Breaking the Code of Silence:
The Irish and Drink

The Irish and Drink

By Dr. Garrett O'Connor, Contributor

“Drinking in Ireland is not simply a convivial pastime, it is a ritualistic alternative to real life, a spiritual placebo, a fumble for eternity, a longing for heaven, a thirst for return to the embrace of the Almighty.”

– John Waters

We Irish are known for being courageous, compassionate, spiritual, creative, difficult, resourceful, witty, sad,  lovable, clannish, hot headed, devious, self-destructive and brilliant. Sociologists agree that we have been the most successful and accomplished immigrant group in the United States, with the possible exception of the Jews. Since our arrival in the U.S. in the early 1700s we have excelled in business, education, medicine, the law, religion, the military, entertainment, construction, professional sports, and, last but certainly not least, politics and organized crime.

For all that success, it is sad to say that we are still known as a race of drunks.

Not all of us, of course, but more than enough to provide a statistical basis for this unfortunate stereotype. A 2009 Irish Health Board Report showed that 54 percent of respondents (about 2.14 million adults out of a population of 4.2 million) engage in harmful or risky drinking each year, compared to a European average of 28 percent.

With respect to the problem of alcohol abuse and dependence in Ireland, John Waters, a controversial and crusading Irish journalist, stated the following: “Drinking in Ireland is not simply a convivial pastime, it is a ritualistic alternative to real life, a spiritual placebo, a fumble for eternity, a longing for heaven, a thirst for return to the embrace of the Almighty.” Irish drinking patterns are, he writes, “evidence of a deep hole in the Irish psyche which only alcohol can fill.”

Widespread hard and harmful drinking is also a serious social and public health problem among Irish Americans today, not to mention the family trouble, shame and enabling silence that often accompany it.

Breaking the national silence about alcohol abuse and dependence in Ireland and Irish America needs to become a priority. Breaking the silence, and spreading the message that recovery is possible.

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.

Legacy of Shame

The net effect of religious persecution, land rape, extreme poverty and intermittent abuse of military power by English colonists in Ireland during 700 years of continuous occupation was to produce a national inferiority complex in Irish Catholics which I identify as cultural malignant shame, characterized by chronic fear, suppressed rage, self-loathing, procrastination, low self-esteem, false pride and a vulnerability to use  alcohol as remission for suffering – past and present.

In addition, and because of malignant shame, there is often a tendency to keep the behavior of problem drinkers a secret from the outside world. Under these circumstances of silence and denial, the family can become seriously isolated from the community, and dangerously deprived of vital access to dependable sources of emotional support and growth.

In Ireland, the demise and fall of the Celtic Tiger has brought the ghost of colonialism back in the guise of unemployment, eviction, forced emigration and unconscionable national debt which has, once again, plunged large segments of the Irish population into a state of terror, despair and cultural malignant shame not seen since the post-famine years of the mid 19th century. In consequence, alcohol-related family breakdown, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, drunken driving, motor fatalities and suicide have all increased significantly in Ireland during the past five years without any end in sight.

As I am writing this, there are about 110,000 children in Ireland, aged 14 years or younger, living in families affected by parental alcohol abuse. In the United States, more than nine million children, of whom about at least one million are of Irish descent, currently live in chaotic homes with addicted parents or other caretakers.

Through the genetic gift of natural resilience, some young children will emerge unscathed, and even stronger, from these stressful beginnings. However, many will not. These children’s lives may be attenuated by their response to traumatic childhood experiences, which, encoded in the brain, may manifest themselves later during adolescence or young adulthood in the form of alcohol and other drug abuse, learning difficulties and behavior problems.

My Story

For 25 years I drank like a fish, and, to date, I have spent 35 years in abstinent recovery from the disease of alcoholism, trying to make amends for the damage I did to myself and to others through drinking. I have also logged 31 years of professional experience as an addiction psychiatrist, helping other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.

My own family history is, perhaps, a classic example of how alcoholism can be handed down from one generation to another. Over a period of more than one hundred years, alcohol has wreaked havoc on many lives, careers and relationships in our family. There is an extensive history of alcoholism on the paternal side – a grandfather, several uncles, an aunt and a male cousin all died from the disease. My mother was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs, and smoked two to three packs of cigarettes a day. My father was a heavy drinker in his later years, and an older brother died of cancer after 13 years of sobriety. An alcoholic uncle-in-law on my mother’s side used to steal bottles of whiskey from my father’s liquor cabinet when he visited the house. Like the Artful Dodger or Harpo Marx, my uncle always wore a heavy overcoat which he never took off during his visits, regardless of the weather. It was equipped with two gigantic pockets, each of which was big enough to accommodate a couple of bottles of Jameson’s 12-year-old Green Spot Whiskey – my father’s favorite, and my uncle’s too. I remember feeling both sad and embarrassed when my father would insist on searching my uncle for contraband whiskey on his way out the door after a visit. Despite these risk factors, we were a successful family and both of my parents were distinguished professionals who were widely respected and admired in the community.

