Alcohol abuse and the Great Hunger explored at symposium

Christine Kinealy speaks at the May 17 symposium, "Exploring the Legacies of the Great Hunger: The Cultural, Spiritual, Psychological and Political Consequences for Today's Ireland from Centuries of Colonization."

May 21, 2013 - The theory that a sober Ireland is a free Ireland is rarely discussed publically but was explored in a May 17 program hosted by Quinnipiac University's Ireland's Great Hunger Museum.

The program was titled, "Exploring the Legacies of the Great Hunger: The Cultural, Spiritual, Psychological and Political Consequences for Today's Ireland from Centuries of Colonization." Christine Kinealy, visiting scholar in residence at Quinnipiac and an internationally renowned expert on the Great Hunger, gave an overview of the cultural and political legacies of British rule and then introduced Garrett O'Connor, a psychiatrist and former president and CEO of the Betty Ford Institute.

O'Connor, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober 36 years, said most physicians are not educated to treat alcoholism and don't understand it, a phenomenon that has not changed much over the centuries. In his talk, he focused on what he calls "collateral damage" from drinking, especially the effects on children of alcoholics, and detailed the reasons why he thinks drinking has been ingrained in the Irish culture.

"We are known as a race of drunks, would you agree?" he said. Many in the audience nodded; some smiled. O'Connor had tuberculosis at age 12 and was given three to four pints a day of Guinness Stout to improve his health. He shared that his parents also were alcohol and drug dependent.

When the British and others invaded Ireland from the 12th Century onward, land was seized from the Irish, a people the British labeled as "barbarous," according to Kinealy.

"The land was not theirs to take, but they took it anyway and took it by force--savage force," O'Connor said. "The Irish were a primitive society and always at a disadvantage. They didn't have gunpower or much recourse." O'Connor noted that in 1600, the Irish owned 90 percent of the land in Ireland, but by 1720, that figure had dropped to 10 percent.

But building stills to make poteen (moonshine) gave the Irish a weapon of resistance against their invaders, O'Connor said. "Poteen stills were a cultural remission for poverty and suffering," he noted, adding that there were thousands of them. He remarked that a kitchen still could yield 12 gallons of whiskey a week.

Families would drink it, sell it and "it would improve the family's state of life and economy while undermining it at the same because of the chemical effect. It was something they could do, and it gave them a sense of mastery over their oppressors," he said.

He related that police officers would publicly break up the stills, but then privately help the poteen makers put them back together because they enjoyed the brew as well. "There was collusion to keep the industry going," he said. With alcohol abuse, there are some good times, O'Connor acknowledged, "but mostly a terrible descent into torture, hell and inner shame," he said.

As the Irish emigrated to America during the Famine, so did the cultural stereotype of them as "lazy and stupid drunks." They were depicted in American political cartoons as monkeys with bare feet and bottles.

"Blacks did not like the Irish because they were taking their work. They were Catholic in an Anglo-Saxon environment, and they were labeled ignorant because they didn't speak English. Eventually, they became priests, firemen and policemen," he said.

O'Connor believes alcoholism is in the DNA of the Irish culture. He has written about the Irish suffering from a "malignant shame" likely brought on by low self-esteem, self-misperceptions of cultural inferiority and suppression of feelings stemming from their treatment before and during the Famine years.