Position Paper on Irish Pubs

The role of the Pub in the Rise of Alcohol Abuse in Ireland

There is a growing concern in the Republic of Ireland over the dramatic rise in alcohol consumption and abusive drinking patterns, and the social problems that have resulted from this increase. This issue is not seen as an isolated problem, but one that runs throughout the entire Irish society.  This paper will make use of various published studies and reports, in order to assess the problem, specifically with regard to the role that the traditional Irish public house, commonly called a pub, and surrounding pub culture, has had on this emerging social issue. While the pub might be considered a relatively small arena within the larger Irish society, it can tell us a great deal about that larger society. For Kearns’s, A Dublin Pub Life and Lore, the pub is “a true microcosm of social life, reflecting the socio-economic ethos of its host community”(1996 3). This paper will clearly exonerate the pub as having a negative influence on the Irish people, and in fact, will show that the pub has a beneficial modulating effect on the abusive use of alcohol in Ireland.

<pages missing>

According to the study by the Strategic Task Force on Alcohol (STAFA) done in 2002, the Republic of Ireland scored relatively low, as compared to other European nations, in its consumption of alcohol.  This study looked at the total amount of alcohol consumed, but also and more importantly, the abusive use of alcoholic beverages such as binge drinking, drunk driving, and under age drinking.  The following chart shows that Ireland was the second lowest consumer in 1989, but in six short years, has risen to second place.  More interesting, while many countries show a decline in total consumption, only three, other than Ireland, show an increase.  And of those, only Ireland has had a dramatic increase in its consumption levels from 7.6 to 11.1 liters: a difference of 3.5 liters per capita.  This difference is an increase of 46%.  That is significantly higher than any other country outlined in the study, as the following chart details:

Figure 1. Appendix C Alcohol consumption per capita, in litres of pure alcohol.

1989-2000 – EU Countries

                            1989     1991     1993     1995     1997     1999     2000
Luxembourg        12.5      12.3      12.0      11.9      11.4      12.2      12.1
Ireland*               7.6         8.0        8.2        8.7        9.9       10.7      11.1
Portugal              10.4       11.6      10.7      11.0      11.3      11.0      10.8
France                12.8       11.9      11.5      11.5      10.9      10.7      10.5
Germany            10.4       10.9      10.4       9.9       10.8      10.6      10.5
Spain                  10.8       10.4       9.9       10.2      10.2       9.9       10.0
Denmark             9.6          9.9        9.7       10.0       9.9       9.5         9.5
Austria               10.3        10.3      10.1       9.8        9.5        9.3        9.4
Greece                8.4          8.6        9.2        9.0        8.8       8.9        8.0
Belgium               9.5          9.4        9.6        9.1        9.1       8.2        8.4
Netherlands         8.2          8.2       7.9        8.0        8.2        8.2       8.2
United Kingdom   7.6         7.4        7.4        7.3        8.1        8.1       8.4
Italy                      9.9         8.4        8.7        8.8        8.0        7.7       7.5
Finland                7.6          7.4        6.8        6.6        7.0       7.3       7.1
Sweden               5.6          5.5        5.3        5.3        5.1       4.9       4.9

Source: Strategic Task Force on Alcohol, (2002). “Interim Report.” p. 36.

<pages missing>

This increased consumption of alcoholic beverages is having a dramatic and deadly effect on the whole of the Irish society.  Fine Gael sums up the huge financial cost this abuse is having on Ireland:

“Alcohol abuse costs the people of Ireland around €2.4 billion every year.  That is €600 for every man, woman and child in the country.  This is money that would be better spent on education for our children, better spent on services for the elderly and better spent on healthcare for the sick.”

<pages missing>

An article by Margaret Burns, the Social Policy Officer with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, cites two important studies: The Report on Alcohol Misuse by Young People, issued by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children (June 2004) and the Second Report of the Strategic Task Force on Alcohol (September 2004).  These two reports provide some alarming statistics that highlight the already very high – the highest per capita consumption of all main EU countries – and increasing consumption of alcohol by the Irish people.  What follows are some summarized statistics from these reports:

In 1995, Ireland spent the equivalent of nearly 3.3 billion euro of personal income on alcohol.  By 2002, expenditure had risen to nearly 6 billion euro. The Strategic Task Force estimates the financial cost of alcohol-related harm in Ireland as 2.65 billion euro in 2003, equivalent to 2.6% of GNP.  The 2003 total represents an increase of 12% on an estimate of 2.36 billion calculated for 2001.

The Task Force Report makes clear that cause for concern relates not just to the overall consumption of alcohol among those who drink but to the pattern of drinking – the frequency of drinking and amount consumed on any one occasion.  A 2002 study of a number of European countries showed that: “Ireland had the highest reported consumption per drinker and the highest level of binge drinking” (Italics added).  This binge drinking included all age and social groups.

The article goes on to discuss the increase in random street violence, spousal abuse, road deaths, loss of jobs and productivity, all due to the abusive consumption of alcohol.  Even more troubling was the increase in drinking among the 12 to 15 age group of both sexes.  As Health Minister Micheal Martin put it, “There is no doubt that alcohol-related harm is one of the biggest public health issues facing Ireland today” (Speech 5 February 2003).

<pages missing>

The traditional Irish pub has been around for hundreds of years, and there were more pubs in the past, as a ratio of pubs to people, than there are currently.  While the history of Ireland does contain periods of over consumption of alcohol and its subsequent abuse, it was never at levels that they are experiencing today.  In addition, the pub, and pub business, has been in some decline over the past twenty years. The pubs are being replaced by nightclubs, so-called superpubs, and off-license (what we might call package goods stores) businesses.

Pub business, during its most prosperous periods, did not see this dramatic rise in alcohol consumption and abuse. There are reasons for this.  Pubs have been under strict laws requiring them to close at earlier hours than nightclubs and superpubs.  There is sufficient evidence to warrant the claim that it is not the traditional Irish pub that is to blame for this problem.  Some studies suggest it is the decline in the numbers of pubs, and the decline in the popularity of pubs, that helped to foster the abusive use of alcohol.  Perry Share says about pubs, “they may offer a real sense of continuity, regularity and order that is ‘fundamental to a sense of place, of time and of security’” (p188-9).  If pubs and pub culture contribute to the health of society, we would expect to see an increase in alcohol abuse as pubs decline, and that is exactly what we are seeing today.  The traditional Irish pub is not the problem, but it just might contain the social elements necessary to minimize the abusive use of alcohol.  Cian Molloy says,  “[t]he Irish pub is part of a living tradition; it is part of our unique culture and it deserves to be cherished and celebrated” (P 92).

<pages missing>

This recent and dramatic rise in alcohol consumption and abusive drinking habits is a complex and multi-faceted social problem. But the pub, and pub culture, is not one of the contributing influences. It is the pub that continues to provide the social glue maintaining relationships, community spirit, and the opportunity to reconfirm through storytelling, song and dance, that which makes the Irish, Irish.  Bringing back the pub culture, to its previous levels of success, while diminishing the new superpubs and nightclubs, will bring about a decline in the abusive consumption of alcohol.

Return to Portfolio