The thin line between drinks and ‘proper’ drinks

My friends were uncomfortable when I stopped drinking. It made them question their own habits

Sean Hughes, The Irish Times, 12th August 2014

The other night, pretty drunk at the end of the evening, my friend asked if I wanted to go for a “proper” drink. Thank God those days are over for me now. I quit drinking totally for a couple of years because I was having too many “proper” drinks. I knew I was drinking too much when I had to be put out at a party. I don’t mean I was asked to leave. My jacket was on fire.

When I started drinking again, I thought my friends would be concerned, but they welcomed my return with a “great to have you back” attitude. Apparently I’m tedious when sober. People were uncomfortable when I wasn’t drinking. It made them question their own habits.

My first experience of drinking was on summer holidays. We were poor, so the holiday consisted of a week at my grandparents’ place in Cork. It was more a kidnapping really. “Get in the car and be polite to old people,” was the instruction. A community service of sorts.

I have fond memories but little detail of these times, mainly because of Granddad’s homemade apple drink, which must have been at least 70 per cent proof. I have a vague recollection of being told we were going to the seaside and me going, “Just give me some aspirin and more apple juice, please.”

Meanwhile back at camp

Then there was the classic 15-year-old rite of passage of camping out in a friend’s back garden just so we could drink. I still can’t believe our parents fell for the sudden love we had found for the great outdoors. We would pay the local tramp to buy the booze for us. Vodka and cider. To this day the smell of both makes me retch.

What is it about the Irish and boozing? Does it come from our grand tradition of needing to speak with a drink in our hand? Maybe it comes from the fact that alcohol was put out of our reach when we were kids. We all want what we can’t have. My dad had a habit of dropping in to the pub while leaving us in the car outside with the promise of the rich pickings of Coke and crisps. We would while away the hours by nodding at the other kids parked up in other cars as we all looked to the warm glow of the pub.

When I came of age, my dad would take me to the pub. It was great until they rang the bell for last orders. Everyone would dash to the bar and get two more drinks in. I reckon we would win every medal at the Olympics if, instead of a starting pistol at the beginning of each race, they just had a guy shout “last orders”.

Dad would come back from the counter with two pints of Guinness for me. My heart would sink. I had to force these drinks down me in record time, like a participant in a Japanese TV show. Back at home, everybody went to bed. I spent an hour with my head down the toilet.

Glory and gore

There still seems to be glory attached to how much drink you can down. We are seen as friendly drinkers; I have lost count of the amount of English people who tell me Irish pubs are the friendliest in the world. I like to point out to them that we are not even aware they are there; this is how drunk we are. They also like to tell me how much they love Irish traditional music; I like to point out that a lot of those songs are about murdering them.

George Best, one of the most talented people to ever come out of this country, used to regale people with his story about being in a hotel and ordering a bottle of champagne in the morning. The porter comes in and sees he is the worse for wear. Best is in bed with Miss World, who, besides having sex with George, hankers for world peace. There are empty bottles everywhere and cash from casino winnings sewn across the room.

Best used to love retelling this story with a big grin on his face – how the porter assessed the situation and said, “George, where did it all go wrong?” Everybody laughs. I find this a sad story. The only happy ending would have been if Best had turned to the porter and said, “Probably when I wasn’t diagnosed as an alcoholic in my early 20s.”

All I’m saying is, if you are going “camping”, do some keepie-uppies to keep your options open.