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The Drunken Irish Stereotype Is True Because We Want It To Be

You think Ireland doesn’t know about its drinking reputation? Trust me, we do. We’ve had enough hangovers, bloodied knees, and broken relationships to know exactly where we stand: somewhere between an AA meeting and another round of shots.

by James Nolan
Mar 17 2015, 11:00am

Photo via Flickr user Marion Wacker

This time every year, it's my fate as an Irishman to be painted as a fuck-up. With March 17 or "Paddy's Day" come the inevitable editorials raking over the grave of my still-living culture, accusing us, most recently, of exporting our drunkenness to countries I assume were puritanical before we got there.

Though the stereotype is true—Irish people do drink a lot—the vitriol with which it's pointed out suggests we don't already know it. Trust me, we do. We've all had enough bad hangovers, bloodied knees, and broken relationships to know exactly where we stand: somewhere on the edge of chaos, midway between an AA meeting and another round of shots.

So when Irish politicians complain about our drinking, raising prices any time they can, it simply annoys us—we know we need to change, but we also know our need to get drunk overrides it. And we accept this, the same way we accept that as long as the world's watching, our stereotype will remain. That's basically what Paddy's Day is about to us: celebrating this stereotype wholeheartedly.

Here are some damning stats: Ireland consumes 11.6 litres of pure alcohol per person per year (compared to America's eight and Britain's ten) and 53 percent of men here binge drink at least once a month, compared 10.5 in Holland and 19.4 in Germany. There are more, but you get the picture.

Alcohol has been consumed in Ireland since the 18th century, when the invention of gin sparked a wave of heavy drinking. Though abstinence movements contained this pretty well over the subsequent 100 years (more than half the population were teetotal when the Great Famine hit in 1845), drinking became more widespread as a means of coping with one million dead and another million emigrated.

Following that, young males began "drinking like men" to display their tolerance and masculinity, a kind of compensation for not being able to afford land or find marriage. Also, with the Catholic Church essentially running all schools, its view of the world as a "valley of tears" became normal. Everyone accepted suffering as a natural consequence of life.

Even today, with 90 percent of primary schools still Catholic and state-run television showing Masses and prayers, we're constantly reminded of our sinfulness. Though not as bad as it used to be, a sense of guilt remains at the heart of the Irish psyche, contributing in large part to us not being able to open up. As a result, many families and relationships lack intimacy, leaving us to internalise, grow resentful and, eventually, drink.

We know we need to change, but we also know our need to get drunk overrides it. And we accept this, the same way we accept that as long as the world's watching, our stereotype will remain. That's what Paddy's Day is: celebrating this stereotype wholeheartedly.

At some point, Irish oppression became more obtuse (less poverty and religion and more just general problems) but alcohol remains our main method for coping, not just because it's the least shameful but also because growing up, it's so ubiquitous that it almost feels like we've no other choice.

As someone who was a teenager relatively recently, I can confirm this—when you know someone old enough to buy you drink, you drink, standing in a circle rife with competitiveness over who can drink the most. This is how we are: part of a culture that's changed immeasurably since the '80s, but which still springs from the same alcohol-soaked roots.

Growing up now, the landscape facing a teenager isn't poverty and religion, but rather 18th-birthday parties, regional towns with nothing to do, soap operas set mainly in pubs, and alcohol advertising, with one brand—Guinness—enjoying prominence as a national treasure, despite being owned by an English company since 1997.

Alcohol's such an embedded part of Irish culture that, even if we wanted to change, it'd still take decades. Yet despite all this, I believe drinking here has little to do with feeling Irish, regardless of how much everyone thinks it does when pushing the stereotype. Instead it's simply a byproduct of being Irish—except, that is, on Paddy's Day.

Paddy's Day means wet tables and slippery floors, it means tight spaces and vomiting, but it also means recognition of who we are and our role in something so collectively debauch that we as Irish people must not only be linked by it but, in fact, be crazy.

The landscape facing an Irish teenager isn't poverty and religion, but rather 18th-birthday parties, regional towns with nothing to do, soap operas set mainly in pubs, and alcohol advertising, with Guinness enjoying prominence as a national treasure.

Essentially, Paddy's Day is the perfect storm of drinking to feel masculine, cope, and (lest we forget) "have the craic." While our Irishness remains an afterthought to getting wrecked, we at least feel it in so much as accepting the stereotype is true. Yet instead of shying from it, we celebrate it. It's our currency—meeting people all over the world, they identify us as drinkers, partiers, and we enjoy this not just because we associate it with toughness but also because we're immediately validated as characters.

Most of us are addicted to this validation. We'd rather destroy ourselves and receive the notoriety from it than be another nameless culture; we'd rather get fucked up and seek your attention than go home and not, and though we've many other things to be proud of—our writers, athletes, our history of resistance—it's been proven time and time again that nothing elicits validation quite like our drunkenness.

Our society being destroyed is a high price to pay. Alcohol costs our economy 3.7 billion euros (£2.98 billion) a year and accounts for 8.5 percent of the total healthcare budget, including 2000 hospital beds a night. With a population of 4.5 million, it causes 1,200 cases of cancer annually.

Almost twice as many people die in Ireland due to alcohol than every other drug combined, with a third of all road fatalities and a quarter of all male deaths aged between 15 and 39 caused by it. Also, nearly half of homicide perpetrators are under the influence when committing their crime, as are 76 percent of rape victims. In total, 88 people die every month in Ireland because of alcohol.

Crazily, because we think the stereotype is inevitable at this stage, we feel we're controlling it somehow by celebrating it, achieving some kind of defiant transcendence in the process. With the eyes of the world upon us, we know we should be on our best behaviour on Paddy's Day, yet as a way of saying "fuck you," we aren't. But to whom are we saying "fuck you"? The pushers of the stereotype or ourselves—and is there any difference?

It's this craziness (or more accurately, this schizophrenia) that ultimately describes what it's like being Irish on Paddy's Day better than anything some stereotype or editorial—this one included—could conjure. But write them anyway, world, and drink your Guinness and wear your green—because while that joke's on you, another, more tragic one's on us: one you'll never understand but one we'll seemingly never tire of telling.