Belfast Telegraph

Here's a sobering thought ... drinking yourself into a coma really isn't fun

By Mary Kenny

It must seem odd to youngsters today, but there was a time when schoolchildren were forced to take the pledge when they were about 10. This occurred in my schooldays when you made your Confirmation and part of the Confirmation package was swearing off alcohol until 21.

It was like many prohibitions, it served mostly to encourage the bold ones, and intimidate the shy and anxious ones. My older sister, a person of tender conscience, kept this sworn pledge until the age of 21 - she would have felt guilty if she had broken it.

At her 21st birthday she sipped something mildly alcoholic - perhaps it was the ghastly Babycham perry drink - but showed little interest, thereafter, in the demon alcohol at all. She retained, all her life, some influence from the Pioneer pledge (she had been proud of the badge and actually kept it).

By contrast, I couldn't wait to break the promise, because I thought it fun to break rules, and because I thought drinking must be great. As I felt bullied into the pledge, I didn't see why I should abide by it.

It wasn't reasonable, really, to force children to make a promise at the age of 10 which they were enjoined to keep until their majority, and it's just the sort of thing about "Catholic Ireland" that modern Ireland looks back upon with condemnation.

Authoritarianism! Forbidding everything! Propagandising the young! Making people feel guilty about innocent pleasures! Puritanism gone mad! Et cetera.

But to almost every event or phenomenon there is a positive side as well as a negative. And the positive side of that enforced temperance is that it probably did hold back, at least a little, a teenage rush to savour alcohol ASAP. Most people from the Pioneer Pledge generations didn't start drinking until they were adults.

The tennis hops and the rugby dances to which teenagers aspired were fuelled by lemonade (and didn't the late Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds build a business on temperance dance halls?).

There were the rebels who defied the rule of No Alcohol for Adolescents, but they were probably in the minority.

And it is improbable then that there was a high incidence of cirrhosis of the liver among young adults. Cirrhosis - a reliable measure of alcohol abuse - was rare, until recently, among people under 60. Today, according to Dr Stephen Stewart, a consultant hepatologist in Dublin, drink-related liver problems are occurring in individuals as young as 18. He has seen a 20-year-old die from the disease, and is treating more middle-aged drinkers who started early with terminal liver disease.

We can't go back to making kids of 10 take the pledge. Yet at this time of the year, we will hear warnings about the alarming health problems which arise in a culture where alcohol is so normalised. It's the doctors who see the impact of an early alcohol habit, and they often wax stern about the subject - almost sounding like bishops of old inveighing against the sin of intemperance.

But most campaigns against the abuse of alcohol just seem too finger-wagging. It always seems to be about "thou shalt not". The word "abstinence" is itself such a no-no, conjuring up the negative idea that you are renouncing a pleasure, rather than making a positive choice.

Most of the language associated with sobriety is negative and depressing: "on the dry", "on the wagon", "teetotal", "abstemious". Even the word "sober" carries shades of the serious, the grave and the earnest.

If I were in charge of directing sobriety campaigns around the Christmas season, I'd just try to popularise this idea - YOU DON'T HAVE TO GET LEGLESS TO HAVE A GOOD TIME. I'd try to counteract the widespread notion that drinking yourself into a coma is part of "the craic". I'd show examples of folk having an hilarious time over nothing more intoxicating than elderflower spritzer (a great drink, by the way).

I'd hire glamorous and popular celebrities like Miriam O'Callaghan and Brian O'Driscoll to transmit the message that you can have fun without getting stocious. Or maybe put ordinary people on the posters, people who manage to have a wonderful time without resorting to the bottle.

It is very difficult to change anything that is embedded in the culture, and the notion that everyone needs a jar to make merry is deeply embedded in ours.

And that's what the health campaigners should tackle. But by emphasising the positive, not issuing dire warnings of gloom.

Belfast Telegraph


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