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