The Irish and drink seem to be a combination that go together like gin and tonic or, more wholesome, mom and apple-pie. In fact our reputation for drinking is somewhat misleading (or probably just jealousy!). This year the Wall Street Journal published a list of the top ten alcohol consuming countries on a per capita basis. And the bad news – the Irish don’t qualify! Yup, the most alcoholic country in western Europe is…..tiny Andorra! It comes in at number 7, downing just 13.5 litres of alcohol per capita per annum! And almost no binge drinking! Topping the list of the mostly eastern and central European countries is…..Belarus at 17.5 litres per capita per annum! Over a quarter of the people there binge-drink and some 34.7% of deaths are related to alcohol. By the way, even Poland doesn’t make the top ten – at least we Irish have something else in common with the Poles.
WJS survey: http://247wallst.com/special-report/2014/05/15/the-heaviest-drinking-countries-in-the-world/
Mind you CBS News puts Ireland at number 15 out of 27 countries for drunkeness:
CBS survey: http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/25-drunkest-countries-in-the-world/
You’ll notice that the listings are different – although the same countries appear in both. That’s the trouble with surveys – you can get different results from different, but similar, surveys. Hence the old saw: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics!
Way back in the nineteenth century there was a highly successful and dramatic attempt to wean the Irish off drink. Fr Theobald Mathew, a Capuchin friar whose statue still marks the entrance to St Patrick’s Street in Cork, ran an astonishing campaign that attracted the attention amazed Americans and Europeans. Mathew started his campaign in Cork in 1838, and at its height in 1844 some three million people had ‘taken the pledge’ to foreswear alcohol – half the adult population of Ireland at the time! Fr Mathew must have been truly charismatic – like his contemporary Daniel O’Connell. The Irish temperance campaign actually bankrupted some brewers and probably some distillers – or at least weakened them, so that when the potato famine struck from 1845, several brewers and distillers went under. Fr Mathew died on 8th December 1856 in Queenstown (now Cobh) in East Cork.
Sadly, the advent of the potato famine in 1845 led to the collapse of Fr Mathew’s temperance movement – saving lives afflicted by starvation and its related diseases was much more importance. No doubt the men (and they were all men) working in Murphy’s distillery in Midleton and in Bennett’s maltings in Ballinacurra were glad – they, at least, had jobs that gave them an income to purchase food. Bizarrely, it could be suggested, with reason, that the alcoholic drinks industry saved many lives during the Irish famine!
the ultimate failure of his temperance movement due to circumstances beyond his control cannot take from Theobald Mathew’s achievement – anybody who could persuade over three million Irish people to give up alcohol, even if only for a while, deserves to be called ‘great’.
The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association was founded in 1898 by Fr James Cullen SJ as a new movement to encourage Irish Catholics to reject alcohol. Even now one can find people in Ireland who ‘took the pledge’ as and youngsters – and never broke it! When I was confirmed by Dr John Ahern, Bishop of Cloyne, we were asked to pledge not to drink alcohol until we were at least eighteen years of age. Clearly the spirit of the great Fr Theobald Mathew lives on in some places.