Thursday, March 15, 2007

If You're Irish Come Out and Get Hammered

The BBC reports that the Irish are the biggest binge drinkers in Europe, which will not come as a surprise to anyone, nor will the news that our nearest rivals are the British, the Finns and the Danes. I'm not pointing any fingers here as I'm no more shy of tippling than any one else but once again I will enjoy spending St. Patrick's Day a long way from Dublin.

What particularly riles me though is the way that the Irish believe their own bullshit and stereotypes, swallowing the myth that the Irish have been heavy drinkers since time immemorial. According to the Gill and MacMillan Encyclopaedia of Ireland, published a few years back, as late as 1968, 52% of Irish adults were teetotal, and I would well believe it, as there are many non-drinkers on both sides of my family and my grandfather's pub was never a money-spinner in the years before his death in 1956. One might point out that such abstinence itself dated only from the great temperance drives of Father Mathew and others in the late nineteenth century, but most countries in Europe drank far more back then than they do today.

The increase in alcohol consumption coincided with the rise in popularity of the likes of Guinness and Jameson abroad and with the corresponding popularity with Ireland's most regrettable export, the Irish Pub, which has allowed the Irish to be damned with faint praise by well-intentioned folk everywhere from Chile to Japan. There is nothing terribly imaginative in pointing out the plastic nature of Irish culture and the Irish's willingness to play along with it (ask most Irish people from what year 'The Fields of Athenry' dates and you can be sure that very few will answer you '1978'), but it is striking how few genuinely Irish beers and spirits there are to begin with, and how few of those are actually Irish-owned. There are scarcely any independent Irish brewers other than the PorterHouse group since the Dublin Brewing Company went to the wall and the Cooley Distillery is the only one not owned by Pernod Ricard. Not only is aggressive advertising fuelling the national stereotype - and its real-life realisation - but it is only on the strength of a handful of products.

The phone-ins will continue to deplore the current situation but there is little that can be done to change it; true, the Vintners' Federations should be faced down (I've always found 'vintner' a rather grand name for a businessman that serves his wine in an airplane bottle) but people will still drink - its merely another expression of Irish people's deranged thirst for consumption, the sort that has allowed huge debts to be built up in the country and which has allowed Irish businesses to charge comedy prices for rubbish services that wouldn't be tolerated in the poorer home countries of many of our recent immigrants. Ireland will only ease off the pints when the next recession comes. Until then the boozing is here to stay but hopefully we might all tire of the 'hail fellow well met when hammered' stereotype.