August 17th, 2015

The Irish Virus

The Irish virus. This term has been familiar to me ever since I first heard it from Kolmac co-founder, Jim McMahon, in reference to the high incidence of alcohol problems in people of Irish descent. Infectious disease is actually one of the few etiologic factors not thought to contribute to this phenomenon – genetics, cultural support and social hardship being more likely contributors. Over the years, a disproportionate number of Kolmac patients have in fact traced their family roots to Ireland. The flight from hard times there has led to more Irish people now living in the United States than in Ireland.

I just returned from a vacation in that wonderful country and can report that while drinking alcohol is still an important part of the culture and “Guinness” labeled tourist memorabilia are in abundance, changes are also evident. Binge drinking levels in Ireland continue to be among the highest in Europe, and drinking tends to occur in pubs, which occupy a central and honored place in Irish social life. On the other hand, a large number of pubs have closed, and tolerance for drunk driving has diminished.

I listened to one Irish musician’s nostalgic childhood account of he and his siblings riding in a car driven by their intoxicated father — lamenting that such an “amusing” experience is less possible today. Storytelling is another important element in Irish culture, and one could postulate that humor was being used here in an attempt to deal with what must have been a harrowing experience for a child dealing with the Irish virus. The same man noted how many Irish songs were about drinking, but commented that the message of many of those songs is cautionary.

Recovery from addiction begins with acknowledging that a problem with the Irish virus exists and accurately naming it. Ireland as a country appears well on his way to taking effective action against its problem with drugs other than alcohol. It was the first European country to ban cigarette smoking in public places, including pubs. (Some point to this, with limited evidence, as being the cause of the closing of so many pubs.) They are also seriously committed to combating criminal gang activity, much of which is based on drug trafficking.

Although drinking alcohol has been historically embedded in the culture, so has abstinence. Ireland as a country has one of the highest percentages of lifetime abstainers. Alcoholics Anonymous has found root in Ireland, which may have been the first European country to welcome it. Recovery support groups without a spiritual base, such as SMART Recovery and LifeRing, have also found a place there.

The Irish have an impressive history of persevering with warmth and humor despite adversity, and based on what I saw and have subsequently read, I would say that the prospects for addicts seeking recovery from the Irish virus in that country are hopeful.


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