Module focussing on representations of alcohol in Irish literature

Session #1

– On positive portrayals of alcohol and pubs, with a beer mat as prop

Just as a ‘trailer’, opened with the Guinness ad that uses the “We Have All The Time In The World” song and ends with the slogan ‘Pure Genius’ and a symbol of the trademarked Guinness harp while Armstrong sings the words ‘only love’.

To put literature in a clinical context – with alcoholism as the presenting condition – I read from Danielle Offri‘s essay ‘The Poetry Ward‘ about how she has incorporated poems into her ward rounds with trainee doctors, and even involved one (Jack Coulehan’s ‘I’m Gonna Slap Those Doctors‘) in her communications with a patient.

We moved on to Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Workman’s Friend’ poem from At Swim-Two-Birds as a starting point for a session exploring how pervasive and often positively represented pub life and alcohol are in Irish society as reflected in a number of poems, including:

I also mentioned the idea of Irish literature as patient and our job being to diagnose it.

To allude to how some of the work of the post-Joyce time was sub-par, I quoted from Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir, Are You Somebody? (New Island Books, 2018, p 92) >

… the culture [of literary Dublin] was terribly dependent on drink. There was too much public, anecdotal life and not enough personal, lyric life. There was too much drinking. Drinking means bad breath and crusted shirt-fronts and shaking hands and bottles of milk wolfed down as a meal and waking in the morning on a pile of coats with no clean knickers and being thin, being cold, being sick. And drinking is, after all, about getting drunk. Fine people all but prostituted themselves to get the money to get stupidly drunk every single night. I saw Myles na Gopaleen urinate against the counter in Neary’s one night. That’s what being a drunk means – waking to the evidence of repeated lonely humiliations that drive you further and further away from anything but drink. And whatever that kind of drinking did to me, it ruined women. I can think of only a few of the women (and I’m not one of them) who hung around McDaid’s who were not, sometimes, squalid. You would think that way of life had been designed to test people to their limits. Certainly it could not be survived: only abandoned.

Session 2 – in the pub

– On more damaging portrayals of alcohol and pub life in Irish literature, with actual pint of Guinness as ‘prop’

A poem-crawl session aimed at plying the participants with a skinful of drink-poems so that almost before they realised it and with minimal effort on their part they’d have got drunk on a sense of the medium (Irish literature) & of the theme (alcohol) over a relatively short period of time:

  • ‘Aubade’ by Michael Hartnett – a sort of follow-on poem to O’Brien’s ‘Workman’s Friend’, being in a similar metre & form, but with the refrain being the growing need to call a doctor.
  • ‘All Alcoholics Are Charmers’ by Martina Evans
  • ‘Bar Fly’ by Nessa O’Mahony
  • ‘Quitting the Bars’ by Paula Meehan

We ended with a discussion of what I think is kind of a ‘found poem’ by a man called Jim Long, who I gather was a client of Cork’s Simon Community. It was kindly given to me by Kathy D’Arcy who had it from an anthology (Mosaic) put together by Cork Simon in 2005. My sense – without having been able to confirm it yet – is that Jim was ‘interviewed’ and this story of his relationship with Phyllis was made into this poem by the editor of the anthology. It’s a heart-wrenching ‘Fairy Tale of New York’-like story of love challenged by the harsh realities of addiction and street living.

Session 3 – back in classroom

– On alcohol-aided abuse and control as theme and tumbler of whiskey (actually apple juice) as prop

To highlight the effect of all that alcohol on society, on people, at the deepest level, we read and talked about Doireann Ní Ghriofa‘s ‘From Richmond Hill’:

Home from hospital, you doze in my arm, milk-drunk,
all eyelashes, cheeks and raw umbilical, swaddled
in the heavy black smells of the brewery.

... Down gullets and guts went the porter,
went the pay, went the nights and days. ...

... As I watch your eyes open,
the reek of roasting hops knits a blanket of scent around us.

We read extracts from Edna O’Brien’s Down By the River with a focus on how alcohol may or may not be a factor in James’ sexual abuse and raping of his daughter, Mary; as well as on how Irish society is represented in terms of the repression of true feelings and emotions and their displacement to empty formulas in conversation, distorted relationships, and unhealthy reliance on alcohol.

We discussed the inability of various people in Mary’s life to prompt Mary to say what was going on or to be able to help her; and put that in the context of how doctors need to have particular patience & the skill of close listening (// close reading in literature) to be able to communicate with young people; and an empathy and imagination that enables them to imagine possibilities and explore them – abilities that could be enhanced by reading literature.


On the topic of repression and not being equipped to talk abour certain things, I quoted again from Nuala O’Faolain:

“Yet I had no confidence at all … at the business of love. Over the next few years, the few times I more or less ‘went all the way’, it wasn’t because I wanted to, but because I was too shy about intimate things to talk about it. I didn’t have the self-confidence to indicate ‘no’. Or – when it came up, wordlessly, the first time, I didn’t have the words to say that I didn’t want to. Then, by doing it, I gained the confidence to say we should stop. This was the worst possible way of being with young men who were at least as confused as I was.” (page 56.)

