I want to talk today about the inherent beliefs which exist in the world about the culture of “Irishness” – aka the piss heads of the world. Where did the idea come from that we are all drunkards and great fun on the booze? Where did we get the reputation as being one of the biggest nation of drinkers on this globe of green and blue? Who exactly is to blame for all Irish being born with the idea that an innate part of us is some way biased towards consuming alcohol? Why are there so many pubs associated with Ireland scattered around the world? Are we ourselves to blame? Oh no…. I touched on it last week and I want to blame one nation and one nation only – The English! Now before you take off in a rage with considered ideas which might involve the thoughts that us Irish are responsible for adorable snugs, great atmosphere and delicious porter, hear me out – it is the idea that we are drunks and the like that I’m after, not the actualities which exist right today. Now read on…
The imperious nation of war mongering colonists is to blame for our subconscious alcoholism – make no mistake about it. To explain I need to go back in time a little to examine where and how this idea of us (emphasis on the idea) being drunks, first took hold. Not long ago, only one hundred and sixty years, there was a famine of mass proportions in Ireland. In these times the common catholic Irish folk were peasants. They lived on land which they rented from absent landlords (either English or Anglo Irish) and ate the potatoes which they grew in the fields they lived on. Our parents’ grandparents were kids in this time and they were born into massive families who lived on spuds, spuds and more spuds. The land loved the spud and the spud loved the land. In turn the Irish loved the land and the spud and everyone was getting on just fine. We cooked it in all manner of means, but boiling the spud was the sure favourite.
In 1845, blight struck the crops and wiped them out. For three years the crops failed and coupled with extreme winter conditions, millions of Irish were killed and emigrated. The English continued to export Irish crops overseas at this time and also vetoed a decision to allow cheap corn to be imported to come to the assistance of the peasant paddy. In short, they maintained a steady strangle hold on our nations neck, choking it with grim austerity, much like what the IMF and EU are trying to do in today’s times. After the famine, the broken nations men and women tried to usurp the control which the foreign invaders had on us, but they were too unorganised. It would take some sixty years before the Irish came of age. The English had ruled by force for some six hundred years, gradually exterminating traditions, language and culture. They relegated the Irish from positions of strength and power to subordination and poverty. It was in the years after the famine abated that the Idea that we were problem drinkers emerged.
Now, in the fancy world of social evolution, there is a word to describe ideas which take shape and become realities – they are called memes. Memes are to ideas, what genes are to ancestors. As genes transmit biological information, memes can be said to transmit idea and belief information. When an idea is launched by governments into the press, there is an understanding that this idea will take years to be accepted. Depending on the nature of the idea, there will be shock and uproar at first – but slowly and surely this anger will abate and as experts align themselves to the viewpoints, credibility and belief creep in. Over decades, indeed centuries, these ideas are inherited by children and so on and so forth, becoming a conscious accepted reality in the living, real world. Now in Ireland we have always had a drink. We have always had great pubs. We had 17,000 pubs in Ireland in the 18th century. These pubs served as meeting points, tailors and grocery shops and the like. In some small shivery parts of the country you can still buy your milk and bread over the counter, while supping a nice drop of the black stuff.
As the Gaelic language was being crushed throughout the island, the English were afforded the right to rewrite history as they saw fit. They recorded what they wanted and how they wanted. They initially propounded the myth of the uncultured, boorish and lazy Irish. They printed the stories of how troublesome we were and what a massive affliction we had with the drink. They reported how the poor took to drinking poitín (alcohol made by distilling potatoes) and how it would drive the peasants insane. They conducted studies in the late 19th century to assess the patterns of “problem” drinkers in Dublin city. They muddled this all together with the power of print and slowly but surely what began as idea, began to grow and grow.
Now let me clarify that the tradition to share a drink is well known and part of the culture of Ireland. The pub as the place where all are equal is an important part of any community. As a nation I am aware that we are indeed fond of a pint. But the notion that we are a nation of drunks began with the English reporting on Ireland back in post famine days. They marginalised our forefathers and sank them into a cycle of poverty which was almost impossible to break. Being poor ensured release from reality needed to be satiated through alcohol. This was where the English establishment wanted the common paddy positioned – drunk, penniless and praying in English to a God who no longer cared for them. Millions of my country people died at their hands. Millions brought our traditions to New York, Boston, Liverpool, Glasgow and Botany Bay. Here we were slaves – the lowest of the low. The story was accepted that we were drunks, lazy and trouble. And in a strange way we almost lived up to the English label.
Today we still carry the shackles of our recent oppression with us. The immense power of the “Meme” which the English planted long, long ago is still reverberating. We still adhere to this distant memory which is part of our collective subconscious. The scars of such recent slavery still burn a hole in our psyche and until we step up and re-evaluate what it means to be us, we will maintain this delusion that it’s great to be a drunken paddy. In the thousands of Irish pubs around the globe I would love you all to be asking each other, how do I want my ancestors to remember me? Is it as this? Do we begin our own new glory? Can we recreate the story and banish this myth of who we are to the rest of the English mythology which is weakening throughout the world. Make no doubt about it, this is all about control – and while you maintain the belief that this tradition of getting drunk and wild is Irish, then you are still a slave to an ancient idea – one which the Lords of jolly Olde Englande concocted many blue moons ago. If today you are turning to drink to hide from the prospect of the mortgage being in arrears, you are just doing what you forefather did too. Our nation went through the same story 160 years ago. Have we learnt anything at all?
This has been quite a difficult blog to write. It is very hard to accept that we are not completely responsible for our very own ways of being. They have been fashioned for us in the same way Guinness fashion make believe bars all over the world, to force feed the globe some lithe notion of Irish “craic”. It is tricky to draw the distinction between traditions which are inherently Irish and that which has been created and given to us. We do love the wild nature of being. We do love to be social and share laughs together. We do love to share a pint. But the notion that we are a nation of drunks and blaggards is born of Royal English blood.