ah, go on…

I was at a reception last night, and since I was driving to and from the event I stuck to drinking water. In Ireland you can only have approximately one unit of alcohol in your bloodstream if you are driving (to be exact: 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood). Since it’s quite likely in the future that drivers will face a total ban on alcohol consumption I don’t indulge in the dhrink at all if I’m going to drive. It’s just easier (and safer).

Irish people do merit their reputation as hard drinkers. Of course, not everyone here is an alcoholic, but we grow up in a culture that condones and approves of boozing. This wasn’t such a problem when we were all on the dole (social welfare for those of you outside of Ireland), and didn’t have much spare cash. Now we’re more affluent and like teenagers gone mad with their first pay checks we’ve become a nation of binge drinkers.

When I was a postgrad at Trinity College I knew a number of American students who were doing courses at the university. One of them was an Irish American and would have witnessed her share of Irish booze hounds in the USA. I remember her commenting to me once, in the tones of a person who feels like she is committing treachery: “I always thought the image of the Irish being drunks was just a cultural stereotype, and then I lived in Ireland…”

Before my fellow countrymen saddle up their high horses and gallop away on them I will admit that of course we’re not all like this, but it is a cultural weakness. Going out with friends in Ireland and having the craic is an important social event. People who don’t drink at all are often viewed in a suspicious light. Not having to drink because you are driving is considered an acceptable, albeit punitive, necessity, but not participating in the sacrament of alcohol at all is nothing short of a character defect.

Now we’re in the Christmas festive season, and there are parties going on every night, it’s not easy steering clear of drink if you’re going to drive. The pressure to “just have the one” is extremely strong in this country especially at this time of the year. There’s a lot of free drink on offer, and people feel that having a celebratory drink with colleagues or friends is proof of their mutual affection. “Just say no” is the correct policy. After all, a recent report indicates that 37% of all fatal crashes in Ireland involved the consumption of alcohol, and was a factor in 62% of single vehicle crashes in 2003.

Last night, for instance, as I was paying my parking ticket I overheard a conversation between two women. One was suggesting that the other just take a taxi home and leave her car. The other woman, who didn’t sound intoxicated, replied, “I’ve paid for my parking already. I’m not really good to drive, but I’ll be alright.” Her friend made another attempt to wrangle her into a taxi, but the woman insisted on driving with the repeated statement “I’ll be alright.”

I really wish that was the only time I heard such a conversation in Ireland…