Session 4 – 

– On teenage pressures and personality disorders, with numerous (empty) bottles of vodka as prop & game of drink bingo (with water)

We read a part of the second chapter, ‘Saturday’, from Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It, and discussed drinking among young people, the reasons for it as presented in Asking For It, the consequences, and how convincing or not the portrayals of their behaviour are in the novel compared to our own experiences.

We focussed on the malevolence of the central character, Emma, and where that might have come from – nature v nurture etc.; relationships with parents; ambition etc. And we discussed how Emma’s abuse of alcohol in the first part of the book shifts to her mother later on.

I then used Emilie Pine‘s essay ‘Something About Me’ from Notes on Self, in which one finds remarkable parallels from real life, to set up a ‘dialogue’ between the fiction & non-fiction and help elucidate the relationship Emma has with her mother.

We discussed the different kind of repression that seems to be at the heart of Asking For It – a failure to confront issues together, to guess at or ‘see’ what is right before our eyes, a failure to listen to each other without judgement and thereby enable divulgence, truth, confession; and instead turning a blind eye, pretending. There’s also, behind all that, a failure to nourish, to give space to, to protect, and speak up for etc. the next generation.

I suggested doctors needed to be part of that move to stand up for and protect young people, to prioritise their safety & their rights (above keeping up appearances etc.) & the importance of listening non-judgementally and in ways that it is clear to those speaking that there will be no judging, to young people, to each other; & encouraging the dealing with issues that can cause so much harm to people.

Session 5

– On alcoholISM, with the normality of wine as prop

With the alcoholism context established by extracts from Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, Lucy Rocca’s talk for Alcohol Action Ireland about her alcoholism >, and from Mary Coughlan’s song ‘Delaney’s Gone Back on the Wine’ (He didn’t move out right away/Spent a few evenings just tearing out his hair/While all the kids just stared./And we moaned about who really cared.”) and an interview with her about shame & not having the words to describe the abuse she experienced at the time; and the sense of the medical profession’s contribution to normalising alcohol from some brief references (e.g. Shaun McCann’s An Immodest Proposal); we revisited Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It in particular reading extracts that dealt with Emma’s mother’s rapidly developing reliance on wine as family life deteriorates, mirroring Emma’s reliance on vodka in first part of the book.

We then read & discussed the amazing portrait of an alcoholic at the outer fringes of life that is Eileen Casey’s story ‘That Woman’ (from Snow Shoes) and the clinical presentation of alcoholism as seen in Emilie Pine’s essay ‘On Intemperance’ from Notes to Self.

Themes that came up:

  • Misconceptions of what alcoholISM ‘looks’ like
  • Importance of children >/</= Individual’s needs/desires
  • Cultural differences in relationships between young people & where alcohol fits in
  • Attitude of medical professionals to alcohol – too blasé? 
  • What can medics say to harmful/dependent drinkers with responsibility for children? 
  • Need for doctors to use their voices to speak out against alcohol?
  • Burden of alcohol morbidity on healthcare resources & individual medics
  • Public health policies on alcohol in society


Session 6 –

– On alcohol & death, with a liver in formaldehyde as the prop, in the old anatomy lecture theatre, TCD

The participants, with final prop in the foreground.

Introduced the theme using Dorothy Molloy’s poem ‘Gethsemane Day’ with its almost unbearable juxtaposing of the grimness of a final diagnosis with the jolliness of a nursery rhyme metre:

They’ve taken my liver down to the lab,
left the rest of me here on the bed;
the blood I am sweating rubs off on the sheet,
but I’m still holding on to my head.

What cocktail is Daddy preparing for me?
What ferments in pathology’s sink?
Tonight they will tell me,
will proffer the cup, and, like it or not, I must drink.

We read & discussed extracts from Anne Enright’s novel The Gathering (Jonathan Cape 2007) about the Hegarty clan, as told through the voice of heavy drinker, Veronica, as she tries to get her head around the life and death of her alcoholic brother, Liam, & the widespread dysfunction in her family:

This is the way my mind runs … while my brother is decanted and transported and embalmed (the whiskey must help)

p. 83

I drew attention to the considerable number of parallels between Enright’s plot and the ‘true-life story’ of Nuala O’Faolain & her brother, Don, as recounted in her memoir Are You Somebody?  (New Island 2018)

I saw black rot in his finger-tips. I never saw anything in my life as – as indifferent to me and all the living – as that blackness. His body wasn’t even pretending to carry a person any more. What or where Don was, was the most unanswerable question. I never heard silence like there was in the little room with his body in it. I never saw anything more immobile than Don in that still place…

p. 262

Finished up by sharing this harrowing short video about alcohol & suicide from Alcohol Action Ireland >


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