Irish sport has a drinking problem


In the course of an interview with Roisin Ingle in The Irish Times the other week, the horse trainer Aidan O’Brien described alcohol as something that, in his words, has “most of Ireland destroyed”. For a man not noted for being loquacious, that was a perfect turn of phrase to use. And he went a little further too. “Young people should be in control of their own destiny, alcohol takes away that control.” O’Brien is a pioneer who also happens to be the most successful trainer of his generation and somebody destined to become perhaps the most successful Irish sportsman ever by the time he’s done.

Elsewhere that week, Elaine Carey of  3 Mobile, the phone company, gave a speech at the FAI’s AGM in Letterkenny, County Donegal. At the very beginning, she mentioned how she knew there were “a few sore heads” in the audience and then she offered a prize as an incentive to get the hungover people to listen.  In contrast to Aidan O’Brien, the FAI is, as the writer Declan Lynch once put it, “the dysfunctional football association that other dysfunctional football associations regard as the galacticos”. What a contrast then in the attitudes of the elite performer in one sport towards drink compared to the leaders of another sport.

Before the recent British Open began, Darren Clarke handed back the Claret Jug to the Royal and Ancient, made a big spiel about not having put any drink in it and then apologised for all the dints and dents the trophy had incurred while in his hard-partying possession. The state of the cup reminded us of how Clarke had behaved in the aftermath of his improbable victory last year. Remember the tired and emotional interviews he gave the morning after that triumph, slurring his words, still very obviously under the influence. Funny thing is I didn’t notice Ernie Els doing anything like that following his win this year.

Does anybody notice a pattern here? The Irish tolerance for drunken carry-on from the famous and in the FAI’s case, the infamous, is ridiculous. It’s such an accepted part of our culture that it can be jokingly referred to from the top table at a meeting that should have been addressing the crisis in Irish football. And everybody thinks Clarke is hilarious for his carry-on but too many fail to point out a more abstemious approach to his golf over the years might have yielded more than one major for somebody with his talent.

There seems an unwillingness to engage with the extent of the national drink problem, even when it spills over into the world of sport. For all the justified praise our fans received for their behaviour in Poland during the European Championships, there was far too little discussion of why absolutely pathetic states of drunkenness seemed to be de rigeur for so many of the supporters. Can we not go to a foreign country to support our team without getting absolutely blotto at every opportunity? Just because we usually don’t attack foreigners like the English used to do doesn’t make our drunken carry-on any less boorish.

This is not just a soccer thing either. There were Dublin fans who could barely walk on their way into Hill 16 before their heroes took on Meath.  There were plenty from all four counties barely able to see in front of them when they stumbled into Semple Stadium on Sunday for the All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals last Sunday. Great crack altogether especially for the young children forced to sit and watch their fathers tearing into pints at a furious pace right up until the throw-in. And we wonder why each subsequent generation appears to have a worse attitude to drink than its predecessors.

Of course, the rugby crowd disgraced themselves in New Zealand earlier in the summer when over 90 per cent of those arrested or not allowed in to one of the tests (rugby speak for friendlies) were Irish supporters. When this fact was pointed out by the local constabulary, some of the diaspora complained about unfair stereotyping. Yeah, rather than face up to our own idiotic attitude to getting wasted at sports events, we accuse our hosts of stereotyping us. Guess what, stereotypes are, usually, there for good reason. We are notorious for loving to get drunk at matches and that’s nobody’s fault but our own.

Taken in tandem with the constant drip feed of stories from Australia about the drink-related antics of the new Irish arrivals down there, all of the above would seem to indicate Roisin Shortall’s decision to try to bring in a total ban on alcohol companies sponsoring sport and cultural events is to be welcomed. We don’t think this is the cure for all the ills that afflict Irish society but as a sign that somebody in government recognises the damage drink is doing, it is a progressive step.

Aidan O’Brien is one of the most famous Irish people in the world right now and last week he came out and said drink is destroying Ireland. Yet, his comments barely made a headline, never mind prompted a national debate. They were hidden away down a feature article and nobody saw fit to make more of this. Roy Keane’s career was nearly derailed by drink many times. George Best’s career was ruined by it. In every county in Ireland there are prodigies whose promising hurling and football careers ended at the bottom of a pint glass. And those are only the sporting examples of the problems caused.

Every weekend, a new drunken atrocity occurs on the streets of our cities. There is some brief hand-wringing and caterwauling, then we go on about our lives. The drink culture is pervasive and pernicious and needs to be attacked and destroyed. It need not be part of who we are. It need not be an accepted element of our so-called culture. It need not be funny to see a sportsman celebrate a great achievement by getting wasted. The sooner more people realise that the better for the country at large, the better for Ireland’s future.

(this article first appeared in the Evening Echo, July 27, 2012)










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