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Opinion The Irish have strange, almost unconditional, love affair with alcohol

There are few things that, pound for pound, person for person, have a greater hold of on this island society than alcohol. Yet we still talk in whispers about it.

I DID AN online Q&A a few years back called ‘Do You Have a Drink Problem?’ The blurb said if you answer ‘Yes’ to three or more of ten questions then, indeed, you do.

It was along the lines of:

  • ‘Do you ever drink alone?’
  • ‘Do you ever worry about your drinking?’
  • ‘Have you ever wanted to drink on the morning after?’

My answers went like this: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Ten out of ten.

I sat back and said: ‘Okay, so I have a drink problem.’ It’s funny how words like that can sound when you mean them.

About five seconds later I was consoling myself with the idea that a bunch of questions on the web could hardly provide an accurate diagnosis.

Inside a minute I was thinking how heavy boozing was all the rage when I grew up in Co Fermanagh and, sure, I just hadn’t yet ditched the habit.

I thought how the Q&A probably didn’t account for cultural variations, for people from places where it’s not weird to drink yourself boneless. I considered, with increasing comfort, how it was designed for Americans.

Cultural differences?

Do you know people who have ever considered that they maybe drink too much? Do you know people who occasionally drink alone, people who have lost an hour or two on a night out? I’d be pretty sure that if you’re from within about 300 miles of where I’m from then you probably do.

Some people might find the following conversation disturbing:

Jim: ‘You were some craic last night Derek, singing into a plastic bottle in the chip shop.’
Derek: ‘No way, I didn’t, did I? I was wondering why I woke up reeking of vinegar.’

In Ireland, it’s likely many might find the idea of Derek waking up stinking and without his memory to be funny, or at least just shrug it off as meaningless. Derek had been pouring heavily-marketed chemicals into his mouth to the point where he forced his own brain to malfunction, and it’s a hoot.

Our love affair with alcohol

Isn’t it strange, even fascinating, that many of us have this joyful – almost unconditional – love affair with drink; an often wild, long-term romance with this pungent liquid that can turn us into eejits?

We are so willing to forgive it, so willing to give it another chance if it hurts us, forever keen to fork out for it, to laugh and love with it again. We celebrate with it, commiserate with it, gift it to each other. And, in cases which we feel are poignant and not at all inappropriate, we even pour it onto the graves of friends and loved ones.

We’ve poured this stuff onto the final resting places of people it killed.

There are few things that, pound for pound, person for person, have a greater hold of, or exert more influence on, this island society than alcohol. Yet we talk in whispers about someone when they step forward, get honest, and declare an addiction to it – when they say it’s taking too much of them.

A few years back I remember sitting in a pub, glass in hand, and being told about someone ‘having to lay off the booze because he’s got a bit of a problem.’ My heart went out to him, all our hearts went out, as the pints went down. It’s reminiscent of the gun lobby in the States in that we sympathise with the wounded yet choose to say so little about the prevalence of the weapon.

In May my novel, Sinker, about the fictional sport of professional, competitive drinking, was published by Liberties Press. During research, I read up on drinking culture, drinking games, spoke with people about their drinking stories, weighed up the fallout from some of my own spectacular sessions.

The story is always the same

I’ve found no answers to why the Irish, young and older, as much or more than any other people, place booze so close to the centre of our lives. What did become clear to me is that it’s very much easier to understand the alcohol than it is to understand the alcoholic.

With the alcohol, the story is always the same:

One: Alcohol is a lot of fun.
Two: Alcohol wants to have an ever-stronger relationship with you.
Three: No matter what kind of relationship you have, alcohol will never actually be your friend.
Four: If alcohol gets to control the relationship, it will work relentlessly to rip your life and organs to shreds.

I’d recommend anyone who is minded to do so to take one of those online Q&As about drinking.

Thinking about our drinking

There are loads of them now, some with dozens of questions, some with just a few. Some are alarmist, some are less so, some will try to make you go to church. How scientific any of them really are, I haven’t a clue. But if, like so very many people out there, you have reached a point of conflict where you are telling yourself you would like to drink both more and less at the same time, then they at least privately provide some useful parameters on the problem.

They get you thinking, they can help start to clarify things very quickly, can get you ringing the right person, making some timely decisions.

The fact that my ten out of ten score led immediately to my own denial of what was right in front of me, in the end, worked as a welcome wake-up call. It led directly to me dealing with my issue and, with all the thinking I ended up doing around the whole drinking thing, I managed to get a novel out of it too.

Jason Johnson is a Northern Ireland-based journalist and author. His newest novel, Sinker, is a fictional exploration of professional drinking as a sport, inspired by the power and complexity of addiction. For more information visit

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