An attack of tuberculosis when I was 12 was treated at home with bed rest for eight months and up to three pints a day of Guinness’ Stout. At first, I hated the taste of the bitter black liquid and would often throw it down the toilet. But gradually I developed cravings for the relaxing effect of the alcohol – so much so that I took to searching the house for places where I thought my mother might have concealed her clandestine bottles of cheap South African sherry. This uniquely Irish treatment for TB launched me on the path to hard drinking by the age of 18, and to full-blown alcoholism by the time I was 27 or 28.

The atmosphere in the house where I grew up, although loving in its own way, was also fraught with anxiety and laced with secrets. I remember that I was constantly on edge, anticipating Vesuvian outbursts of temper that could erupt without warning from any person or any direction at any time. The secrets were usually cloaked references to my mother’s ill health, or sordid stories describing the eccentric behaviors of other alcoholic relatives, which were attributed to everything under the sun except drink. Undeclared feuds within the family were frequent, and led to significant distress because any attempt to identify or uncover them would be met by strong denial from all concerned. I recall feeling fear and shame at the prospect of being found wanting in anything I did, and as a result, felt chronically inferior and usually wrong, even when I knew I wasn’t. At the age of 11 or 12, I witnessed at close quarters two violent attacks on my mother by adult members of my family – one of which was alcohol-related.

On June 26th, 1960, after six years of happily drinking my way through medical school in Dublin, I left for the U.S. at the age of 23 with my wife and our five-month-old son.

Sadly but predictably, I carried many of these post-traumatic attitudes and behaviors from my family of origin into my two families of choice, and into my work environment. My first marriage ended in divorce after ten years, mainly because of my increasingly out-of-control daily drinking.  I was not a very good husband in either of my marriages, nor an attentive father to my two children.  To my undying shame, I turned up late for the births of both of my sons because I was drinking, and I once assaulted my beloved second wife in a drunken rage.

While my life at home was deteriorating rapidly, my professional career as an academic psychiatrist was beginning to attract a modicum of recognition. Even though my behavior at work and elsewhere was often bizarre and irresponsible because I was a “black-out” drinker, I was rarely taken to task for it by friends and colleagues on the grounds that I was “Irish!” and therefore expected to be witty, outrageous, argumentative and entertaining. I was arrested and jailed for DUI in Culpepper, Virginia, and was forcibly taken into “protective custody” by the police on two occasions – once in Montreal and once in Hibbing, Minnesota – to prevent me from being seriously injured in bar fights that I had started.

Neither individual nor couples psychotherapy was able to halt the inexorably downward course of my alcoholism. Efforts to stop drinking on my own usually ended prematurely with a drunken binge. Eventually, I resigned my post at a major university about two weeks before I would have been asked to leave by an academic committee which had been set up to investigate my erratic conduct and inconsistent work performance. By this time, my marriage was on the rocks, our children had developed serious alcohol and drug problems, and I was hiding out at home in a state of chronic malignant shame and despair, unable and unwilling to work. I was physically and emotionally ill, and sometimes even suicidal, although I never made a deliberate attempt to end my life. I was morally, spiritually and financially bankrupt.

Three months following my departure from the university, I accepted a lucrative and permanent professional position, but was let go after a few weeks because I was caught drinking on the job.

That’s when I finally hit bottom and sought help through a well-known organization of men and women who share their experience strength and hope to help other alcoholics to get sober. I attend meetings regularly, and I follow a program involving 12 simple shame-reduction steps which help me to maintain my physical and mental health to the best of my ability, and to practice good citizenship in terms of being socially accountable and responsible to others. The program also suggests that I make amends to my family members and others for the damage and hurt I caused them through my drinking. With fellow members of the group I try to carry the message of recovery to other alcoholics who still suffer.

I have now been sober from alcohol for 35 years, and my personal and professional life in recovery has improved dramatically. I have also logged 31 years of professional experience as an addiction psychiatrist helping other alcoholics to achieve sobriety. After a successful run in private practice (1981-2003), I joined the Betty Ford Center in 2002 as Chief Psychiatrist and today I serve as President Emeritus of the Betty Ford Institute. My wife has attained 27 years of sober recovery, and both of our sons, now major business owners in their own right, are also in long-term recovery.  One of our daughters-in-law has 24 years of recovery, and our 26-year-old granddaughter has just celebrated six years of sobriety.

Tragically, however, two of our family members didn’t make it into recovery. Our heroin and cocaine addicted daughter-in-law committed suicide by gunshot on her thirty-first birthday, leaving behind our granddaughter, then aged five. A few years afterwards, my nephew, who was addicted to alcohol and cocaine, shot himself at the age of 33.

While my family story exemplifies the transmission of alcohol dependence across five generations, it also shows that recovery with all its gifts and miracles can be transmitted in the same way – in our case three generations and counting.

By now, many of you reading this may be wondering why I am willing to reveal these family intimacies in a public forum. At the risk of exposing myself to criticism and contempt, I do so, with permission from members of my immediate family,  in order to break the chains of shame and denial that bind us all to life-long silence about alcohol abuse and dependence outside the protected confines of the confessional and the therapist’s office. I share my story to spread the word that recovery is possible, no matter how deeply one has fallen into a deadly abyss of shame and despair.


