A nation of drunkards?

There is truth in every stereotype.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

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  • The reality of the represented

Punch magazine was infamous in the nineteenth century for portraying the Irish as semi-simian yahoos, as creatures of raw instinct who were given to public displays of drunkenness and altogether uncouth behaviour. In contrast, it was fond of representing your English ‘John Bull’ character as a fine, upstanding type of fellow – a man of great dignity and self-control.

Here in the twenty-first century, things have changed. According to the government’s new anti-booze crusade, the National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy, the British are in the process of drinking themselves to death. Not only is alcohol consumption at its highest for decades, but we are consuming the stuff in a most unbecoming manner. Most town- and city-centres have become a no-go area on Friday and Saturday nights, unless you are in the habit of downing 25 Bacardi Breezers, shrieking and cackling at the top of your voice and then, in a bacchanalian stupor, falling face-flat into the gutter. In short, we are becoming a nation of piss-artists.

In my experience, this stereotype reflects a grim reality. So it would make for nice symmetry if the Irish had undergone a reverse transformation, and the land across the water was now populated by sturdy, sober souls who looked down at their Anglo-Saxon neighbours with pity and contempt.

Alas, a European Union (EU) report last week shows this not to be true. In fact, findings from the EU statistics arm Eurostat show that the Irish are the heaviest drinkers in Europe, spending 115 euros a day on alcohol. Fifty per cent of Irish women aged 15 to 24 are regular drinkers, compared to the EU average of 19 per cent; 53 per cent of men in the same age bracket drink – 20 per cent higher than the European average; and 80 per cent of Irish men aged 25 to 34 drink regularly, compared to the EU average of 36 per cent.

Like Britain, you only have to witness closing time in Ireland first hand to recognise the veracity of these statistics. Although Irish drunks are not as aggressive as British drunks, their numbers are just as formidable, their presence just as irritating and their countenance just as depressed and self-loathing. Saturday night closing time in Dublin, Limerick and Cork is indistinguishable from those in London, Manchester or Glasgow, characterised by brawling, fighting and puking.

This was brought home at the St Patrick’s Day party at London’s Embankment on Sunday. I attended the function with the usual dread, and was duly served the predictable phoney cultural stew of self-pitying, dirgeful ballads, copious advertisements for a famous brand of stout and plastic-paddies desperately protesting that they weren’t English.

I don’t mean to be a complete misery-guts. The Irish are friendlier than the English in general, and it was fun in parts. What really struck home, however, was the nihilistic nature of the drunkenness. This wasn’t convivial high-spirits. This was real brain-damage stuff: children drinking vodka, revellers passed out, men literally rolling in the mud, others who collapsed every time they tried to stand up. They did not have smiles on their faces; they looked lobotomised.

Had this been a fictional representation of St Patrick’s Day in a film or television programme, there would have been countless complaints about what a ‘disgraceful’ or ‘anachronistic’ ethnic slur this was. This is precisely the fate that befell EastEnders some years back when it portrayed the Irish as drunkards. This goes to show that just because something is a stereotype, it isn’t necessarily untrue.

  • That’s what I call discrimination

The decision to put a 16-foot statue of a nude, armless, pregnant woman on top of Trafalgar Square’s fourth empty plinth has delighted the person on which it was based. ‘It is about time something was done to give some attention to disability’, said Alison Lapper, the inspiration for Marc Quinn’s creation. Bert Massie, chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, agrees: ‘Congratulations to Marc for realising that disabled bodies have a power and beauty rarely recognised in an age where youth and perfection are idolised.’

If it is wrong to idolise someone just for having good looks, why is it so admirable to idolise somebody for having an imperfect appearance? It still comes down to applauding someone in regards to what they look like, rather than what they have done. And as for recognising the disabled, it has been pointed out that there is already in Trafalgar Square a rather prominent statue of a one-armed, one-eyed admiral.

Everyone afflicted with a disability should deserve our sympathy, and anyone such as Lapper who has become a mother with such an affliction deserves our admiration. At the same time, I believe that statues should be of public figures that have changed their country or the world for the better. They should serve to inspire the public with representations of true heroes. In today’s anti-heroic climate it is therefore not surprising that the fourth plinth saga has become so prolonged and tortuous.

This does not preclude the disabled from contention. There are many disabled characters in history who have helped to change the course of history. One thinks of Nelson himself, or Sir Douglas Bader, or Simon Weston. Even Julius Caesar was an epileptic. David Blunkett is not a soldier, neither are his politics particularly endearing, but at least he has striven to make a difference.

The regrettable consequence of this latest decision is that it helps to reinforce the stereotype of disabled people as passive, self-obsessed victims deserving solely of our patronising sympathy. Now that’s what I call discrimination.

  • Unlikely alliance

According to a report in the Irish Post, Irish nationalists have been making contact with the British National Party (BNP), with the aim of creating an anti-immigration platform to keep out third world immigrants. One is reminded here of The Onion‘s spoof Second World War headline: ‘Japan Forms Alliance with White Supremacists in Well-Thought-Out Scheme.’

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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