Of all the stereotypes that exist, perhaps one of the more well-known and even celebrated is that of the drunken Irishman. It is the subject alone that causes gales of laughter, reasons to cheer and carry on, and of course, another reason for those who share such a lineage to drink. On the outside it seems harmless, a bit of good humor to alleviate any and all problems that one might face in a round of everyday life. The balm of alcohol is in fact a pleasant escape for many into a hazy, self-induced euphoria that for many is a relaxing episode free of cares and worries, at least until the buzz wears off and reality comes creeping back in. At that point some will fess up the responsibilities of their life, while others will grab another pint.
The tale of the Irish being loud and obnoxious drunkards is one that stems from a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, what Irishmen were perceived to be was what they became. Built up by Irish expatriates in Britain, the USA, and many other locations, the reputation of the Irish to be loud, drunken louts is one that has been widely accepted and taken as factual rather than the problem as it should be.
It takes some looking, but if one seeks long and deep enough they can find that the overlying image of the average Irishman has its roots back within the 19th century, when untold numbers of Irish emigrated to other lands seeking to make their fortune or at least their way in a new world. At that time many of them had nothing, no land, few desired skills other than to be hired hands, and practices such as piety and the need to adhere to clans that was seen as backwards and rather strange to many others.
The unfortunate dislocation from their homeland, the overwhelming poverty, a dreaded sense of alienation, and an overall feeling that they were failures proved to be just enough to send many of them slinking into the nearest bottle. (Roughneen, 2003) While it is not the most positive of roles, the Irish had through their escapism into drink found a niche within their new surroundings, a role that they could easily fulfill and sought to do without much hesitation.
This identity for Irish men was not selected by their own hand, but rather foisted upon them by circumstance and the blind, ignorant attitudes that were so prevalent in the time period that saw them become so notorious for such behavior. In truth the Irish are possessed of a culture and history that is rich in texture and fraught with conflict. From their earliest beginnings to the present date they have known great hardship and endured, from the time when Rome held in its grasp the whole of the British Isles to the era when England held sway over their country, imposing ridiculous, demanding taxes that forced many people from lands that had been in their family for generations. Still the Irish kept moving forward, ever determined, and ever driven under the heel of one swindler after another.
Perhaps one of the most telling and damning times in their history came during the Great Famine that occurred between 1840 to 1852, when the Irish were seen to immigrate towards Boston, New York, and other cities in great numbers. (Gone to America, 2000) It was during this time that the Irish gentleman knew the greatest struggle, particularly in the manner in which he was depicted.
Spoken of in poems and depicted, albeit inaccurately, in media and film, the plight of the Irishman during this period is rife with shortcomings and all the trappings of a poverty-laden culture. From stepping off of the boat into a new land where their ways were considered backwards, alien, and unwanted, the Irish were seen as a pestilence by some and a means of competition by others. Native workers openly fought against Irish laborers that could perform unskilled labor for far less than an American would demand, and thus did the Irish find themselves under attack by yet another cruel and capricious set of dictators as they were forced to scrap and scrape for every last piece of the American dream they could find. Those who came to America to seek fortune soon found little more than cramped, infested hovels some of which by virtue of being near the docks would flood with every tide. In effect they traded one cruel landlord for another, thereby adding to the misery they lived in.
While this was not the norm of Irish males throughout the USA during this time it was still the public face that Irishmen were forced to wear, that of the ill-tempered drunkard that simply lived to drink and loved to fight. It was an image that Irishmen the world over are still held to, and one that some actually seem to enjoy.
Ask an average group of Irishmen what it means to drink, why they have so many different toasts, songs, and reasons to drink. It is, simply put, something that is done. In the words of journalist Sean Collier, “The Irish pull up a bar stool like we turn on the TV — at the end of your day, that’s just the next thing you do”. (Collier, 2012) Of course this is not to indicate that all Irish are drunkards, but in the view of many, Americans in general, this is not acceptable behavior, nor does it do anything other than confirm the stereotype. The phrase, “to thine own self be true” doesn’t seem to apply in public opinion when it comes to certain subjects.
Alcoholism is a very serious condition, and if left untreated can not only destroy a person physically, but can also damage them emotionally and leave those around them just as damaged for the emotional and mental harm that can be done. Statistically speaking it is one of the most ruinous habits/diseases in Ireland and it is reported that roughly every seven hours a death will occur as a result of overconsumption of alcohol. (Alcoholism in Ireland, 2014) While this number might very well be exaggerated it is still a very real problem, and there are more than a few reasons why.
Underage drinking is prevalent in Ireland, and while it is not the norm it is still considered tolerated behavior. Alcohol is easy to obtain and thanks to the need to undercut competitors many places of business continue to lower their prices, which makes it far easier for those living on fixed incomes to gain access to an alcoholic beverage. Historically it is seen that those of less income, without higher education, and without much more than they absolutely need to survive stand a greater chance of turning to alcohol to lessen the sting of their day to day lives, and for the Irish, this is yet another reason to maintain the status quo they’ve affected for so long.
Philosopher, professor, and novelist Linda Martin Alcoff says it best when she states in her book, Visible Identities, that “In the heated debates over identity politics, few theorists have looked carefully at the conceptualizations of identity assumed by all sides.” (Alcoff, 2005) It is a broader statement than has been made thus far, but still an important clarification in the assumption of a culture, gender, or even race. The issue at hand is just as much one of choice as it is of social stigmas being applied to something that is not fully understood. It is not entirely fair to say that to be Irish is to be a drunkard, anymore than to say that to drink is to be Irish.
It is a generalization that many have made throughout history and one that a culture has allowed itself to become known for around the world. Few would debate the fact that Ireland is by far one of the nation’s most afflicted with alcoholism, and fewer still would deign to break down the stereotype. While it is in fact a point of shame for some, it is a point of pride for others, and a means of waylaying matters that might otherwise force far too many to look too closely at their lives and find naught but despair. That is an excuse without question, but it is still a reason, and one that many use, not just in Ireland, but throughout the world. Alcoholism is not felt just by those who are supposedly the best known for it, as it is an issue that strikes at every gender, race, and culture in some way.
Ironically, for all that the country is known to enjoy their drink, Ireland does in fact have its own set of rules that its inhabitants tend to adhere to often enough. Despite the overconsumption and rotting of livers throughout the country, there is decorum, and far more than can be seen in other countries when it comes to drinking. A few of those rules are quite simple, such as the simple passing out from drinking too much. While it is a favored pastime of some, it is a habit best done in one’s own home, in a bed where none will dare to kick the person out. (Collier, 2012) That small bit of decorum, that one small show of manners is astounding when compared to the overbearing, drunken lout image that much of the world harbors about Ireland.
The drinking, bingeing, falling down drunk image of the average Irish male is a stereotype that is burned into the public mind without fail, but the true problem that lies behind it is one that is a worldwide epidemic, and in no way about to be cured. As to Irishman’s Curse, while it is indeed an issue that needs to be dealt with, it is also a way of life, and one that is celebrated in the best of times, and tolerated in the worst.
Alcoff, Linda Martin. (2005) Visible Identities. Oxford University Press
Roughneen, Simon. (2003) Ireland’s alcoholic curse. Open Democracy: free thinking
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Collier, Sean. (2012) 11 Rules for Drinking Like a Real Irishman: How to spend your St.
Patrick’s Day drinking as authentically as possible. Pittsburgh Magazine. Retrieved from
Gone To America. (2000) The Irish Potato Famine. The History Place. Retrieved from
Alcoholism in Ireland. (2014) alcoholrehab.com. Retrieved from