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Fitness & Health

13th Mar 2019

Is binge-drinking a source of Irish shame or Irish pride?

Carl Kinsella


Congratulations, everyone.

In a new report titled ‘Progress in Adolescent Health and Wellbeing: Tracking 12 Headline Indicators for 195 Countries and Territories, 1990-2016′, Irish teens were revealed to be among the worst binge-drinkers in the world. WE DID IT.

More specifically, the report reveals that 61% of Irish girls between 15-19 had reported binge-drinking in the last 12 months, and 58.8% of boys in the same age group.

Only Denmark and Finland have more teenage girls who reported binge-drinking behaviour. Boys were behind these two countries too, as well as Austria. But hey, you win some, you lose some. We’ll get ’em next time, guys. No shame in being beaten by the Scandinavians. They go for months without sun. Of course they drink. As for the Austrians, well, they’ve got bigger glasses.

But should we really be celebrating this milestone as an achievement? Maybe not. Some out there are even under the impression that this is a bad thing. It’s a source of confusion. Sometimes we seem very proud of our drinking, other times not.

Getting drunk is not a pastime in Ireland, as some might say. Rather, it’s an elemental component of what it means to be Irish. Not drinking is generally explained only by a haunted past, or an active course of antibiotics. Otherwise, sobriety is… unusual.


The central nature of alcohol to Irish life is apparent from before adolescence.

Do you remember taking your pledge at your Confirmation? You probably didn’t think too hard about it at the time. Well, guess what. That’s not an official part of the ceremony in any other Catholic country. We’re the only country that does that.

And there are other Catholic countries, by the way. Polish Catholics, Spanish Catholics, Italians, the French, Americans, most of the South American countries.

But we are the only nation that strongly encourages 11-year-olds to gather in a church and swear to actual God, for some reason, that they won’t drink (or do drugs) until they turn 17 or 18, depending on the leniency of their parents. Nobody else thinks that’s necessary. Or maybe they just don’t think it makes any goddamn sense.

But we persist with it, not because our children our obsessed with alcohol, but because we are.

There is an argument to be made that if the grown-up versions of ourselves weren’t so besotted then such a pledge wouldn’t be a thing. Maybe 11 and 12-year-old children wouldn’t even be thinking about alcohol if we didn’t haul them before, again, Almighty God, and make them promise him that they’ll be on the Cokes until they get to college, at which point it obviously becomes morally fine to drink as much as their little livers can handle.

What’s the evidence that Irish adults are worse when it comes to the drink? Well, according to Alcohol Ireland:

  • 54% of adult drinkers are classified as harmful drinkers, which equates to 1.35 million harmful drinkers in Ireland
  • 75% of all alcohol consumed in Ireland in 2013 was done as part of a binge drinking session
  • 21.1% drinkers engage in binge drinking at least once a week
  • 64.3% of 18-24 year old drinkers consume six or more standard drinks on a typical drinking session

Compare this to the 60% of 15-19 year olds who reported binge-drinking as little as once in the past 12 months. Suddenly the kids don’t seem so bad anymore. Especially, when you consider that roughly 40% of respondents (the 18 and 19-year-olds) should have been of a legal drinking age anyway.

Walk down any end-of-the-earth-looking thoroughfares in Ireland after 1am on a Saturday and see who’s about. It’s not 15-year-olds. It’s auld lads, it’s yuppies, it’s mammies and daddies all stumbling out in front of moving cars or harassing the bouncer at a McDonald’s. Maybe that doesn’t apply to you, but just because it’s not you doesn’t mean it’s the kids.

Point being… You think the teenagers are bad? You should see their parents. And I suppose that’s what confuses me. Usually, the goal of a parent is to ensure that their child surpasses them.

Sure. Nobody should binge-drink ever. But that’s not the world we live in. And it’s certainly not the Ireland we live in. A country where “as many pubs as possible” seemed to be the core objective of our town planning. Our own proud legacy of alcohol misuse suggests that, if anything, we would be clapping our children on the back as we stand over their shoulder and force them to down shots.

And yet we are surprised that Irish teenagers are binge drinking at significantly higher rates than those seen across the board. We’re upset about it. Some people will even be angry about it.


But we’ll continue in the same vein. Don’t believe me? Venture into any city or town on the evening of this St. Paddy’s Day sober, and see how you get on.

Harcourt Street in Dublin will be littered with bodies. Supermac’s in Eyre Square in Galway will house tipsy individuals until they can get to their feet. The emergency services will be flat out. And most of the time, we’re fine with that. So if anything is going to change for future generations, it probably has to start with us.

It’s like a crashing plane. You attach your own oxygen mask before attending to your child, or you end up saving nobody.

Studies like this one are rare chances for us to reflect on how we relate to alcohol. How we feel about it and what it means to us, and our families, and our communities. It doesn’t seem like we have the answer yet.

Pride and shame are not mutually exclusive. Just ask anybody who binge-drinks.

LISTEN: You Must Be Jokin’ with Aideen McQueen – Faith healers, Coolock craic and Gigging as Gaeilge