Up to now, the pain and suffering caused by alcoholism, which plays such a central role in Irish and Irish American life, has been depicted in literature, drama, poetry and song where it can be contemplated from a comfortable distance without significant personal identification or involvement. To get at the truth of the matter requires a realistic and fearless confrontation with the ugly, destructive and dangerous consequences of untreated alcohol abuse and dependence in society, as well as an awareness of the shame-based system of economic, social, psychological, religious, political and cultural denial that has evolved over the centuries to banish the problem from public consciousness.

It is only recently that a small group of very courageous writers and historians have been willing to lift the veil of denial from the face of Irish culture to reveal and confront the truth about the past and to embrace our responsibility for whatever role we may have played in causing it.

In addition to the Irish journalist John Waters, Irish American writers such as Pete Hamill, Frank and Malachy McCourt, and singer Judy Collins, in her memoirs, have already contributed much to the process of breaking the silence by generously sharing their personal experiences for the greater good of alcoholics and other addicts who still suffer, as well as for those of us who have been hurt by their behavior.

The reality and social dimensions of these disorders, including what we as individuals and a society, may be doing to perpetuate the problem, must be defined and accepted before anything can be done to heal the social wound. Most importantly, formal efforts to address the problem must be led by individuals whose fundamental understanding of alcohol abuse and dependence is based on personal recovery, and a broad knowledge of scientific advances in the field of addiction that now promise an excellent prognosis for recovery if treatment is followed.

We must establish forums for recovery  guided by principles of peace and honest reconciliation instead of shame, blame and punishment. Only in this way will those of us who have been caught in the knackers grip of alcohol abuse or dependence be free to share our shame, our guilt and our responsibility for the damage we caused in the spirit of true forgiveness and the hope for recovery.

Getting Help

First, try to realize that you are not alone, that alcohol problems are readily treatable, and that full recovery is possible no matter how hopeless you think your case might be. Keep in mind that denial and procrastination are hallmarks of the malignant-shame syndrome that has kept you – and perhaps your family members as well – silent for so long  That was certainly true in my case.

Try not to get caught up with the endless argument about whether alcoholism is a disease or a bad habit. If alcohol is a problem for you or your family, the difference doesn’t matter, and worrying about it will only delay or even prevent you from seeking the help you need. You can sort out the argument once you are in recovery.

Look over a list of people you know who might be in recovery and try to meet with them to share your fear and shame about your situation. Believe me, they will understand, and will embrace you in friendship and admiration for your courage in making the approach. This is what I did, and it saved my life. ♦


The following websites offer useful and reliable information about alcohol abuse and how to seek help:

Alcoholics Anonymous

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism


National Council on Seniors Drug & Alcohol Rehab


The author is grateful to Tony Scully, whose love and support gave him the confidence to begin and continue this exploration of Irish drinking.

44 Responses to “Breaking the Code of Silence:
The Irish and Drink”

  1. Peg Greenwood says:

    David slew Goliath with a slingshot and a stone. O’Connor is slaying an even mightier foe with his pen – addiction!

  2. Gareth O’Connor is a man of many talents and admitted faults , compassion should be his middle name .One virtue is his great sense of humour and as said “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly “and he is one hell of an angel. Thank you Gareth for your service to humanity.

    • Jimmy Smallhorne says:

      This is a powerful article, ancient and contemporary, academic and personal, deeply selfless and a wake up call to the problem of addiction in the Irish diaspora. Thank you for such honesty and compassion and will share this profound article with many people.
      Jimmy Smallhorne

  3. Jack Summers says:

    A strkingly honest and insightful analysis of alcoholism, which for the Irish derives both from the culture and surely from the DNA. A gift for some, a curse for others–and so few can honestly assess to which group they belong! Dr. O’Connor is indeed to be commending for his unflinching search into his own alcoholic legacy–and his eventual courage in breaking away from the tribal and familial cycle.

  4. Garrett, a man of many talents has an extraordinary ability to communicate truth slay shame in it’s tracts. It is a message we Irish all need to hear.The plague of alcoholism has acted like a millstone on Irish Culture in so many ways. Dr. O’Connor has not just sent a message to the readers of his article. He clearly has informed us that the future of Irish culture lies in no small part by slaying the dragon of shame that tortures us a people and whose vehicle ;in no small part comes out of a bottle. Bravo Dr. O

  5. Thank you Garrett O’Connor for your public experience, strength and hope. As is said “we’re as sick as our secrets”. The more mainstream and understood we become the less power we give our secret sickness: alcoholism. Thanks to being nestled by a group of Irish I could barely understand in tollerant and progressive SF I got sober 20 years ago. I will proudly pass your words on!

  6. DoyleFromMass says:

    It’s in the blood. Im sure of it.

  7. DoyleFromMass says:

    My father used to say that our family couldn’t drink like normal people because of our “Irish blood” I passed it up as a stereotype, myth or perhaps some kind of coincidence. After seeing the devistation that booze has brought into our family I know that it is “in the blood” This article helps to put things into proper perspective. Thank you Dr. Garrett O’Connor.

