Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Irish Pub: Drinking and the Irish

OK: More cliches.

The Irish are a bunch of drunkards.

Well, not really, but the Irish (I'm mostly of Irish extraction, btw. Obviously.) have had an interesting and complex relationship with booze. Alcohol is very much woven into a lot of Irish sociality. Whiskey is customary at get-togethers in Ireland much like vodka is in Russia. Just recently in Ireland I've seen the whiskey broken out on a few occasions when cousins or old friends meet around a kitchen table. And neighborhoods and villages have traded gossip and lamented and shared news and talked politics over pints in pubs.

There have, of course, been problems. The Irish journalist John Waters has written that “Drinking in Ireland is not simply a convivial pastime, it is a ritualistic alternative to real life, a spiritual placebo, a fumble for eternity, a longing for heaven, a thirst for return to the embrace of the Almighty.”

The drunken Irishman like the Irish pub is a cliche, but not just a cliche. There's a truth behind it. During the long struggle for independence, Irish patriots often lamented their biblious countrymen. And the Irish middle class, even when they were not slavishly emulating the English middle class, went to great lengths to separate themselves and their customs from taint of alcohol. A whole host of problems seemed to go hand in hand with Irish drinking both in Ireland and abroad: unemployment and underemployment; gambling; domestic violence and other crime; prostitution; disease.

These aren't just sepia-toned 19th century problems, either: Irish drinking is on the rise in the 21st century, and many of these associated problems are still felt quite acutely. There's actually a bit of a moral panic going on about it in Ireland right now. (Perhaps symptomatic, but very well done, really: The Irish Times' Sobriety Diaries.)

Given all these historical and contemporary problems, you'll see in certain quarters a resentment that Irish social life should be so closely associated with the pub. Or that Irishness itself should be so associated with it. You'll see people who are saying "good riddance" to the pub.

I am not among these. While I fully recognize the problems inherent in tying social life and personal life so closely with dispensaries of alcohol, I also love and long for the sorts of "third space" pubs have always been at their best. And I also highly value the pleasure and the dis-inhibiting influence of communal drinking. These things are not to be discounted, I believe, even in the face of all the obvious problems that drinking leads to for many among us.

More later.