Breaking the Code of Silence:
The Irish and Drink

Dr. Garrett O’Connor (from Irish America)

Why We Drink

Contemporary Irish drinking patterns, particularly drinking regularly to intoxication, have their roots in history where alcohol often made the difference between survival and death.

This propensity has been carried down in the Irish cultural DNA as a sort of unspoken dispensation for Irish Catholics to regard hard drinking as a justifiable consolation for 400 years of extreme poverty, shame, starvation and persecution suffered by their forebears under colonial rule, but which they themselves may never have endured.

The living conditions of the Irish peasantry during the 17th and 18th centuries were indeed abominable. Periodic famine led to life-threatening starvation, fatal diseases, illegal dispossession of lands through eviction, and forcible banishment to barren and inhospitable regions of the country. The miserable lot of Ireland’s Catholic poor declined to an even greater extent after 1691, when the draconian Penal Laws were introduced “to further impoverish the Irish, prevent the growth of Popery, and eliminate Catholic land ownership.”

By the early 1600s, heavy drinking was widespread among the peasant classes in Ireland (who were mostly Catholic and poor) and the aristocratic landowners (who were mostly Protestant and rich, with a small minority of Catholics).  Using land agents, many of whom were Catholic, landlords from both groups mercilessly exploited the small farmers and the cottiers for all they were worth – which was, in reality, next to nothing.

To dull the chronic pain of hunger and humiliation, the peasantry drank home-distilled poitin, made from potatoes or grain, while the upper classes guzzled imported beer, brandy and wine in massive amounts. At one time it was said that every second cottage had a poitin still, which could legally produce up to 12 gallons of uisgue beatha (Irish whiskey) at a time.

Around 1780, evicted tenants began to form secret societies such as Rapparees, Rockites and White Boys, to conduct terrorist activities against landlords and others thought to represent the hated colonial government. These dangerous guerrilla actions were usually carried out at night, by young men undoubtedly bolstered by generous draughts of high-quality poitin.

In the early part of the 19th century primogeniture was introduced, and this granting of land ownership to the firstborn male in the family, where previously the land had been divided up between the male heirs, produced a sizable group of unemployed single men – dubbed the bachelor group. For many of this group, manhood was defined by their tolerance for alcohol and physical pain. Their hard drinking and faction fighting activities were often supported by the community as a form of remission for the social and sexual privations they were expected to endure on behalf of society.

In the mid-19th century, a remarkable temperance crusade was initiated by Father Theobald Mathew, a Capuchin priest who, while working in the slums of Cork, managed to motivate his flock of drunken parishioners to rise above their alcohol and poverty-based indolence and despair by persuading them to take a pledge of total abstinence from alcohol. Father Mathew’s crusade was immensely successful, eventually resulting in hundreds of thousands of sober Catholics being willing and able to attend the “monster meetings” of Daniel O’Connell, which led to significant concessions being made to Catholics by the British Government beginning with the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.

Then came the death-dealing potato blight of 1845-1852, seven years of social, economic, and spiritual devastation. In just seven years, an entire class of Irish people (poor Catholics) came close to being wiped out by starvation, disease and British governmental policy, aided and abetted by land agents and others frequently drawn from the Irish Catholic middle classes. Even if genocide was not consciously intended, the forced migration during and after the famine of two million Irish Catholics to North America and elsewhere in the world jeopardized the nation’s future by destabilizing the intellectual, cultural, and political life of the country.

What awaited these emigrants in the land of promise was poverty worse than anything they had known in Ireland and a seemingly impenetrable wall of racial prejudice and religious discrimination.

In North America, alcoholism and chronic drunkenness took a frightful toll on the Irish immigrants in terms of economic failure, pathological family relationships, intimate and public violence, and crime.

With time and the growing success of the Irish immigrants in the American melting pot, assimilation rendered the Irish in the U.S. more culturally invisible. However, even today, hard drinking, alcohol dependence, shame and “keeping up appearances” are still detectable as historical undercurrents in the Irish Catholic community.

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