  8. Eileen Hanley says:

    Hi Garrett I lost your details after spanish convention.Would you please get in touch via e-mail
    Kind Regards
    Eileen Hanley

  9. Sanita says:

    Hi. My name is Sanita.
    More than 35 years of my life I lived with feeling that I was unloved, unprotected, hopeless, fearful, angry, dirty, ashamed, ugly, used for sex /not loved/ like a toy. And who did it? They were my closest people – my family… I had questions inside me: “Why is everything so bad? What is wrong with me?”
    The early childhood I remember I trusted my family and God. I was the youngest of three and the only girl. Sunday was always a special day for me. I didn’t understand many of the things that people were saying about God. All I knew was that I must believe and trust Him.
    That time our country was part of the Soviet Union where God “didn’t exist”. We went to church but in many ways we were banished. It was not a problem for me. I was a problem for them because of my honesty. People lived double lives, full of secrets and lies, and it was dangerous to open your mouth in wrong time and place.
    I was a happy child until my dad started drinking and abusing all of us. My mum was very quiet and I was learning from her. All my indignation I was hiding inside. I asked God for answers, but they never came. My family stopped going to the church. All my happiness was gone…
    I was also badly abused by my brothers and husband. I had three children, farm, money, job… but everything inside me was broken… including myself. I started drinking trying to kill my pain and anger. It worked for a while.
    I stopped asking God for answers. I was drinking and time to time I didn’t remember what I was doing last night… I was addicted to alcohol. I started my day with drink and finished it the same way. I wasn’t arrested or killed but I was beaten and raped for years. Things got worse and worse. I was angry or drunk…I tried to kill myself… It didn’t work. I left my three sons with their father because I understood that I must do something… I just didn’t know what… I loved my children but I could not stay sober…
    Treatments, counsellors, churches, Alcoholics Anonymous… I stayed off drink for a while then back on it again. All my life was pure hell. I wanted to change something in my life, and I moved to Ireland but nothing changed. Even worse- I started to use drugs, and I was back in square one… I met a man and got pregnant and had twin boys. I was blessed… no matter what… but my addiction was stronger… I had to ask Social Workers for help. People judged me. I tried to stop my drinking again, again and again… Again treatments, counsellors, Alcoholics Anonymous… Doctors started to feed me with antidepressants… I spent 14 years trying to stop my drinking. I was broken, judged, full of guilt and anger, used, wrecked and hopeless…And then I STOPPED TRYING TO STOP my drinking. I WAS DONE!
    I was drinking 24/7 for five and half months. I didn’t pray. I didn’t ask for any help. I didn’t have any hope. I surrendered… The last month of my drinking I was not able to eat. I was vomiting and had diarrhea all the time… All I had was drink…drink…drink…
    I woke up in hospital but still I didn’t remember anything… My skin was green- yellow, eyes were yellow- brown, lost almost all my hair, I was skinny- 8 stone, and my liver was gone… Doctors didn’t let me leave hospital, and they said that I’ll die because usually people in that condition don’t survive… but I didn’t die… God saved my life.
    My liver recovered in couple of months, hair started growing, I didn’t take any medication, I had happy times with my boys but for the first months of my sobriety I still didn’t believe that I was healed. People prayed for me, but I didn’t. I still felt so broken and angry… I started painful work on my issues with FRESH START group in Westport. I was grateful and angry, and my anger was killing me. I was like a man in chains from Bible /Mark 5: 2-8/… Inside me I had all four seasons, and it was like sun with storm, I was cool and hot, and I could laugh and cry, love and hate at the same time. But it was ME in chains.
    But then it happened on the street in Castlebar I stopped myself and asked Jesus to come into my life, INTO MY HEART! I had to open my mouth and say it FROM ALL MY HEART. I had to give 100pc to JESUS not 50 or 99pc. I had to put EVERYTHING what is important to me /not what is left/ in God’s hands.
    Now I am a part of Castlebar Christian Fellowship, where I have my new family. I accepted that Jesus loves each of us no matter what. Step by step with Jesus I started to grow again as a little plant.
    Thank you for reading this, and God bless. Sanita

    • Rob Green says:

      Awesome testimony. Praise GOD!

    • Judy says:

      I am so thankful for your recovery and your story. I’m so sorry you had to go through all of the abuse from people. May God continue to bring you internal peace. I know God is real and when I seek Him and speak of Him I feel an inner peace that is so complete.

  10. Magda says:

    I have never read a more powerful article in my life! Thank you for sharing this, it is an amazing lesson we all need to read and learn. I have never had any interest in alcohol, but I have seen people consumed by alcohol abuse. They need all the help they can get, especially because they not only destroy their own lives, they also destroy other people’s lives.

  11. Meg says:

    Thank you, thank you for this fascinating article. I too have the “Irish flu” but thankfully have been in recovery for the past 10 years. Recently, I’ve researched deeper into my Irish genealogy and note there is a pattern of alcohol abuse in every generation.

    The line that hit me between the eyes was “keeping up appearances”. This certainly rings true in my family, even after 120 years in this country. If we sweep it under the rug, it’s like it never happened! I wish some of my family members could let go of their pride so they could see that alcohol is not the only path to contentment.

    On the flip side, I’m blessed with a family full of witty, humorous, loyal, hardworking tale-tellers.

  12. Chris says:

    I was born and bred in Belfast. I grew up in an alcohol fuelled home. My father was a business man, and consequently, due to the fact that he was relatively successful, he drank 6 out of 7 days. It was often stated that “Harry could drink the Lagan dry.” The Lagan is a river that flows through Belfast.

