Ireland has a drink problem... now we make it easier to buy?

I’m penning these words, not in anger, but in wonderment, puzzlement, and with a sense of frustration, says John Arnold, as he criticises the proposed changes to our Licensing Laws
Ireland has a drink problem... now we make it easier to buy?

“For decades, the tolerance of binge-drinking and under-age drinking has been part and parcel of Irish society,” says John Arnold

DESPITE the fact I absolutely love Irish pubs, it saddens me to see what abuse of alcohol does in this fair country of ours.

The atmosphere, the ‘craic’, and the conversation in pubs around the country is brilliant.

Now, I’m no expert on taverns and public houses in far-flung places all over the world with strange-sounding names, but the fact that the sign ‘Irish Bar’ can be seen universally speaks for itself.

There’s nothing better than encountering a local ‘nursing’ a drink in a small pub in any part of the country. By the counter or by the fire, striking up a conversation with such a person can be simply magical!. Local ‘colour’ and wit, and maybe a tale that’s a bit taller than truth, all add to an enjoyable experience - and of course don’t get me started on sing-songs!

If you’ve even four or five who’ll give a few bars of an old-time favourite a great evening - or afternoon - is guaranteed.

I’d safely say a summer afternoon I spent in Finbarr Grindel’s public house in Ballyhooley during the local Arts Festival a few years back will forever rank with the very best - we had singing, poetry, storytelling, yarns and a few drinks as well.

The late Phil Leahy gave a stirring rendition of The Corrigan Brothers that day - I recall I went home to milk the cows, but the company was so good I came back again for more real live entertainment.

I suppose evenings like that are the heart of the matter, the ethos and meaning of what public houses should be. Of course, Utopia is not always possible but an ‘rud is annamh is iontach’ - what’s rare is wonderful.

I’m penning these words, not in anger, but in wonderment, puzzlement, and with a sense of frustration! The cause of my vexation is the proposed changes to our Licensing Laws brought before our Government last week, and apparently agreed upon without a whimper of dissent.

Many of the laws governing the sale of ‘Intoxicating Liquor’ in this country date back well over a century - some apparently are nearly 200 years old. Dozens of different laws, regulations, bye-laws and statutes are in existence in Ireland, so no doubt about it, changes were needed.

Change for the sake of change is never a good idea, and I’m afraid the argument of ‘legal antiquity’ has now been used to absolutely drive a coach and four through our laws, and moreover our attitude to the consumption of alcohol in this State.

As a nation, we are sated, saturated and infatuated with drink and the abuse of alcohol. I’ll make a statement now, and am prepared to stand over it anywhere, anytime. The Irish people consume too much alcohol.

You may agree or disagree, and everyone has their own opinion. Alcohol is a legal drug and a very enjoyable and satisfying product. Hundreds of thousands of Irish people have an absolutely outstanding relationship with drink. They can have a drink or a few drinks on a night out - maybe on several or many nights out weekly. They love the drink and the company, the banter and the friendship, and to tell the truth, I love being with people like that.

I’m no killjoy, no puritanical abolitionist who wants alcohol banned -no, not me - but the sooner we as a nation stop fooling ourselves as regards alcohol abuse and overuse the better.

It’s easy to write down the words ‘two billion Euro’ or ‘€2Billion’, and maybe hard to envisage what that sum means. It’s what drink-related health issues and sicknesses cost this country each year.

Maybe when one sees it in figures - €2,000,000,000 - we might get a glimpse of the magnitude of the problem. Fifteen hundred (1,500) hospital beds are filled each day with people suffering from alcohol-related health issues. More than a quarter of all ambulance call-outs and a similar per cent of court cases deal with problems caused by over-indulgence in alcohol.

In many recent interviews, the Minister for Justice and other Government spokespeople ignored these facts, choosing instead to say we must as a nation copy others.

Despite these stark and undeniable figures, we, as a nation, seem to ignore the reality that exists. There is an auld ‘nod and wink’ and hal-f smiling attitude to such issues. How often is the plain honest truth told? How often do people use the terms drunk or speak of drunken behaviour?

Not at all - no, in Ireland ,we talk of being ‘a bit merry’, ‘tipsy’, ‘three sheets to the wind’, ‘maith go leor’, ‘maggoty’ ‘ossified’ and ‘locked’. Ah yes shure laugh it off, ’tis ‘the way we are’ - talking of sobriety is scorned.

For decades now, the tolerance of binge-drinking and under-age drinking has been part and parcel of Irish society. We’ve had more reports on the problem than would fill a brewery.

This Government set a target to reduce alcohol consumption in Ireland by 20%, but they speak out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to any real action. Relaxing Licensing Laws and making outlets selling alcohol more widespread has been the response.

It sickens me to hear politicians and lobby groups say ‘we must encourage tourists to come’ or ‘we must have the same rules as the rest of Europe’. Those two statements are absolute rubbish and should never, ever form the basis for changing our laws.

I’ve never been to America, but apparently many U.S States allow alcohol sales only to those over 21. In many Middle Eastern countries, public sale or consumption of alcohol is banned - that’s just the way it is and visitors can like it or lump it.

With over 40 years, I’ve dealt with hundreds and hundreds of tourists in this country and never once did I hear any complaint that they couldn’t get enough drink here! The ‘we must be like Europe’ argument would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.

Our attitude to drink in Ireland is not the same as in most European countries, and frankly, I don’t think it ever will be. In most European countries, people, young and old, can go out for an evening or a night and drink alcohol to enjoy it. In this country, thousands, tens of thousands, drink to get drunk - full stop.

Saying we should emulate our EU brethren is simply stupid, crass and lunacy, because they respect alcohol whereas its abuse seems to be socially acceptable in Ireland.

Imagine a schools programme dealing with alcohol in Ireland is funded by the drinks industry - is that ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’ or what?

In recent weeks, the feeble argument was put forward that having night clubs open ’til 6am will ‘ensure a vibrant night-time arts culture’! What a joke, and to add insult, I heard a Government Minister suggest that ‘thousands of jobs’ could be created by this ‘new, modern attitude’ to the sale of alcohol in Ireland - no mention of more alcohol addiction, alcohol-related crime or anti-social behaviour.

The stony silence from our Government Ministers and Junior Ministers who claim to care about the health of the nation is frightening. Some say too many regulations smacks of a so-called ‘nanny state’, maybe so, but in Ireland somebody needs to protect people from their absolutely ambivalent attitude towards alcohol abuse.

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