Analysis: decades of expert testimony seemed to suggest that the Irish had a significant weakness for drink before a change in the 1970s

By Alice Mauger, UCD

The "drunken Irish" stereotype has deep roots. Among its earliest cultivators, Plato described the Celts as "drunken and combative". More recent renditions stem from British commentators who have dutifully satirised and critiqued Irish drinking habits since at least the 16th century. These portrayals abounded during the 1800s amid efforts to justify colonial rule under the Act of Union. High levels of emigration since the Great Famine (1845-51) and the associated rise of anti-Irish sentiment towards immigrant populations only served to reinforce the already entrenched belief that the Irish had a significant weakness for drink.

Internationally, emerging expert testimony since the 1930s seemed to bolster this position. In the United States, psychiatrists began documenting disproportionate numbers of Irish alcohol-related admissions to mental hospitals in areas traditionally popular with Irish settlers, like Boston and New York. Similar trends were identified in Britain.

In 1962, Harvard sociologist Robert Bales published his findings on Irish attitudes to drink, declaring that alcohol could act as a medicine for the Irish, an "antidote to the symptoms of a hangover", a preventive of damp and cold in the changeable Irish weather and a food substitute during periods of famine or religious fasts. It could also, Bales alleged, provide relief for sexual tension or even a "sexual substitute" for young rural men for whom few but the first-born son could look forward to marriage. What was more, Bales continued, drinking was "inextricably tied up with the expression of aggression in the Irish culture … most importantly, overt and active and persistent aggression against the English". 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline, a discussion on drunken Irish stereotypes prompted by St Patrick's Day t-shirts in Canada

Together, these studies seemed to suggest that the Irish race had a remarkable relationship with drink. This premise did not go unnoticed by politicians in Ireland who became increasingly conscious of claims circulating abroad about Irish drinking behaviour. Importantly, this awareness coincided with a shift in Ireland’s place on the international landscape, at a time when Taoiseach Seán Lemass was seeking membership of the European Economic Community. In 1962, Lemass complained that "even the BBC Television service rarely, if ever, presents a play about Ireland without the characters moving around in clouds of alcoholic vapour".

Responding to Lemass’ vexation, Irish journalist, Michael Viney reasoned that "few Irishmen would disagree that the image of the "drunken Paddy" whether fictionally presented on British television screens or factually endorsed in the magistrates’ courts of West London, is humiliating to the Irish at home. And if Mr Lemass is also concerned lest foreign industries are put off coming to Ireland through fears of drunken labour and absenteeism, this too is understandable."

Persistent claims about an alleged Irish susceptibility to alcoholism posed an additional threat to Ireland’s international profile. The issue came under the spotlight in 1969, when leading Irish psychiatrist, Dermot Walsh publicly announced that psychiatric admissions for alcoholism in Ireland were much higher than for Britain or the US. In a letter to the Journal of the Irish Medical Association the following year, Walsh stated that for "the Irish, wherever they may be, alcoholism is a serious problem".

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From RTÉ Archives, a 1984 episode of Folio with philosopher Richard Kearney, sociologist Michael D Higgins, and literary critic Tom Paulin reviewing two books on Irish stereotypes 

In the years that followed, Irish experts endeavoured to explain this trend. At Trinity College Dublin, members of the pharmacology department launched an investigation to determine whether "the taste for drink is a characteristic of the Irish". The study’s leader, Professor C.W.M. Wilson issued a call to arms for Ireland’s research community: "it seems that the time has come to combine the scientific, clinical and sociological expertise in the country to find out if it is the Irish culture which causes the Irishman to drink, or if it is the Irishman’s genes which causes the American to get drunk."

In response, most researchers favoured cultural explanations, which were seen as less damaging to Ireland’s national identity than discussions of genetic or racial defect. Many cited the influence of the Catholic Church. Some complained that the confirmation pledge resulted in a "false and unnatural attitude towards alcohol".

Others lamented the Church’s declining authority, claiming the Vatican II reforms were leading to looser morals, and in turn, more drinking. Still more blamed stifling conservatism – particularly around sex – and the combined factors of strict celibacy rules for unmarried people, late marriages for Irish men and the unavailability of birth control which caused even married couples to abstain for long periods to limit family size. Such interpretations of "uniquely" Irish cultural influences largely echoed those of American commentators in the decades before.

Despite the proliferation of research studies since the 1970s that have largely debunked the stereotype, images of the "drunken Paddy" persist

Yet by the 1970s, researchers and other workers in Ireland had begun openly challenging the image of the "drunken Irish". In 1972, the director of the Irish National Council on Alcoholism, Joseph Adams said "I’ve been trying to explode the myth of the drunken "Paddy" for some time". Commenting on developments in the alcoholism field over the previous two decades, Dermot Walsh also altered his tone: "I think it is clear that these activities, whether therapeutic, research or preventive…indicate the concern with what is a characteristically Irish problem, the moving away of public attitudes from accepting a stereotype of Irish role-fulfilment towards a standpoint of responsible public attitudes to the problems of alcoholism."

In attempting to account for the distinct aspects of Irish culture that might create a fertile ground for alcoholism, sociology once again came to the forefront. During the 1970s, a UCD social scientist, Joyce Fitzpatrick, challenged the work of Bales and others, that had been used to reinforce the stereotype for decades. Fitzpatrick’s widely publicised investigations sent shockwaves through the research community as she established that the Irish (in Ireland) were drinking less than the average Englishman, a finding that gave rise to many a triumphant headline in the Irish national press. Tackling the "drunken Irish" myth head on, Fitzpatrick also argued that ethnicity was not a major factor in drinking behaviour.

Despite the proliferation of research studies since the 1970s that have largely confirmed Fitzpatrick’s findings, images of the "drunken Paddy" persist. Today, however, these portrayals tend to spark controversy. For instance, a Canadian recruitment agency was compelled to apologise in 2014 for an advertisement depicting a man at a business meeting on the morning after St Patrick’s Day. Evidently hungover, the cartoon figure was portrayed wearing green festive garb including a tee-shirt that read: "Kiss me, I’m Irish". Following a complaint, the recruitment firm’s marketing director apologised for potentially "promoting stereotypes about Irish people or their culture".

Dr Alice Mauger is the Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow in Medical Humanities at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland in the School of History at UCD. She is the author of The Cost of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018)

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