Home > Ireland, Irishness and alcohol: changing the relationship.

Leonard, Paula (2018) Ireland, Irishness and alcohol: changing the relationship. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 64, Winter 2018, pp. 16-17.

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In November 2017, over 150 people attended two timely events in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal as part of the fourth National Conference of the Alcohol Forum, which aimed to challenge the narrative around the cultural inevitability of alcohol harm in Ireland.

The conference ‘Ireland, Irishness and Alcohol: Changing the Relationship’ explored the historical, social and cultural factors that have shaped and maintained Ireland’s problematic relationship with alcohol and examined how notions of culture are exploited by the global alcohol industry. The conference offered new theoretical and policy perspectives for understanding, challenging and changing the Irish relationship with harmful drinking. It also brought together diverse speakers from Ireland and the USA and from a range of different disciplines. 

The opening event was a screening of the Irish-American film Emerald City in the Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny. The film explored the struggles with alcohol, mental health and identity among a group of Irish immigrant construction workers in 1990’s New York. The event was attended by film-maker Colin Broderick, who had travelled from the US to be part of the evening. A frank and honest panel discussion, exploring the impact of alcohol on families, was chaired by Denis Bradley, who was joined by Colin, Donna Butler from the Alcohol Forum’s Families Matter programme and Rachel Reisman from the Irish International Immigrant Center in Boston. 

A day-long conference was held the next day in Letterkenny Institute of Technology. Setting the context and providing information on the level of alcohol harm in Ireland, Dr Jean Long of the Health Research Board was the keynote speaker. She provided an analysis of the relationship between patterns of consumption and levels of harm in a population, highlighting the fact that in the 32-year period, 1984 to 2016, alcohol consumption in Ireland trebled and, despite an overall decrease since 2001, consumption in 2016 rose by 500 ml per person to 11.5 litres. 

There followed presentations by historian Dr Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, former dean of arts in NUI Galway, and social worker Rachel Reisman from the Irish International Immigrant Center. Dr Ó Tuathaigh explored some of the historical forces that shaped the construction of the negative Irish stereotype, including the description of the ‘native’ and ‘Gaelic’ as lesser, uncivilised and drunken at various points throughout a history of colonialism. He concluded that while stereotypes can be persistent they are by no means fixed or inevitable. A member of the Council of State, he also spoke about the potential power of symbolic leadership, referring to the entertaining of foreign dignitaries and heads of state at the Guinness Store House. With a rich history and heritage, there are vast opportunities for Government to show leadership on this issue. Rachel Reisman further emphasised the power of leadership in changing attitudes and breaking the stigma, pointing to the huge support there has been for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in making public his own recovery journey from alcohol. The chair for the morning session, RTÉ journalist Tommie Gorman, highlighted the power of including a diaspora perspective: ‘I think it’s a really clever programme; sometimes it’s useful to look at ourselves from the outside.’ 

The afternoon continued with the interdisciplinary approach, opening with global alcohol marketing expert Dr David Jernigan, former adviser to both the World Health Organization and the World Bank. This was followed by a presentation of the work of the National Community Action on Alcohol by Paula Leonard from the Alcohol Forum. Paula highlighted the growth in the numbers of communities which now have developed or are currently developing local community action on alcohol plans. Although diverse and responding to local needs, all plans are underpinned by a clear public health approach, including actions on issues such as licensing, advertising, availability and underage supply. In the plenary discussion, Dr Jernigan commended the work of the Community Action on Alcohol Programme and its clear focus on and understanding of a public health approach. Professor Frank Murray and Senator Frances Black joined the afternoon plenary session, with both calling for increased public support for the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015. Marian Harkin MEP, who chaired the afternoon discussion, welcomed the way in which the conference had approached the issues:

It is very clear from today that we are talking about the regulation of the alcohol industry and not about regulating the individual choices that people make. This is an important way of having the conversation and I congratulate you all on a brilliant event.

Tackling alcohol harm locally and globally will require action from a wide range of sectors and individuals. Involving film-makers, historians, social workers, public health experts and political representatives, the conference offered a broader approach to the issues, moving beyond health and enabling us to explore a variety of different perspectives. The formula, based on the feedback from many of those who participated on the day, worked.

About the Alcohol Forum

The Alcohol Forum supports children, families, individuals, and communities affected by alcohol. Founded in Donegal in 2007, the charity has a national programme aimed at delivering its vision of an Ireland where every child, family and community is free from the harmful effects of alcohol. Its work is an evidence-informed response to the harm caused by alcohol misuse in communities across Ireland. Since the Alcohol Forum’s formation as an interagency forum, the work of the charity has been underpinned by an understanding that partnership working and wide sectoral and community engagement are required for any real change to be achieved in reducing alcohol harm in Ireland. 

Alcohol Forum, Unit B9 Enterprise Fund Business Centre, Ballyraine, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal 

For more information, contact Mariclare Gallagher at mariclare@alcoholforum.org or phone 074 912 5596. Website: www.alcoholforum.org

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Issue Title
Issue 64, Winter 2018
February 2018
Page Range
pp. 16-17
Health Research Board
Issue 64, Winter 2018
Accession Number
HRB (Electronic Only)

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