Alcoholism in the Irish Culture


Experience with alcoholics has put this writer in touch with various clients of Irish decent, all of whom have shared similarities in their descriptions of alcohol in their Irish culture. They describe that alcohol is drunk in excess at weddings, at funerals, on holidays, and on sad days. Alcohol is most appropriate on Saturdays and Sundays; and Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Sober clients who are otherwise not so careful with “people, places, and things” still avoid the Irish Day Parade like the plague. What is the relationship between Ireland and Alcohol in context of history, social aspects, and medical considerations?

Historical Context:

As will be explained, the retail price of alcoholic drinks has consistently been considered an important regulator of alcohol consumption and by implication, a method of controlling the amount of excessive drinking. Regulating alcohol patterns has been a debated issue in Ireland as far back as 1791 when it was actually debated in the Irish parliament. Apparently the problems of alcoholism were rampant in Ireland already back then. At that time, the “Gin Act” in England was used as a proof that a parliament could regulate production and sales to help sober a country. This issue has never been resolved and while at the beginning of last century poverty was blamed for excessive drinking, nowadays affluence is frequently mentioned as a cause. These days, the popular mindset is described in the expression, “Alcoholism comes in people and not in bottles.” Irish parliament is still very much uninvolved in alcoholic litigation for various cultural, religious, and political reasons. These will all be touched upon again in farther discussion on the causes and trends of Irish drinking habits (Blaney, 1974).

How much do the Irish drink?

It is significant to mention that in spite of the numbers supporting the notion of higher alcohol consumption with Irish drinkers, a significant proportion of the Irish population do not drink any alcohol at all. In numerous studies, almost three times as many Irish citizens reported that they had not consumed any alcohol at all during the past 12 months than as in any Scandinavian countries and almost twice the abstinence rate as those reported in Germany, UK, France, and Italy (Ramstedt & Hope, 2003).

While Ireland has the highest level of abstinence amid the aforementioned countries, it also boasts twice as high levels of alcohol consumption compared to those same countries. This means that those who do drink in Ireland drink much higher quantities per person as other regions (Ramstedt & Hope, 2003). The most recent statistics of the World Health Organization (2011) reports that Irish drinkers consume an average of 14.41 liters of alcohol per year, the highest among all countries mentioned thus far. This amount is measured in the amount of pure ethyl alcohol. In comparison, the average drinker in the United States only consumes 9.44 liters. That is approximately 5 liters of alcohol less per person than drinkers in Ireland. Amongst the Irish that do drink, the heaviest drinking occurs with Irish second generation (Mullen, Williams, & Hunt, 1996). Ramstedt & Hope (2003) state that the higher overall level of drinking in Ireland is directly associated with higher alcohol-related mortality related to deaths from liver cirrhosis, accidents, and homicide.

Amazingly, daily drinking in the same countries mentioned is lowest in Ireland in spite of the high alcohol consumption per year. Only 1.6% of Irish men drink every day. Comparatively, 42% of men drink every day in Italy, 21% in France, and 12% in Germany. These percentage differentiations are similar among women as well (Ramstedt & Hope, 2003). This would seem to suggest that while the Irish may not drink every day, when they do drink it is in vastly greater quantities per drink.

Why do Irish Drink? Causes and Trends:

Blaney (1974) describes various explanations as to why there is such a link between the Irish and Alcohol. Irish weather and climate is commonly believed to be an important cause of Irish overindulgence. The basic idea is that the damp climate and inclement weather cause people to seek modes of stimulation such as alcohol. This theory was especially prevalent in the mid nineteenth-century.

Lack of quality food has also been blamed. Theorists seek to show how the Irish have a general tendency for substitute drinking for eating in response to certain situations. Additionally, a lack of alternative drinking establishments has long been blamed in Ireland for excessive consumption of alcohol. It is believed that the development of the Cafe and Coffee-House Movement towards the end of the last century occurred in direct response to this association. The political rhetoric of the time included statements like “there are few places to go except the pub” and “there is nothing else for young people to do on Friday nights than to start drinking.”

