Ireland woke up the other morning to another shocker. Last week a wave
of optimism prevailed as papers carried reports of preparations for the
convergence of 2000 or more young Irish people on Cologne to join Pope
Benedict XVI for World Youth Day 2005. On Monday the mood changed as
papers carried yet another report of an alcohol-fuelled killing of a
51-year-old widower by a gang of drunken youths on a Saturday night
Police, we were told, were hoping to make early arrests after the
killing of Oliver Lacey. Mr Lacey left his house to help his son and
two friends who had been set upon by the gang. The three boys managed
to get back into the house but the gang turned on Mr Lacey, pulled him
to the ground and kicked him to death.
Alcohol abuse by the young in both Ireland and Britain is at epidemic
levels and this is one of its consequences. Middle-class Ireland is
still trying to come to terms with the implications of a high-profile
trial last year of four young men, products of one of the country’s top
high schools, who were charged in connection with the drunken
manslaughter of another young man after a late night disco in central
Meanwhile the two governments flounder. Britain’s solution is to allow
24-hour pubs. The theory is that unlimited drinking hours will dispel
the urge to binge-drink and drunks will no longer surge onto the
streets just before midnight. The police, the press and the judiciary
are all sceptical about the move, which is due to become law in
In Ireland the solution is to issue more licenses to more watering
holes. The catch is that licenced establishments will have to serve
both food and drink. Café-bars will turn the Irish into sensible
eaters-cum-drinkers like their cousins on the Continent.
Critics of both proposals deride them as nonsensical. They say that
they fail to take account of the cultural cancer at the root of the
problem — that the young people of Ireland and Britain by and large do
not go out on a Friday night to have some fun, have a drink or two and
be with their friends. They go out to get drunk.
Apart for the horrific incidents mentioned above, what is the evidence
that this is a major problem on these islands? It is substantial.
“Teenage drinking out of control” screamed newspaper headlines in
Britain this month — on the basis of answers given to a question on
the problem raised in Parliament. These revealed that on average 13
children are being admitted to British hospitals every day suffering
from the effects of alcohol. Admissions for alcohol-related diseases
among under-18s have increased by 11 percent in the past ten years. It
is generally accepted that in both Ireland and Britain the alarming
figures for teenage pregnancies are directly connected to the
prevalence of alcohol abuse in this age-group.
“Change the culture” is the cry going up from most opponents of the new
legislation. But there is little light on how to do it — or even what
might be at the heart of such a change. Perhaps the only commentator
who has come anywhere near hitting the nail on the head is Kevin Myres,
who writes in both the Irish Times and the Sunday Telegraph in London.
Writing on the topic of teenage pregnancies he points out that what we
have here is a “perfect example of what happens when we throw taboos
about sexual conduct out of the window, without knowing what we are
going to replace them with. For in liberal, post-Christian Ireland, we
have destigmatised sex, and no longer declare any personal behaviour to
be wrong. The possession of a personal moral order is virtually
unacceptable; we certainly would not dare tell an 11-year-old girl that
it is sinful to have sex. It is an interesting sense of priority — for
in effect, we prefer her to be pregnant than to have a troubled
conscience.” All this was written in the context of a statement by a
government minister that in certain circumstances the
morning-after-pill should be prescribed for 11-year-old girls.
Myres is not advocating more sex education as the solution to this
particular problem. “In my distant, more liberal days I believed that
if young people had proper sex education, all would be well: they would
learn to have sex in a proper and mature way, and in due course would
grow up into enlightened, sexually responsible adults. But of course
this is utter rubbish. If youngsters are indifferent to learning
generally, why should they be interested in sex education? They might
be interested in sex, but that is a different matter entirely.”
Much the same can be said about drunkenness. Sin and drunkenness are no
longer linked, no more than are sin and sexual misbehaviour. What is
talked about when alcohol abuse is discussed is alcohol and violence,
drinking and driving, drinking and anti-social behaviour. Never
drunkenness and sin.
“Today”, says Myres, “the very concept of sin is taboo. Post-Christian
Christianity in particular shies away from discussing it. Is it
therefore so very surprising, with conscience excluded as a moral guide
to sexual conduct, that there are consequences which leave us
But perhaps hope for the future lies in the good-news stories of this
week — the 2000 Irish and their British companions joining nearly a
million youths in Cologne for a gathering with Pope Benedict XVI. If
they know the answers to these problems, then perhaps they will come
home and tackle this malaise at its very roots.
Michael Kirke is a Dublin journalist.