Irish Drinking Question

Not to be confused with an Irish Drinking Song.

This is a weird question for me to ask, since I live with an Irishman and could simply ask him. Which I did. And his answer just didn’t satisfy me.

My question, to be specific, is “what’s with the Irish and alcohol?” Why do we have the stereotype that the Irish drink more and get drunk more often than other cultures? First of all, is it even true? There are other European countries in which alcohol is consumed at a younger age and more frequently than American’s typically do. So why have the Irish been singled out for kicking in this area?

I guess I can break my question down into various speculation my husband and I came up with.

  1. The Irish really don’t drink more than numerous other cultures, but for some reason have earned that reputation undeservedly. I’d love to figure out why if that’s the case. There are tons of undeserved stereotypes, maybe this is just one of them.

  2. The Irish for some reason treat alcohol differently than other “drinking culture.” That is, even though the German’s, French, Italians, etc. drink frequently, the Irish tend to use it to excess in more cases or to use it for escape rather than a glass or two with a meal.

  3. Irish life has historically been so difficult as to make #2 above more likely. My husband grew up and lived in Belfast where he had a pretty rough life in a war zone. If he was an American he’d be in therapy. Instead, he drinks 4 pints of Guinness a day.

  4. Husband’s answer to this question is particularly unsatisfying to me. He says that ages ago, during an indeterminate time in history the Irish were mainly farmers, living in places so far apart that they had little social contact with others. After mass on Sunday they would all retire to the public house for a much needed social outlet. This, he explains, is why drinking is so much a part of Irish culture and also why Sunday is such a big drinking day for the Irish. The latter certainly seems to be true of the “just off the boat” Irish in this country. At least if judging by the immigrant population of the greater Boston area. I assume there were other countries that had just as many farmers. Heck, my family farms and has for 150 years and there are ZERO drinkers in my family.

  5. Genetics. I typically don’t buy this as a good answer since there’s never a satisfying way to tell if you drink too much because your dad passed it to you via genes or if you just learned it from his behavior.

My husband drinks a LOT by American standards. He’s been known to say things like, “I only had four or five pints a day every day this week…that’s nothing.” Note: said husband doesn’t stumble home, miss work, hit his wife (ahem), get into fights, or otherwise cause drunken mayhem. He just drinks rather heavily by our standards and tends to use bars/pubs as a social outlet after work every day. That is, I don’t consider his drinking a problem but sometimes worry about what he’s doing to his liver. You’d think I could get a good answer out of him, but he only has the same speculations as I do.

Any clues, dopers?

Go to a wake and all will be made clear.

In his “The Things They Say About You Behind Your Back”, William Helmreich’s look at ethnic stereotypes, he suggests that part of the reason has to do with social changes resulting from the famine of 1840. Before that, land was generally divided up equally between sons, but due to the poverty caused by the famine, that custom was changed, and the eldest son generally became the heir to the land. This led to a large number of landless bachelors (because the younger sons couldn’t afford to marry, which led to a culture developing in these bachelor groups that encouraged hypermasculinity, violence, heavy drinking, and reckless behavior.

The Irish do indeed tan the bevvy. However, I am not sure that there is much difference between drinking culture in Ireland and the rest of the British Isles. It’s a boozy part of the world. My family is Irish, I grew up in England, and I currently live in Scotland - Going out on the lash is an equally popular pastime in all three places.

We can rule #1 out from the results of a study on world alcohol consumption (PDF) performed by the WHO in 2004. If you scroll down to page 10, you’ll see a two-page table of alcohol consumption by country, in terms of litres of pure alcohol; Ireland ranks fourth in the world, after Uganda (!), Luxembourg, and the Czech Republic. The Irish consume, on average, 14.5 litres of pure alcohol per year; this is comparable to the French and the Germans (13.5 and 12.9 L/yr, respectively), but quite a bit higher than the UK at 10.4 L/yr, the Italians at 9.1 L/yr, and significantly higher than the USA at 8.5 L/yr.

