Irish drinking culture and the difficulties of going sober

Dry January is a chance to reflect

On the very first day of 2019, I woke up after four and a half hours sleep on a hard wooden floor, fully clothed and with my winter jacket on, after using the remnants of a slab of Guinness as my pillow. Once I’d gotten up and forced a cup of tea down my neck, one of the lads went around offering cans for the session to begin again. It was that sniff of warm Heineken, as well as the lack of sleep and horrifically raw throat, that made me decide to fully commit to dry January. Waking up with a clear head after a full night’s sleep and finding out you didn’t spent €15 on a double vodka and red bull seemed pretty good at the time.

Dry January has evolved from a half-hearted promise to give the booze a rest after a heavy Christmas period, into a fully fledged public health campaign. Beginning with an effort run by British charity, Alcohol Concern, in 2013, the movement was endorsed and funded by the UK government in January 2015. In January 2014, it was estimated that 14,000 people took a month off the drink as part of the movement. This number ballooned over the following years, and a YouGov poll estimated over three million people had their cokes without rum last year. The number is continuing to grow as more and more people take a break after the festivities over the holiday period.

Dry January is well placed because, for many people, it comes right after the busiest week in the social year. People return home from college, work, or even abroad and you catch up with all your old school friends, some of whom you haven’t seen in years. The Christmas drinking period at home begins with Twelve Pubs on December 23. On the night, if you do manage to make it to all twelve pubs and get into the nightclub without getting sick along the way, your reward is, naturally, a free pint. After Twelve Pubs comes the few pints on Christmas Eve in the local to help with the recovery, and then Christmas dinner itself is often accompanied by wine, champagne if the boom is truly back, or the ever trustworthy cans.

The Christmas period of heavy drinking running from the 23rd right through to New Year’s Eve has come to be known among young people as the lightheartedly-named “silly season.” Silly season roughly translates to you losing at least €300, gaining a stone, and smashing at least ten glasses. After this, it’s understandable that you want to take it easy for a while. But while Dry January might be a worthwhile challenge to working professionals, how tough is it when you’re surrounded by the drinking culture that permeates so many aspects of college life?

The answer: very. I undertook Sober October last year to raise some money for charity, and I knew that the only way I wouldn’t touch a drop for the thirty one days was if I had the people who donated to keep me accountable. October began on a Monday, and, of course, it was the day where I attended more free drink events in College than in the entirety of my previous two years. First came a reception where wine flowed freely. It was no Revero or other reasonably priced stuff either; it didn’t taste like vinegar or bring tears to your eyes according to my friends, who repeatedly informed me about the matter. Orange juice was on offer, but it was in a wine glass, and I’m nearly certain that the lady going around topping up the wine specifically picked me out to come over every four minutes offering an alcoholic refill.

In only one day of abstaining from drink, both of the social events had it for free on tap.” 

Somehow that was survived, and the next event was a Phil speech where again, wine was freely offered. This was however the €4 variety and slightly easier to refuse, although the fact I had to get up and talk meant it would have been downed gladly in normal circumstances. Once again I just about resisted and gave an alright speech, and the reward for doing so was, naturally, a free bottle of wine. In only one day of abstaining from drink, both of the social events had it for free on tap. Of course there was no pressure to have any, but it would have been far easier to just give in and take what was on offer.

I made an effort to go to Coppers with a friend of mine who was also doing Sober October, but once we reached the steps we decided we couldn’t do it, got the takeaway early and called it a night. I did go out at home for a 21st completely sober, and that was certainly an experience. The usual nightclub was a different place without a feed of drink, but wasn’t as bad as I, or everyone else, had predicted it would be. I’ve had much worse nights in there absolutely smashed, and it was nice to actually remember the conversations with old school friends in the morning. I woke up to a semi full wallet, a distinct lack of “The Fear”, and the clearest my head had been after a night on the town in years. Sober October was certainly a challenge, but we raised a couple of hundred euro for a great charity and had fun seeing if we could last.

“Recent changes to the SU elections mean that prospective Ents Officers have to run at least one non-alcoholic event during their campaigns.”

While college is getting better, there is still a noticeable lack of nights out that are marketed as being non-alcoholic. Recent changes to the SU elections mean that prospective Ents Officers have to run at least one non-alcoholic event during their campaigns. Changes like these are wonderful, as more choice is only a good thing. I am the farthest thing from anti-drink, as any of my friends will tell you, and everyone’s limit is different. I myself only lasted two weeks this dry January before I went to a friend’s party in Dublin and broke the dry streak. Regardless, Dry January and Sober October are great challenges, and more fun than you’d think. The best parts of the night out – the chipper just before the taxi home, or the chicken fillet roll the next morning – are just as good, if not better, sober.

Hugh McInerney

Hugh McInerney is the host and producer of Trinity News' podcast.