Irish Times, We’re consumed by alcohol

3 March 2012

By Mick Heaney

RADIO REVIEW: IN TERMS OF predictable answers, asking whether Ireland has a problem with alcohol is up there with inquiries about the pope’s religious persuasion or where bears deposit their waste. But it is a question presenters rarely tire of posing.

On Tuesday, Tom Dunne (Newstalk, weekdays) opened his show by speculating on the extent of drinking in Irish society: “Is it as bad as people make it out to be?” It was clearly meant as a rhetorical query. Dunne was joined by Niamh Elliott, a former alcoholic now working with similarly addicted people, who felt drink was so ingrained in the country’s life that it almost ended hers.

Brought up in a teetotal household, Elliott started drinking as a teenager. As a twentysomething, she was consuming alcohol daily. In the grip of depression when she turned 30, she gave up drink after being arrested over an argument with a taxi driver. Now, nearly 10 years on and “lucky to be alive”, she felt Ireland was in denial about its drink habits.

Only once in the throes of her addiction did friends ask if she had a problem; the psychiatrists treating her never inquired if she drank too much; nor did gardaí, despite her threat to kill herself after her arrest. Yet drink was the root cause of all her woes, she believed; her depression lifted after she became sober. Had others been willing to intervene to stop her drinking, Elliott suggested, her life might have been different, but Irish people baulked at such behaviour.

Presenter and guest offered little in the way of practical advice, however, beyond Elliott’s vague wish for doctors and gardaí “to put things in place”.

Personal responsibility was not talked about much. Instead, Dunne concentrated on the human-interest aspect of his guest’s story, though at times he sounded awkward in the face of Elliott’s unhappy experiences.

As the father of two young daughters, Dunne wanted to know more about the matter – but it did not sit well with his cheerful persona. He seemed more at ease interviewing Julia Donaldson about her books for children, or the boxer Bernard Dunne about his efforts to learn Irish. The results made for more appealing radio, too.

Alcohol abuse also featured heavily on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), as the issue of cheap drink promotions came under the spotlight. On Monday, Joe Duffy spoke to Joe Murphy, a Belfast man whose son Joby had drowned in the Lagan after bingeing on  £1 vodka shots. If it was heartbreaking to hear the gruff dad still refer to his son in the present tense – “We know he can’t drink,” he said at one point – it was even more poignant when Murphy spoke of his family’s “elation” at the recovery of Joby’s body, a month after he went missing.

Duffy handled the interview with tact and empathy, while highlighting the potentially tragic consequences of the cheap alcohol nights now prevalent across the country. It was the presenter at his most effective, using traumatic personal tales to draw out a wider theme. The same could not be said for the contributions that followed, however, with the discussion soon descending into impractical solutions and emotive laments.

One caller, Brenda, suggested anyone who could afford to drink could also pay for costs caused by bad behaviour, which, as Duffy noted, rather missed the key point about drink being so cheap. Another woman, Grace, reprimanded the Government – who else? – for doing nothing while “society is drinking itself into oblivion”.

There were some interesting asides, such as one caller’s observation that Irish publicans are abrogated from responsibility for alcoholic misbehaviour, unlike their American counterparts. But the spluttering tone of the debate yielded little cogent argument, never mind useful solutions.

It fell to Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan to give the most telling, if inadvertent, testimony about alcohol’s intractable position in Irish life.

Interviewed by Matt Cooper on The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays) about the possibility of drinks companies being banned from sponsoring sporting and cultural events, Deenihan was unenthusiastic. Reeling off the numerous arts festivals thus sponsored (and meticulously namechecking the drinks brands involved), the Minister said an immediate ban would prevent such events taking place, and probably cost jobs to boot. He also said that while Ireland had a “major drink problem”, it was difficult to prove a direct link between alcohol abuse and sponsorship: he personally had “never seen overindulgence at arts events”. When Fiona Ryan of Alcohol Action Ireland pointed out that sponsorship was ultimately just another way of marketing drink, Deenihan reiterated that prohibiting it could see us “lose out culturally and economically”.

As an example of the ambivalent Irish attitude to alcohol, it was hard to beat. Talk about a culture of drink.

Radio moment of the week

The euro-zone crisis has undoubtedly allowed Germany to wield more influence over indebted EU partners, but characterising the referendum-bound fiscal compact as a mere stepping stone to Teutonic hegemony is perhaps a tad simplistic. Still, if they wish to calm fears about their ultimate aims, German politicians should probably steer clear of certain historically loaded phrases, particularly the one used by Dr Michael Fuchs on Monday’s News at One (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Discussing the Bundestag’s fraught ratification of the second Greek bailout, the German MP doubted whether the latest rescue package represented the, ahem, “final solution”.