected kids. Loose women. Feckless men. You get the drift.

In late Victorian and early Edwardian England, there were 200,000 prosecutions a year for drunkenness and drunk and disorderly behaviour. Echoing the modern moral panic about the spread of drinking amongst women, social campaigner Charles Booth in his groundbreaking 1901 survey of London life even quoted witnesses bemoaning that "women have lost all shame about entering a public-house", including "a marked increase in the number of respectably dressed young women who drink." It could be an excerpt from any one of a billion lifestyle features in the modern media about the surge in middle-class women drinking at home.

It's fascinating to see how such cultural stereotypes persist. Mediterraneans in the ancient world thought of themselves as the pinnacle of civilisation, and used their own drinking habits as evidence. It's still happening now, in countless media reports which contrast the binge drinking culture of northern Europeans, the Irish and British in particular, with the more sophisticated ways of the Italians and French;

And like the ancients before them, finger-wagging nanny staters in Ireland - the New Pioneers - really do seem to believe that a crusade against one, and tolerance for the other, is based entirely on objective fact and concern for the health and well-being of the nation, rather than being a symptom of their own middle-class, middle-aged prejudices - possibly even envy at the sight of young people having a better time than they are.

Preferring continental-style cafe culture over Irish pub life is just another form of cultural cringe, and this belief that everything "European" is automatically better is easily turned into a moral panic which declares the unruly Irish are going to hell in a handcart.

One anthropologist, writing about ancient attitudes to the "uncivilised" races, makes a crucial point: "Drinking was extremely important to the Greeks and Romans as well; they just did it differently, and were appalled by practices that did not conform to their own".

Sounds familiar. Bourgeois do-gooders love their booze too, but elevate their habits to a higher plane than those of the plebs; like the Greeks, they think everyone should drink like them, having wine with food rather than pints followed by a trip to the chipper.

It's true that there is less public disorder associated with such continental-style drinking as there is in the UK and Ireland, but the health risks don't diminish simply because alcohol is consumed in a more socially acceptable way. France has the highest cancer deaths in the EU as a direct result of excess smoking and drinking. Much of that problem is masked because France has a very good health system which keeps people, even those suffering from incurable cancers, alive for longer; but that doesn't mean the problem isn't there. Death rates for liver cirrhosis are also higher in France, Spain and Portugal than in Ireland.

The Irish may be more prone to binge-drinking - defined as more than three pints in one sitting, a figure which most of us struggle to recognise as excessive - but the World Health Organisation's international table of alcohol consumption still shows that we drink less, in litres per year, than the French. They vomit in the streets less than we do, and that's no bad thing, but it doesn't mean they're not drinking themselves silly.

They're catching up fast on those binges" too. Only last year French ministers drew up plans to curb "le binge drinking" amongst the young. We're playing slightly different games, but we're definitely in the same ball park.

Further afield, the same problems are replicated. Vietnam has a notorious culture of binge-drinking; toilets in nightclubs come equipped with their own "lavabo", a local word meaning "puke sink". One in four South Koreans drinks to excess every week, mainly on "soju", a rice wine with a high alcohol content which is taken neat at first, then, as the evening progresses, mixed with beer. There is also a high tolerance, apparently, of bad behaviour caused by drunkenness, which horrifies the Chinese across the border. In India, where only 30pc of men drink alcohol at all, drunkenness accounts for 20pc of hospital admissions.

Drinking in order to get drunk, rather than socially, has even been dubbed "the Indian problem" by commentators. How dare they? Don't they know that's our thing?

Every country seems to imagine that its failings are unique to itself, but in Ireland we do seem to take particular delight in beating up on ourselves. We need to think that our politicians are the most corrupt. They're not. That our public services are the worst in the world. They're not. Wallowing in dejection about our drinking habits is part of the same masochistic tendency.

Highlighting real or imagined negative achievements in this way constitutes a weird sort of reverse pride. Instead of bragging about what makes us better than everyone else, we boast about what makes us worse; and the more reprehensible we can make ourselves sound, the better. Either way, this addiction to navel-gazing feeds an egotistical belief that we're different, special, unique, when the boring truth is that the things we like to think of as innately Irish are no more particular to us than being arrogant is to the French (though they are awfully good at it).

If we really want to take national pride in something, it should be in the fact that this binge-drinking culture which we prissily deplore has survived for centuries against all odds. The ancients were aghast at the savage ways of the Celts, which included sitting around tables to eat rather than reclining on cushions in the civilised continental way, but we didn't change.

In fact, just as the Celtic way of dining eventually killed off those cushions, Irish and British tourists are now being blamed for importing binge-drinking as a way of life to the continent. Millennia of influence had no effect on us. A few decades of package holidays, and they're the ones whose culture is crumbling.

Let's drink to that.

Sunday Independent

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