Ireland has a distinct relationship with alcohol and it holds unique position in Irish society. The Irish are known far and wide for their love of alcohol and for having ‘mighty craic altogether’. Its widely acknowledged alcohol features prominently in the cultural practices of everyday life in Ireland. However, Ireland’s relationship with alcohol is also full of contradictions. In contemporary Ireland you can find high levels of teetotalism coexisting along side high levels of binge drinking. Us Irish are a nation of binge drinkers, we drink less frequently than many of our European neighbours but we surpass many in our excess. We excuse our excessive thirst with meaningful and witty rationalisations ‘sure a bird cannot fly with one wing’ (even if the bird has four wings at this stage) or ‘one more for the road’ or ‘sure twould be rude not to!’ We also have more descriptions for being drunk than we do for describing the weather (which says something). Being drunk in Ireland might be described in over a hundred different ways, such as; a few too many, locked, annihilated, banjaxed, elephants, blotto, ossified, paralysed, plastered, stocious, tipsey, twisted, three sheets to the wind, and so on. So you might not be surprised if I were to tell you that Ireland has an ancient history of binge drinking. However, what might surprise you is that alcohol wasn’t always our binge drink of choice.
According to A.T. Lucas from the earliest times in Ireland ale and mead were common intoxicants, however, Lucas also tells us that alcohol wasn’t really that important to the ancient Irish. Despite alcohol’s lack of significance to our early ancestors, it nonetheless grew in popularity and Ireland’s oldest pub on Dublin’s Lower Bridge Street ‘The Brazen Head’ can be dated back to 1198AD. The first evidence of whiskey in Ireland originates to the medieval period and its distillation was widely practiced from the 15th century onwards. Although Irish law now prohibits private distillation of whiskey, groups of men have been known to brew poitin in the hills of rural Ireland. Our ancient history of alcohol production and use provides some insight into how alcohol may have developed such cultural significance in Ireland over time. However, ancient Irish binge drinking did not involve alcohol but rather milk!
It turns out our early ancestors were besotted by milk, they worshipped it and their daily life revolved around it. You might even go as far to say, the ancient Irish were mad about cows altogether. Cows provided hide, meat, currency and best of all milk! But it wasn’t just that the ancient Irish loved the taste of the white stuff, they placed huge significance in the act of drinking it. In ancient Ireland hospitality was a duty, and milk held huge significance in our ancient hospitality rites. In fact to refuse a drink in ancient Ireland was to cause great offence, and was considered to be a hostile and aggressive gesture. The famous Irish comic caricature Mrs Doyle and her pushy tea offerings is an example of the modern day remnant of our historical duty to hospitality. To the ancient Irish milk wasn’t just important because it featured in our customs of hospitality, milk was to become affiliated with the miracles of early Irish saints. St. Fechin of Fore, St. Bridgid, St. Ciaran of Saigher, St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise and St. Samthanne all performed miracles with milk. The magical white stuff retained its importance in Ireland right up until the end of the 17th century. In 1690, Stevens an observer of natives in Co. Limerick noted that the Irish were the greatest lovers of milk he’d ever known. Stevens witnessed the Irish eating and drinking milk ‘twenty several sorts of ways’, but most weirdly of all these Limerick inhabitants enjoyed milk best when it was sour!
Our love of milk was eventually surpassed by our love of alcohol. In the mid 19th century academics and observers of Irish life noticed the harmful consequences of our Celtic thirst for alcohol. The inclination for Irish people to enjoy a tipple or three was attributed to Ireland’s climate, a tendency for Irish people to replace food with alcohol, and a lack of alternatives to alcohol. However, not all Irish people succumbed to the Celtic thirst within them, and the legacy of what was known as the Irish Temperance League remains evident today in the number of Irish people who abstain from drinking alcohol. The Irish Temperance League was a group of individuals who sought to alleviate social problems caused by alcohol through promoting teetotalism. The obsessive Irish pastime of tea drinking originates from the Irish Temperance League movement, were advocates of alcohol abstention encouraged tea drinking as an alternative. The Celtic thirst knows no bounds and the Irish took to drinking tea with the same enthusiasm as they had for milk and alcohol.
Our Celtic thirst has ancient roots and our love for liquids (be it tea, milk or booze) is engrained in our cultural fibre and national identity. We may have always been a nation of drinkers, however, our contemporary binge drinking is doing us a lot more harm than our calcium rich cocktails of the past!
 Share et al, 2007
 Loughran, 2010
 A.T. Lucas, 1960
 Cited in A.T. Lucas, 1960
 Blaney, 1974
© Clay Darcy, February 2014
Blaney, R. (1974) ‘Alcoholism in Ireland: Medical and Social Aspects’, Journal of The Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, Vol. XXIII, Part I, pp. 108-124.
Loughran, H. (2010) ‘Drunk Talk: A Language for Intoxication’, Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, Vol. 54, (1), pp. 7-13.
Lucas, A.T. (1960) ‘Irish Food before the Potato’, Gwerin – A Half-Yearly Journal of Folk Life, Vol. III, No. 2, pp. 8-43.
Share, P., Tovey, H., and Corcoran, M.P. (2007) A Sociology of Ireland (Third Edition), Dublin: Gill & MacMillan.