    It was never mentioned that perhaps he drank too much, as he was able to provide for his family. So this was his, and for many others like him, a get out of jail card.

    My very first memories of my father are when I was a youngster. My sister and I would make drinks for our parents and their friends. Usually consisting of Whiskey and Gin. And, as youngsters are inclined to do, we invariably drank some each time.

    Now, I don’t see any need in lamenting my childhood. The terrible violence that I witnessed. The frightful screaming, the police, smashed up doors etc…..ad infinitum. You get the picture I’m sure.

    Fast forward to myself. I became an alcoholic at 16. I could drink for Ireland, all day and all night long. Alcohol was present in every, single, fibre of my body. It completely dictated how I lived my life.

    Irish and Alcohol are a bad combination. Both my sister’s and my brother are alcoholics. It’s taken my whole family. It has taken everything from me. I was a wealthy man at 36. Actually I’d retired to a sunny climate to drink myself into self induced oblivion every, single, day. Day in. Day out.

    Well, I have to leave it there for the meantime, as I need to go out and buy some food to prepare for my.young daughters lunch. I’ll make the trip sober and I’ll go to bed sober. It’s one day at a time for me. And that’s all I need at the moment. In closing if you’re reading this, wondering what my point is, well I don’t have one, just my story. It’s sad to say, that everything you’ve ever heard about the Irish and their drinking habits is true. Much to my shame.

    • Roxann says:

      I’m not Irish but have known many Irish in my 25 years of life. I’m trying now to understand the issue. From reading your comment I can tell you are a strong & competent person despite your addiction. I really do wish for the disease to be taken away from you.

  13. Mary says:

    My heart ached reading this and there are tears in my eyes as I type. All that was hidden in silence seems more understandable now, the pain somehow endurable, having found a modicum of respect for having secured a place in history.

  14. Costos says:

    They drink because theyre little dick micks. Was that so fucking hard?I Didnt think so.

    • Chris says:

      What the fuck is wrong with you? Addiction always has hope of healing and a cure. Alas, there is no hope of a cure for your type of stupidity.

    • Patrick Hafey says:

      Brave man behind a keyboard.

  15. amazing … I sawd you for the medical board in Los Angeles wheret you noted the similar sociology of Jew and Irish Catholic….fortunately ? we have less rigeur in sexuality as an expression of angst….You do not mention specific family members of fame…I forwarded your article to Josie O Donnell whose meeting with “Father” Pat O’Brien is worthy as a paradigm

  16. Deirdre Boyd says:

    I, too, have tears in my eyes reading Garrett’s article. He has crystallised into words what we have long known but not managed to express. I am honoured to have known him albeit only in recent years, honoured that he shared his knowledge at my conferences in London, honoured to have arranged for him to share some of this in the UK parliament – the latter he particularly took joy doing. He was a great and humble human being who is sorely missed.

  17. Barry McEvoy says:

    Brilliant article 🙂 Powerful and filled with pure honesty. I recently wrote my first article on my own personal journey as a 25 suffering from alcoholism, and i focused on the ‘irish culture’ of drinking. Great article and thanks

  18. Sean Cork says:

    This article almost borders on racism. It’s filled with stereotypes and age old canards targeting the Irish people.

  19. Katie says:

    This is the best information ever and I don’t drink alcohol at all
    But if I did I know I would be dead now. I had the most evil oldest ex brother, who targeted me and made my life a living hell , I was the
    Youngest and he was 16 years when I was born. And my
    Father would not hand the land over to him because he was evil
    But I was the youngest and a girl. No one In our family drank
    Except the odd gunness. But the oldest bully was vile. My father
    Signed the will on the before Christmas eve as he was dying
    And he died 10 days later

    • Marie says:


      I would like to know in your father’s will to whom did your father leave the land ?

      • Marie says:

        Also for your information I don’t drink alcohol at all like you.
        In my family idem. However I too had a sibling who was a bully. It was my sister, she was the eldest child, a bully, and a thief, she forged more than once her siblings’ signatures on wills then afterwards collected the money for herself, money that should have gone to her siblings. Pure Evil, she was indeed.

  20. Dr. John Warren says:

    Enjoyed your article. I came across it when I was googling the use of the term “the failing” which I heard some of my older relatives use when they we’re describing alcoholism in the Irish. I’ve never come across the term since.
    I’m 73 now & sobered up on June 1,1978. I used alcohol to overcome shyness as a teen & it went from there. I’m blessed in that I’m intelligent enough & my father had the means & motivated my brother &I I to go on to higher education. Robert became a Rhodes scholar, went to Oxford & is now a lawyer, & I got a medical degree at McGill.
    I always wanted to be a psychiatrist & started a residency in Toronto Canada, but because of advancing alcoholism dropped out after a couple of years. In Toronto I subsequently spun rapidly downhill & ended up suicidally depressed in an Institution in Central Ontario.
    My story has a happy outcome, however, because I was introduced to the 12-step recovery program there & haven’t looked back. At 10 years I re-entered the residency & obtained my FRCP(C). I also married & have raised a child.
    My immigration story is that my great-grandfather came to Montreal from Ireland in 1848 at 2 years of age. They seemed to achieve a measure of success relatively quickly, because one of his sons got a medical degree at McGill in1903. People were moving to the West in both Canada & the US at that time, & my father was born in Central Saskatchewan in 1912.
    Our father went to McGill as well, but for some reason had to drop out & ended up doing Engineering in Chicago, Illinois.
    One night when my father was really drunk he told my brother he had gotten someone pregnant, & probably want happened was she was entered into a religious home, & my father went FAR away. I was very close to my Dad but he never told me about this. In fact, as you say in your article he was “Irish Secretive” to A T.
    Dad was what I would call a “functioning alcoholic”, & probably did reasonably well because of our long-suffering mother & his superior intelligence & abilities. I will be forever grateful to him because after I quit he quit cold turkey – otherwise we couldn’t have continued to be buddies before he died
    Thanks for listening,
    John Warren

