An American's take on the 12 pubs of Christmas

RP O’Donnell has made Ireland home in every way but one – the American can’t get his head around our attitude to drink, especially when it comes to the 12 pubs of Christmas.

The Irish, particularly the ones that I have enthusiastically chosen to spend the rest of my life with, are extremely laid back. The tracker mortgage scandal was met with a shrug. The gardaí scandal — a shrug. The second gardaí scandal — a shrug. The third, fourth and fifth gardaí scandals — two shrugs, then the Graham Norton show.

But there is one thing that makes them suddenly clammy and sweaty in their undercarriages: if I have a beer on a weekday. I will take a moment to wait for the several readers who have collapsed, swooned or otherwise lost consciousness to rejoin us. Back? Perfect.

On occasion, I might even have a second beer — oh, there they go again. Generally, however, I find that picking my way to the fridge around the scattered bodies of my fainting family is too much trouble, so I just stick to one.

In America — the only country that finds it funny to say mean things about Canada — it is standard practice to step into a drink after returning home from a long day. Or a short day. Any day ending in -day, really.

From a young age, I learned to drink in moderation, and this meant a glass of wine or a bottle of beer with dinner, sipped and savored.

I first discovered this quirk of the Irish culture in my college years. I did a semester at UCC; my first week, my fellow ex-pats and I made the mistake of going out on a Wednesday night. Afterwards, our landlord talked to us with the raised eyebrows and a hushed voice of disapproval that implied something far more sinister than a few pints to the good on a quiet night.

Of course, in college, all rules are relaxed — Tuesdays and Thursdays are an entire industry.

Now that I have moved here and have joined the real world, however, the rules are stricter. I’ve discovered the real Irish drinking culture: in drink, the Irish are feast or famine. The weekdays are reserved for famine.

My two friends, Declan and Jack, will often lean in at work, whispering conspiratorially, “Did you have one last night?”

On Monday, Declan and Jack spill in, careening through the door with jugs of water and chili nuts —soakage and smell management.

They spend Mondays staggering, red eyed, avoiding open flames. By Tuesday, they’ve improved to reeling, pink eyed; by Wednesday they are almost human.

Americans have the same concept of thirst as the Irish — steam building up pressure on a door — we just release it slowly, weakening it bit by bit, letting it eke out, so it never blows the hinges off the door.

Now, don’t get me wrong — Americans are no Madonnas.

An overindulgence has resulted in a variety of compromising situations for many Americans, myself included — the first time I met an ex’s parents, for example, I was mostly naked, holding a kitchen whisk and a jar, and slurred at them to keep their voices down, because there were people counting on me to catch a squirrel. But for the most part, we stick to constant moderation.

Despite having thus joined the Irish drinking culture, I am still an outsider.

We went out for The 12 Pubs last winter, and I watched Declan in action during the feast — an altogether unsettling way of describing it, I know, but it is rather Shakesperean to watch.

Speaking of Billy Shakes, the display reminded me of the 7 stages of man from As You Like It, because I spent four years getting an English degree so if I have to shove it down your gob to use it, I’m going to do it, damn it.

First, the Schoolboy, “with a shining morning face”.

The beamish Declan puts on his Christmas jumper, and eagerly reviews the rules, the route. He eagerly gulps his first two Heinekens and the punishment shots.

He remembers the wonders of the world and it shimmers in response to his wide-eyed look.

Then, the Lover, “sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’s eyebrow”.

Declan finds a young woman charmed by his blurriness and recites poetry in the general direction of her equally charming blurriness; the drink has made him sentimental.

Owing to his state, however, when she leaves and another woman takes her place by the bar, he does not notice and continues his poem at the new, increasingly bewildered blur.

The Soldier, “sudden and quick in quarrel”.

On the eve of Prohibition, millions of children learned in school that just one taste of alcohol could lead to blindness, madness or even spontaneous combustion. We are no longer taught this, presumably because we got rid of whatever they were drinking back then. But occasionally, some of it gets mixed in with the regular stuff.

Luckily, the Irish are also incredibly amiable and quick to forgive, so Declan breezes through this stage.

After his brief interlude as a soldier, Declan repents his former ways; he gains wisdom in reflection, and he becomes the Judge, “full of wise saws and modern instances”.

Sobriety seems to return. Declan straightens up, and dabs the various stains on his shirt. He tells some sensible, sane jokes, and he even offers some commentary on the political situation in Yugoslavia. This is a false positive, however, a last gasp of a drowning sobriety — he begins telling the sensible, sane jokes to a small houseplant; at the same time it becomes clear that nobody has referred to or offered any interest in Yugoslavian politics, Declan is simply monologuing.

Declan now becomes the Pantaloon: a foolish old man acting like a much younger one.

He tries dancing on legs that are finding it harder to support him.

Somehow, his flailing and flopping movements convey sexual competence to a woman, and they leave together.

The rest of us descend, or cascade, into the Second childhood, old age stage, “mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything,” the rolling blackout that extends into the collapse onto bed, or at least anything vaguely resembling a bed — a couch, a table, a floor, and in some mysterious cases: an upright door.

The next morning, I receive a text from Declan, in the horrors, at the first stage of man, an Infant, “whimpering and puking in his nurse’s arms”. Declan has retreated to his parent’s home, where his mother dotes on him.

We are no saints in America — in fact I don’t believe that there is a single American saint in the canon — but we also don’t have any Dry January nonsense, and a beer with dinner is no large sin.


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