Day Devoted to Hoisting Guinness Starts to Leave a Bitter Taste

DUBLIN ”” Bars across Ireland will be thronged on Thursday with early evening drinkers. Groups of inebriated young people will be staggering around the streets, and hospital emergency rooms will be packed.

From The New York Times

No, this is not St. Patrick’s Day. It is Arthur’s Day ”” an annual paean to Guinness first concocted by marketing gurus in 2009 to promote the 250th anniversary of the drink so intimately associated with Ireland.

But to a growing chorus of critics, it is becoming a national embarrassment. Eamonn McCann, a journalist and political activist, put it succinctly in  his column  in The Belfast Telegraph. “Has there ever been a scam like Arthur’s Day,” he wrote, “as contemptuous of the people it targets, as disrespectful of the culture and especially of the music it misuses to make its play, as depressing in the extent to which the people made fools of simper with pleasure and cry out for more?”

Diageo, the multinational drinks company that owns the Guinness brand, says the shindig brings together three celebrated strands of Irish culture: Guinness, the pub and music. Its promotional material exhorts people “to paint the town black” ”” the color of a Guinness stout ”” and calls the day “a remarkable celebration of those who make things happen.”

The company is promoting the 1759 anniversary year to encourage people to be in a bar by 5:59 p.m. (or 17:59) to raise a glass to Arthur ”” that’s Arthur Guinness, the brewery’s founder.

Diageo’s critics say that it is all an empty ritual aimed at promoting the company’s brands, and that there is nothing to celebrate in binge drinking. Although Diageo is at pains to emphasize a message of drinking responsibly, there were reports of a 30 percent increase in ambulance calls in central Dublin after last year’s event. Dr. Stephen Cusack, a physician in Cork, likened the streets of that city to the “last days of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

This year, over 1,000 musicians are scheduled to perform at 500 locations across Ireland, with smaller events taking place in 43 countries including Malaysia, Spain, Singapore, Italy, Indonesia, Germany and the United Arab Emirates. In Ireland, the expected acts will range from local up-and-coming talent to more well-known names like Bobby Womack, The Script and  Emeli Sandé.

The 2009 promotion was hailed as a tremendous success, not only by Diageo but also by many hard-pressed publicans, whose businesses have come under severe pressure from the economic downturn, below-cost sales of alcohol in supermarkets, antismoking legislation and, in the case of rural pubs in particular, a crackdown on drunken driving.

In the three years since then, politicians have also been eager to talk up the tourism potential of Arthur’s Day, and the Irish news media have carried overwhelmingly uncritical coverage of the events associated with it, generating enormous free publicity for the Guinness brand.

But a backlash has begun in earnest, with an unlikely alliance of critics blasting the event on health, cultural and even artistic grounds.

In many ways, the day has been caught in the cross-fire of an increasingly heated debate about society’s relationship with alcohol.  Alcohol Action Ireland, a group campaigning for policy changes, estimates that alcohol is so cheap in Irish supermarkets it takes the equivalent of only an hour’s work at minimum wage to buy the weekly recommended intake.

Dr. Stephen Stewart, director of the Center for Liver Disease at the Mater Hospital in Dublin, said this week in a statement that cirrhosis of the liver was reaching epidemic proportions across Ireland, particularly among younger people, the age group most likely to fill the bars on Thursday night.

“We have a progressively worsening relationship with alcohol in Ireland, which manifests itself in the increasing numbers of young people dying from alcohol-related illnesses,” he said. “Alcohol is more affordable than ever. Alcohol is more acceptable than ever. Alcohol is more available than ever. We need measures to address this epidemic. Where does Arthur’s Day fit into all of this?”

Echoing that sentiment, Dr. Frank Murray, chairman of the policy group on alcohol of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, branded the day “irresponsible.”

Yet for many local entertainers who are short of cash, Arthur’s Day provides much-needed income. Many of them express misgivings in private but can ill-afford to pass up a paycheck.

That changed somewhat this year, when some prominent artists derided the event. Though still relatively few in number, their voices have been growing louder, foremost among them Ireland’s best-known folk singer,  Christy Moore. Mr. Moore called the day “Arthur’s Alcoholiday” and questioned the promotion of the symbiotic relationship between alcohol and Irish culture.

Mike Scott, the founder of  The Waterboys, and Steve Wall, the lead singer with  The Stunning, have  joined those  calling for a boycott.

“Paint the town black? My town is already black with unemployment, shootings, depression, a lack of paying gigs and a lack of Irish artists on daytime radio,” Mr. Wall wrote on his Facebook page. “No thanks Diageo … go paint your own town black. We need some light.”

However, advocates of personal responsibility note that Diageo is not forcing Guinness down anyone’s throat. They claim the day has become an easy target for groups that advocate greater regulation for alcohol.

Speaking this week on RTE radio, a Diageo executive said the company would continue to sponsor the event as long as the public backed it.

And that may be the rub. With the event having generated huge debate this year in mainstream and social media, some commentators have begun to wonder if the publicity-attuned Diageo may ultimately decide that  the hangover simply is not worth it.