For comparison, a US pint of 4.2% ABV beer, such as Guinness, contains about 0.02 L of pure alcohol. When Irish eyes are smiling, it may have something to do with the 600 imperial pints/year they’ve been consuming.

Hmm… I was going to suggest that this stereotype comes to us from an English viewpoint, who were fond of portraying the Irish as uncouth, drinking being part of that.

Anecdotes only here and no historical theorising or data.

I’m English but lived in Ireland for a long time. The amount of boozing I experienced was far greater in Ireland than in the UK. It was more socially acceptable to push the limits, and also seen as a default socialising behaviour. It’s pretty damn default here in England too, but not quite as universal, and not quite as common through all (adult) generations. Parents and their adult children go out for a “a few scoops” far more regularly than over here.

It’s the country where I had the conversation with a coworker: “did you go out last night?”

My coworker replied “No.”

“What did you do then?” I asked.

“Oh, I just went down the pub for a feed of pints.”

(The same guy got us thrown out of a works do for stealing food out of the kitchen when under the influence. I assumed he’d get reprimanded or fired - but the next day the bosses were laughing their heads off about the whole incident. Another contrast.)

I tend to find that the Irish people I know can hold their drink better than the English, to, and in ten years in Dublin, I saw two fights only; the same cannot be said for this country, alas.

My WAG would be that in the UK and USA most exposure to the Irish would be via immigration post-famine.

The immigrants would tend to be manual labourers (or other working-class types), who as a group in any society are more likely to drink vocally in groups.

You’d see large groups of navvies letting of steam in the pub - like any working young men do - but because there was no other reference point, you’d end up with the “all irish drink till they drop”.

This was one of my guesses. I know of a couple of elements of Irish culture that are actually part of Irish immigrant culture. For example, my husband didn’t SEE corned beef and cabbage until he came here. I believe that’s cheap immigrant food, not Irish food. The same can be said with certain naming trends. No respectable couple in Ireland would name their daughter Erin.

The answer about the post-1840 famine issues seems like another good candidate. Thanks for the input you guys!

From what I understand, corned beef became a substitute for Irish bacon by the New York Irish immigrants.

There is some things that I can comment on and other I can’t. This question falls in between those two extremes as I have been known to have partaken in nights of excess, but more importantly growing up in Toronto in the seventies following the irish flight after the onslaught of the troubles.

With that kind of a baclgound, I can say that alcohol was a part of life growing up. Not so much beer or guinness, each of those had its place. Beer would be an afternoon or after work drink while spirits like rye whiskey would be consumed later in the evening or at socials.

While it comes in cans and bottles now, guinness was never drunk from such conveyances. only from the tap and only in pubs.

Some one who was of age in Toronto in the early and mid seventies would probably remember what the price of alcohol was back then in relation to purchasing power, as most irish imigrants tended to be working poor.

As such meals tended to be staples such as potatos ,peas,beans with meatloaf , chicken, lamb chops for the meat and occasionally fish and some type of steak cut.

My parents never had a night life the way I knew it growing up. Had they stayed in Belfast, there were probably local pubs that they would have gone to, but in Toronto they had to make the social networks and meet up with other people that you would feel comfortable drinking with.

That’s important cause pre sixty nine Ireland in Belfast, life was demarcated to neighborhoods. So going to a downtown club for them would have been an alien concept.

The more common form of entertainment would be to have groups of relatives and select friends over for card games and talk about what ever was happening back home, generally speaking you fell into a “crowd”. While nobody got sloshed, a couple of 26’ers would have been a cheap night.

Nights out tended to fall in line with your particular club. You would go to a rented or donated church hall, and have irish music and dancing as well as what ever was top 40. Alcohol of all varieties was sold via tickets, that would have split between operating costs and funding club activities.

Again alcohol consumption was high, but getting out of control was heavily frowned upon. Not being able to handle your drink was unmanly.

To end this post, alcohol and the irish working poor were always intertwined, like anyone else breathing air. Its everyone else that’s decided to move on and declare alcohol to be dangerous.