  21. NJO says:

    Brain Development and Addiction with Gabor Matê: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpHiFqXCYKc

    Exploring Irish Multigenerational Trauma and Its Healing: Lessons from the Oglala Lakota (Sioux): https://file.scirp.org/pdf/AASoci20120200001_81443251.pdf

    Research to-date clearly underscores that survivors of massive trauma and their families are not a homogenous group of vulnerable, dysfunctional individuals; instead they display a wide range of coping strategies (Levine, 1998). It is with this proviso that Irish Historian James Lee (1994) asserted that many current mental health problems in Irish society may be best understood in the context of what he calls “historical wounding”. Similarly, the Irish researcher Moane (1994) noted that in Irish society “there are psychological patterns inherited from colonization which may be transmitted through family dynamics even while rapid social change is occurring” (p. 263). Lee (1994) and Moane (1994) proposed that centuries of English oppression and colonialism relied on mechanisms of tight control, which included:

    Physical coercion;
    Sexual exploitation;
    Economic exploitation;
    Political exclusion, and
    Control of ideology and culture.

    They postulated that, for many individuals and families in postcolonial Irish society today, these mechanisms have left a deep psychological legacy of trauma and its consequences of:

    Ambivalence toward the colonizer;
    Suppression of anger and rage;
    A sense of inferiority;
    Loss of identity;
    Horizontal violence, and
    Vulnerability to psychological distress.

    Specific traumatizing experiences for the Irish (per Lee and Moane) include systematically treated as an “inferior race” by the oppressing culture (British), subjection to starvation (the Irish Famine) even while vast quantities of foods were being exported, indiscriminate killings, land grabs, religious persecution, language and music censorship, and educational oppression.

    “For centuries British laws had deprived Ireland’s Catholics of their rights to worship, vote, speak their language and own land, horses and guns. Now, with a famine raging, the Irish were denied food. Under armed guard, food convoys continued to export wheat, oats and barley to England while Ireland starved” http://www.history.com/news/when-america-despised-the-irish-the-19th-centurys-refugee-crisis

    “Not only did British greed force the Irish to rely solely on potatoes in the first place to meet the demands of absentee landlords, it allowed them to starve just to pad the bottom line” – https://omgfacts.com/the-irish-potato-famine-wasnt-caused-by-a-fungus-3dbf1f589405

    “In 1695 harsh penal laws were enforced, known as the ‘popery code’: Catholics were prohibited from buying land, bringing their children up as Catholics, and from entering the forces or the law. Catholics could no longer run for elected office, purchase land, or own property (such as horses) valued at more than 5 pounds. In the early years of the 18th century the ruling Protestants in Ireland passed these laws designed to strip the “backwards” Catholic population of remaining land, positions of influence and civil rights. By 1778 Irish Catholics would own a meager 5% of Irish land. Furthermore, the Catholic educational system was outlawed and priests who did not conform to the laws could be branded on the face or castrated. As a result, much of Catholic church services and education and record keeping was forced underground, to operate only under extreme secrecy. The religion and culture were kept alive by secret open-air masses and illegal outdoor schools, known as ‘hedge’ schools. All Irish culture, music and education was banned. By the time of the census of 1841 the Irish were impoverished, landless and leaderless by the eve of the famine.

    Professor Lecky a British Protestant and ardent British sympathizer, said in his “History of Ireland in the 18th Century” that the object of the Penal Laws was threefold:

    “To deprive Catholics of all civil life; to reduce them to a condition of extreme, brutal ignorance; and, to disassociate them from the soil.:

    Lecky said, “He might with absolute justice, substitute Irish for Catholic, “and added a fourth objective: “To expatriate the race.” Most scholars agree that the Penal Laws helped set the stage for the injustices that occurred during The Great Famine and fueled the fires of racism that were directed against the Irish by the British. Lecky outlined the Penal Laws as follows:

    The Catholic Church forbidden to keep church registers.
    The Irish Catholic was forbidden the exercise of his religion.
    He was forbidden to receive education.
    He was forbidden to enter a profession.
    He was forbidden to hold public office.
    He was forbidden to engage in trade or commerce.
    He was forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof.
    He was forbidden to own a horse of greater value than five pounds.
    He was forbidden to own land.
    He was forbidden to lease land.
    He was forbidden to accept a mortgage on land in security for a loan.
    He was forbidden to vote.
    He was forbidden to keep any arms for his protection.
    He was forbidden to hold a life annuity.
    He was forbidden to buy land from a Protestant.
    He was forbidden to receive a gift of land from a Protestant.
    He was forbidden to inherit land from a Protestant.
    He was forbidden to inherit anything from a Protestant.
    He was forbidden to rent any land that was worth more than 30 shillings a year.
    He was forbidden to reap from his land any profit exceeding a third of the rent.
    He could not be guardian to a child.
    He could not, when dying, leave his infant children under Catholic guardianship.
    He could not attend Catholic worship.
    He was compelled by law to attend Protestant worship.
    He could not himself educate his child.
    He could not send his child to a Catholic teacher.
    He could not employ a Catholic teacher to come to his child.
    He could not send his child abroad to receive education.