Another cultural dynamic in Ireland is the pervasive availability of open alcohol eateries known as “public houses” or “pubs.” Ireland also has very loose legal constraints monitoring public alcohol sales in groceries. The corresponding modern view is that availability of alcohol in public houses and supermarkets leads to excessive drinking – especially in women. On these fronts, licensing laws regulating the availability of alcohol are rapidly re-evolving and researchers are closely following correlations between alcohol litigation and excessive drinking trends.

Obviously, these considerations of pinpointing availability of alcohol – or unavailability of other beverages – as the causes of excessive use of alcohol in Ireland is somewhat faulty. While these may explain the continuation or perpetuation of high rates of alcoholism in second generation Irish youth, it fails to explain how the evolution of an exclusive cultural relationship with alcohol was initiated to begin with. These factors are significant however, in understanding causes for new trends of alcoholism in modern Irish culture.

There is another popular theory that Irish people are physically and psychologically prone to alcoholism. No specific genetic theories have yet become available, but at least one researcher states that “the taste of alcohol in the mouth is more attractive to the Irish than to others.” Recent psychological studies point to an “Irish Psychological Constitution” that causes an actual predisposition to alcoholism (Blaney, 1974).

It will be explained further that Bales (1962) understood that the social patterns of Irish drinking actually predisposes the culture to higher rates of alcoholism. In this context, Irish political forces are attempting to counteract the Irish practice of drinking in large groups where each person gets a turn to buy the rest of the group a round of drinks. This is an old Irish social custom which is still being implicated today and seen as a large hurdle in the fight against alcoholism.


Butler & Jordan (2006) explain the religious influence of alcoholism in Ireland. Ireland is a Catholic based country. Catholicism considers Protestants as one of the largest threats to traditional Catholic culture. The idea of self-control, temperance, and abstinence is a very Protestant initiative and traditional Catholicism is quite skeptical of the entire notion. In fact, it will be explained later how the Irish Church was against the establishment of AA for this very reason.

Mullen, Williams, and Hunt (1996) explore the common stereotype of the Irish and heavy drinking within this religious context as well. Quoting O’Connor (1978) it is posited that the historical ideas about the medical treatment for alcoholism in both the Irish and the English cultures were similar as both were eventually affected heavily by the religiously orientated temperance movement. As was mentioned, this is in spite of resistance from the Irish Catholic Church (Butler & Jordan, 2006). Mullen, Williams, and Hunt (1996) quote other studies as well finding Irish and English drinking in American cities to be fairly similar. Differences were mainly in comparison with Italians and Jews and with English from a rural or southern Protestant background with strong Baptist and Methodist affiliations. This strongly suggests that religion plays a role as well in drinking patterns and would therefore be an important clinical factor. Indeed, based on data from two studies carried out Ireland, one quantitative, the other qualitative, significant differences according to religious affiliation is shown.

The association of the Irish with Catholicism is strong if not overwhelming in many areas. Religious identity is stronger in Ireland than political identity and conflict in Ireland is more often religious than political. Theorists do in fact hypothesize a close link between Catholic culture and the Irish drinking. Studies show that in Irish-American communities, Irish Catholic drinking practices and problems were seen to relate to a somewhat tolerant normative religious structure which begins a cycle of abusive drinking and “reinstatements” like confession, forgiveness, and re-incorporation into group life that is easily transferable from religious to secular domains. Similar to Butler & Jordan (2006), Mullen, Williams, and Hunt (1996) also quote clear research literature showing that high levels of alcohol consumption are often assumed with Catholic subcultures being viewed as encouraging permissive drinking norms while the Protestant cultures are more ambivalent.

Irish and Jews:

Levin (1995) explains that while we have seen how the Irish have both high levels of consumption as well as significantly high levels of abstinence, Jews were found to exhibit neither high levels of consumption or abstinence. While Jews were found to drink almost exclusively at home with family or as part of religious ceremonies, the Irish rarely drink at home as the majority of drinking done in Ireland is in public houses, as has previously been mentioned. Lastly, the Irish mindset states that getting drunk is excusable and a socially acceptable form of relief and escape, while traditional Jewish values suggests that to get drunk in this manner is “unjewish.” Jewish drinking is sacred, formal, and ceremonial.