Yeah, and just try to get Irish bacon in Iowa. Phhht. We’re dying for some. Attempts to have a butcher get it for us resulted in a blank stare. We’ve resorted to “streaky bacon” in the absence of the good stuff.

It is worth noting that Ireland has traditionally had a high level of abstinence too.

The figure for alcohol consumption in Luxembourg is apparently skewed by the fact that it is a popular boozing destination for people from its neighbouring countries.

Another historical factor in the Irish and alcohol consumption relationship would possibly be down to type of drink. Whereas (my impression is) the English have traditionally had ale, the French wine and Germans beer, whiskey has been popular here. Poitín, ‘rare auld mountain dew’ was distilled cheaply (and illegally) with ingredients available in abundance in this part of the world. It is still produced. If you have little to no economic power you might want more bang for your buck in your choice of tipple.

Interestingly ether seems to have been a popular drink in Ulster at one time.

God invented whiskey to stop the Irish from taking over the world. So far those measures have been successful.

It’s a few step process. First we open a pub in every country on earth.
Then Phase 2. Mwah!

Sure, but after phase 1, it’s awfully hard to recall what, exactly, phase 2 was supposed to be.

In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the perception was more that Britain as a whole was a nation of drunkards. The average Brit in 1700 was consuming over 1,000 pints of beer per year, and cultural documents from that time period tend to support a stereotype of all British, not just the Irish, as drunks.

The origins of this are, to some extent, due to the British consumption of beer instead of wine. Before the sanitation developments of the late 18th century, you have basically two choices in what you drink: grape-based alcohols, like wine, or grain-based alcohols, like beer or ale. Britain, unlike most of western Europe, focused on ale and (later) beer. There were several reasons for this

  • The Romans drank lots of wine, but didn’t have nearly the influence on British culture as many other western European nations. They looked down on beer as a barbarian, uncivilized drink - that perception lingered in France, Italy, and Spain, but not as much in Britain, Germany, or the Low Countries.
  • The climate is much more amenable to the production of the heavy grains like barley and wheat than for the production of grapes.
  • The nobility in England was immensely French-influenced for most of England’s history. At several periods, the English court spoke in French, and France dominated the culture of Europe. This made wine the fashionable thing to drink. However, it was much more expensive to drink, so it was usually a class distinction: poor people drank ale, rich people drank wine. If you know anything about Irish history and relations with England, you can see how this would lead to perceptions of Ireland as a beer-chugging nation.

Ale needed to be made freshly in medieval Europe and would quickly go sour, so it was made almost weekly. One of the duties of a medieval housewife was to brew ale in the home. When a family made extra, they’d raise a broom over the door to signal that ale was for sale, and they’d sell it by the pint to anyone who stopped by. This made for a sort of culture of drinking in early Britain - certain people were well known for making a good ale, which was valued by the local village. Larger villages would have public houses, pubs, dedicated to making quality ale every day. These became public gathering spots, since everyone needed to drink beer - it was the only drink available.

Why Ireland, and not the rest of Britain? Now, I’m just speculating on this part, but I’d guess the following:
-Ireland might not have received level of sanitation improvements that England received nearly as early due to the English/Irish relationship of abuse. So, ale and beer would continue to be essential.
-Ireland kept a perception up of being “lower class” than Britain, which was associated with boozing around.

But Phase 3 is definitely Profit!

Wanted to add one more to this:
-The Anglican church in the 19th and early 20th century would publish scathing attacks on drinking. The Irish didn’t hear much of this. Irish Catholicism is pretty unique, and has a lot more of a focus on personal, intimate friendships with local priests than many other forms of Christianity. It’s unlikely that the religious establishment in Ireland would take a similarly chastising tone - but, like I said, no evidence for this, just my guess.

I’m not 100% sure on this, but I’m moderately confident that whiskey was an upper-class drink for most of British history. English monarchs and nobles have whiskey in their stores; we don’t have too many accounts of whiskey-drinking peasants. Coulda been different in Ireland, though.

Edit: Looks like I was wrong, according to this article:
Gonna read it and report back soon. Point is, looks like whiskey became commonplace following the industrial revolution.