    *From: MacManus “The story of the Irish Race” 1921. Devin-Adair Publishing Co., New York.


    Throughout the entire period of the Famine, Ireland was exporting enormous quantities of food to England. In Ireland Before and After the Famine, Cormac O’Grada points out, “Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. But that was a “money crop” and not a “food crop” and could not be interfered with.” Up to 75 percent of Irish soil was devoted to wheat, oats, barley and other crops that were grown for export and shipped abroad while the people starved. Cecil Woodham-Smith, noted scholar and author, wrote in The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849 that “…no issue has provoked so much anger or so embittered relations between the two countries (England and Ireland) as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation.”

    In History Ireland magazine (1997, issue 5, pp. 32-36), Christine Kinealy, a Great Hunger scholar, lecturer, and Drew University professor, relates her findings: Almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London during 1847, when 400,000 Irish men, women and children died of starvation and related diseases. The food was shipped under military guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland; Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Kilrush, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee and Westport. A wide variety of commodities left Ireland during 1847, including peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongues, animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seed. The most shocking export figures concern butter. Butter was shipped in firkins, each one holding 9 gallons. In the first nine months of 1847, 56,557 firkins were exported from Ireland to Bristol, and 34,852 firkins were shipped to Liverpool. That works out to be 822,681 gallons of butter exported to England from Ireland during nine months of the worst year of the Famine” – http://ighm.org/exports-in-famine-times/ – From Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum

  22. Lewis Larkin says:

    Deeply moved not sure how i wound up here but glad i did, i can relate on so many levels being of irish decent.. Thankyou

  23. Lydia says:

    I am American but of Irish descent. My Irish ancestors immigrated here in the late 1800s. My grandparents who were Irish blood (not Irish born) were complete alcoholics, and both died in their early 60s to alcohol-related illnesses. I don’t know anything about their parents before them other than names, as they moved out of state and never talked to them again.I have an uncle (their child) who is an alcoholic. My brother is an alcoholic. I think there is more than just a persecution link, as my family has been far removed from the persecution. I think it is genetic, but perhaps my family has taken a bit of cultural aspect of it without me realizing it. When I drink I also feel I could keep drinking, but I moderate my intake of alcohol very strictly. My mother hasn’t ever drank alcohol in fear she will become an alcoholic. I compare this to my father’s family who are not Irish – and there is no history of alcohol abuse. My husband’s family is Italian heritage, and no drunks or history of drunks there either. Just my mother’s family (100% Irish ethnicity, but Americans) has so many drunks/alcoholics in it. Just a coincidence? Possibly, but I find it to be interesting. My mother’s family also has rampant depression issues – both my grandparents were chronically depressed, my mother has been as well. I also have depression, and my brother too. Alcohol may also help to cope with that.None of my non-Irish relatives or Italian in-laws have depression that I know of.

    • Peter says:

      @Lydia: The drug of choice for “Italian-Americans” is their false identity.

      90% of “Italian-Americans“ trace their roots back to the Mezzogiorno (south of Rome), a region that was/is genetically and culturally distinct from the rest of the peninsula: “Columbus Day & Consequences: Re-examining Italian American Commemorations, Historic Anxieties, and (Some of) the Narratives They Silence” discusses why immigrants from southern Italy hijacked Columbus Day despite not being his descendants — a desire to be “white” and gain acceptance in America society during a time they faced extreme discrimination: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1102&context=tapestries

      Excerpts from the link above: “Most south Italian immigrants emigrated from small rural villages in Italy’s newly unified southern provinces, namely Campania, Abruzzo, Calabria, Molise, Sicily, and Sardinia. Southern Italian peasants had distinct histories, cultures, and languages, entirely different from those of northern Italy and what people often think of as “Italian culture” – i.e. Renaissance art, Venetian carnivals and canals, high fashion in Milan, luxurious lifestyles in Rome, etc.” — “By incorporating the celebrated figure into a southern Italian American identity, Columbus has enabled southern Italian Americans to able to be, to use Trouillot’s words, “discovered by Europeans” (or in this case, White Anglo Saxon Protestant America), and “finally enter the human world.”

      “The so-called Unification of Italy in 1860 was, for the South, an invasion and occupation with as many as a million people killed; women and children massacred; men shipped north to die in a concentration camp, their numbers unknown as the bodies were dissolved in caustic lime; hundreds of thousands imprisoned without any charges or trials; torture; rape; iron works and steel mills and agriculture destroyed; railroad tracks torn up; police duties entrusted to (thereby establishing the power of) the Mafia and the Camorra; the gold from the treasury of the Spanish Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies carried north to pay off the debts of Piedmont.”