Bales (1962) studied and compared the ‘convivial’ or ‘utilitarian’ drinking of the Irish with the ‘ritual’ drinking of the Jews. He defines four categories or attitudes. They are abstinence, ritual, convivial, and utilitarian. Defining Irish as convivial and utilitarian means that there is no significance to one’s drinking outside of social solidarity and self gratification. The ritual consumption of Jewish drinkers however represents the use of alcohol as a symbolism of communion with God. The theory is that ritual drinking patterns can inhibit and even inoculate members against alcoholism, while utilitarian drinking may actually predispose the drinkers in that culture to eventual abuse and dependency. This theory seeks to explain how the differences in mindset evolved within these cultures.

Alcoholics Anonymous:

The Irish religious arena played a central role in the early foundation of AA in Ireland as well. Butler & Jordan (2006) explain the exact relationship in detail. Historically, AA was quickly accepted in strong Protestant-oriented traditions. Ireland is predominantly Roman-Catholic or Irish- Catholic. Catholicism however, took issue with AA on a few fronts. First and foremost was the fact that AA was conceived through tenants of a non denomination Christian group called the Oxford Group.

Additionally, Irish Catholic bishops favored a centralized teaching authority and found the AA approach heterodoxical. This was because of AA’s use of a Higher Power and “God as we understood him” in addition to individual group autonomy and the group conscience. These were seen as a rival to the structure and moral monopoly of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Lastly, all religious elements in Ireland – even the more “progressive” Catholic Temperance League – were apposed to the disease concept of alcoholism. Traditional belief understands alcoholism as volitional in nature. People drink because they chose to. If they chose otherwise, they could become and remain abstinent if they so desired – particularly by using their Church membership to invoke God’s help.

On November 18, 1946 an AA member from Philadelphia, Connor F., established the first AA meeting in Dublin. This was the very first AA meeting held in all of Europe. Connor however, faced the following large hurdles. He first approached religious clergy who informed him there are no alcoholics in Ireland. He then approached medical hospitals who told him to take his [big] book and never come back.

Although Connor himself was protestant, ninety five percent of Ireland at the time was Catholic. No Catholic church was willing to host an AA meeting and no Catholic was willing to even enter a protestant church – even if only to attend an AA meeting. AA could not find any clergy or newspaper to give them positive publicity. The fact that AA originated in the USA was an additional hurdle. The Irish considered the US to be “the land of freak religions” and wanted no part in this new American movement.

The secretary of Dublin’s AA group was a man named Sackville who had been asked to retire from the English Army prematurely because of his pervasive alcoholism. In January 1972, Sackville and an English Catholic member of AA obtained a private audience with Pope Paul VI. The Pope described AA as “fine work, a real apostolate.” He gave AA his blessing and stated that he would keep AA in his prayers. With endorsement from the Pope, AA in Ireland no longer had any real fear of being censured by the local Catholic Church.


Bales, R. F. (1962). Attitudes Towards Drinking in the Irish Culture, 157-187. Found in Pittman, D. & Snyder, C. Society, Culture, and Drinking Patterns. Wiley.

Blaney, R. (1974). Alcoholism in Ireland: Medical and Social Aspects. Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland 23(1). Retrieved March 2, 2011

Butler, S. and Jordon, T. (2006) Alcoholics Anonymous in Ireland: AA’s first European Experience. Addiction, 102(6), 879 – 886 Retrieved March 2, 2011

Levin, J. D. (1995). Introduction to Alcoholism Counseling: a Bio-Psycho-Social Approach. Taylor & Francis.

Mullen K., Williams R., and Hunt K. (1996) Irish descent, Religion, Alcohol, and Tobacco Use. Addiction, 1996, 91(2), 243-254. Retrieved March 2, 2011

O’Connor, J. (1978). The Young Drinkers. London, Tavistock.

Ramstedt M. & Hope A. (2003). The Irish Drinking Culture – Drinking and Drinking-Related Harm, a European Comparison. Retrieved March 2, 2011

World Health Organization (2011). Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health. WHO Press. Switzerland. Retrieved March 2, 2011