      “I learned in my youth there is no such creature as an ethnic Italian, in spite of what the bulk of humanity may otherwise believe.” – Niccolò Graffio from southern Italian historical blog “IL Regno” http://ilregno2s.blogspot.com/2011/03/a-celebration-of-genocide.html

      “Italians” are genetically less related to one another than other European nations are to each other: https://evolutionistx.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/genetic_map_of_europe.png S. Italian in Green = Southern Italy where 90% of “Italian-Americans” come from (half their genes are of North African/Near Eastern origin, resulting in a darker complexion, lower IQ (89 for Sicily, 92 for mainland southern Italy, compared to 100-102 for northern Italy) and a bit of a “pull” on the genetic map), Tuscan in Yellow = Central Italy, Northern Italian in Purple and Sardinia in dark Purple. Another study from the European Journal of Human Genetics as confirmation of the above statement (notice the “pull” on the plot map): https://media.nature.com/original/nature-assets/ejhg/journal/v24/n7/extref/ejhg2015233x5.jpg “s . it” in light green = Southern Italian

      From the Washington Post, Five myths about Christopher Columbus: 

      “The National Italian American Foundation calls the Columbus Day parade in New York “the most visible and accessible manifestation of our Italian American Pride,” and Italian Americans have led efforts to oppose changes to the holiday’s focus nationwide. But when Columbus lived, there was no such thing as an Italian; Italy did not exist until 1861. The best evidence suggests that the explorer was born in a village near Genoa, which is part of Italy today. To his deathbed, he proudly claimed Genoa as home. In Columbus’s lifetime, Genoa was a fiercely independent republic with its own language, currency and overseas colonies” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-christopher-columbus/2015/10/08/3e80f358-6d23-11e5-b31c-d80d62b53e28_story.html?utm_term=.df078b7b846c

      Forging an Ethnic Identity: The Case of Italian Americans: https://www.cairn.info/revue-francaise-d-etudes-americaines-2003-2-page-89.htm

    • Marie says:

      Lydia, I’ve lived in Italy for many years. and believe me they drink like fish in Italy, from the North to the South and from the South to the North ! The Irish talk about it the Italians don’t ! Also, concerning depression, it’s rampant in Italy. Again, the Irish talk about it the Italians don’t !

      • Marie says:

        Lydia, if it’s any consolation, frankly I don’t know any country in the world where they don’t drink like fish. Even the Arabs drink like fish, alcohol is smuggled into the country and the women can drink as much if not more than the men. Of course they don’t and can’t talk about it otherwise they will have their heads cut off !

    • Marie says:

      Peter concerning your reply to Lydia, it was great fore it was true, precise and to the point. Also, thank you for your quote coming from Niccolo Graffio, which is absolutely true.

  24. Jimmy O says:

    Wow. Never realised the immense, very real, problems permeating through people of Irish heritage, myself included. I am a young man (21) and have been a heavy drinker for 4/5 years within different social circles. My first tastes of binge drinking was at the age of 16 with school friends, mostly English but sprinkled with second-generation Irish. As time passed, it was with a second-generation Irish boy who I found myself with in any drinking establishment that would serve us. University enabled me to further drink, and what separates my friends from I is my ability to drink myself blind drunk in to oblivion, yet not pass out. I fear this consequence will ruin my life, but I have no control over it whatsoever.

  25. OMG, this is also my story. I have always wondered if the Irish are very much subject to depression, bi-polar etc. years ago on a talk show the actress Mercedes McCambridge who was Irish American and a recovering alcoholic blamed centuries in Ireland and Scotland, Wales Scandinavia (spelling?
    ) are countries dark, rainy and surrounded by water of causing the mental problems and high amount of alcoholism in our DNA. I always thought the Irish have an intolerance for alchohol and they go off the deep end when they do.Wish it wasn’t so secret when I was growing up ,but then everything was a secret….

  26. Wow, this is one boring and endless article. “Weekend reading”? I could not get through it in a week. Of absolutely no interest to us Irish Americans who have no alcohol problem.

    I wish you media people would fix your software so that people indulging in potty mouthism would be simply dropped – permanently. Respondents should stick to the basic rules of debate.

  27. Kim Smith says:

    I too am from a heavy drinking irish family and lost two people due to its deadly clutches it had on my father and my brother.. i wish it could and would be stopped.

  28. Jim Driscoll says:


    Thanks for this article. As an Irish-Catholic son and grandson (at least) of alcoholics, when I came back from combat in Vietnam, I unawarely switched from 7 years of blackout binge drinking to compulsive overeating. I put on seventy pounds in a couple of years snd have struggled with that substitute addiction ever since. I write to alert others about the danger of this (and I assume many other addictions) to which we Irish-Catholics (and others) may switch in order to deal with this legacy of colonialism and genocide. Fortunately, there are 12-Step and other recovery communities for compulsive eating, including 12-Step meetings for those of us who do not believe in an intercessionary God.Like the Native Americans, we Irish-Catholics were not wanted for our labor (in distinction from the African-heritage enslaved by he rich in the U.S.) The British wanted our land, not our labor. We were thought to be better off dead (a message we received along with Native-Americans which probably fuels some of our common self-annihilating behaviors.)

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