‘Paddy’s Day Unlocked’ will offer an alternative to the post-parade messy streets

St Patrick’s Day, inextricably linked with excessive drinking and anti-social behaviour, is undergoing something of a rebranding. 

‘Paddy’s Day Unlocked’ will offer an alternative to the post-parade messy streets

At least, that’s what Peter O’Brien of happenings.ie hopes his initiative will achieve. His brainchild, ‘Paddy’s Day Unlocked’ will offer Dublin residents and visitors an alternative to the post-parade messy streets and crowded pubs.

It will take place at Meeting House Square in Temple Bar an area associated with alcohol-fuelled revellers — which promises to be “a haven of creativity, quality music and fun-filled activities for all ages.” Crucially, it will be an alcohol-free zone with the backing of Dublin City Council.

Happenings, a company that hosts community and cultural events in public spaces, launched its alcohol-free St Patrick’s Day event in Limerick last year. About 4,000 people came through the doors of the Milk Market in the city to enjoy a family-friendly afternoon of entertainment.

O’Brien plans to bring ‘Paddy’s Day Unlocked’ to Cork next year too. He reckons about 2,000 people will attend the Dublin event from 3pm-7pm. Tickets costs €5 and there will be food from ‘The Happy Pear.’

O’Brien says Paddy’s Day Unlocked “is not anti-alcohol. It’s an alternative to what is a great thing in Ireland — the pub. I love the pub but I don’t want it to be the only option in my life”.

In terms of arts and creativity, Ireland is “a very evolved society. We need to be seen in that way rather than as a place that people come to in order to have mad drunken parties, especially on our national day”.

With art workshops for children and crafts such as screen printing on display, as well as music curated by well known music blogger Nialler9, there will be something for all the family in Meeting House Square.

The absence of an alternative to the pub is something that rankles with O’Brien: “I have my battles with how drink is normalised in this country. There’s a lot of people pushing for a more respectful use of alcohol.

“These days, there is nothing like the scale of addictive behaviour that came with the boom. In boom times, people consume a lot, including addictive substances. That has gone down but it will probably rise again if the economic push to have another boom happens.”

Singer and founder of the Rise Foundation for family members affected by alcohol addiction, Frances Black, is also getting in on the booze-free act with a separate event planned for the Gresham Hotel on March 17.

Inspired by a New York TV producer, Bill Reilly, Black is launching ‘Sober St Patrick’s Day Dublin’ which will be a lively ceilí and big party in the ballroom of the hotel. (Tickets are €29 for a family of four, €13 for an adult and €6 for children under 16 with free entry for five-year-olds and under. Numbers are restricted to 240. www.picatic.com/soberstpatricksdaydublin )

“Bill really wants to break the association between St Patrick’s Day and drunkenness,” says Black. “He began devising a way of celebrating Irish culture without getting plastered. The first step was to reclaim St Patrick’s Day.

"He knew if he could pull off an alcohol-free alternative in New York, it would be guaranteed to draw attention. He invited me over last year to see how it worked.

"I was blown away by its success. There was dancing, singing, laughing, great Irish music and just great craic, all the while celebrating our wonderful culture.”

Comedian, Des Bishop, will be celebrating St Patrick’s Day in his home town of New York too, for the first time since 1990. But he won’t be wetting the shamrock as the 39-year-old is twenty years off the booze, having become addicted to it as a teenager.

Bishop, who made a TV documentary a couple of years ago about Ireland’s relationship with alcohol, says he is “sick of the conversation about Ireland’s problem with drink.

“But I actually do think things are changing. I don’t bother too much with the consumption figures because I don’t think they’re a good gauge as there are factors such as emigration and immigration and age profile. However, I am big into more anecdotal observations.

"I think there’s a maturity starting to slowly creep in and with that is a more questioning attitude.

“The idea that the only thing to do is to get drunk is no longer the go-to position. People are not buying into the stereotypical identity of the Irish anymore. It’s unfashionable to be proud of the drunken Irish.”

Bishop acknowledges, however, that teenagers are drinking a lot. He wonders why Irish people are so defensive about alcohol problems.

“Why do people get upset when it’s suggested that they could probably do with drinking less? People don’t get as upset when you tell them they should eat less because of the obesity problem. There’s something deep in the Irish identity that connects itself to booze. No one has been able to get to the bottom of it.”

CEO of Alcohol Action Ireland, Suzanne Costello, says that St Patrick’s Day is “one of those events when there’s a lot of harmful drinking and a huge focus on it. The reality is that there is a lot of harmful drinking in Ireland every day.

"It’s not as visible. It doesn’t attract the same level of attention as St Patrick’s Day which is a distraction in a way. We need to address the problem throughout the year. What you see on Patrick’s Day is the sharp end of alcohol harm.”

Costello welcomes ‘Paddy’s Day Unlocked’ which she describes as being part of a cultural shift in changing attitudes around drink.

“But to prevent the harm occurring on a societal scale, we need to move to regulation. This year is a very important year in terms of dealing with alcohol harm. There are three key measures around which regulation is needed; the price of alcohol, the availability of it and the marketing of alcohol.”

While students’ excessive drinking was under the spotlight recently with early morning queues outside a Galway pub for the unofficial Rag Week event, ‘Donegal Tuesday’, Costello is encouraged by the concern of the USI (Union of Students in Ireland) regarding alcohol consumption.

“The USI is running the ‘Brothers & Sisters’ campaign in association with us. It is helping people to understand how binge-drinking impacts on mental health. There is also training for student counsellors.”

(The USI campaign comes in the wake of a study carried out in UCC which found that two-thirds of students are drinking hazardous amounts of alcohol every week with the gender gap closing.)

Costello is critical of the ‘Stop-Out-Of-Control-Drinking campaign, funded by drinks company, Diageo.

“Campaigns like this are generally put in place to mitigate regulation. It’s not a huge surprise that it was launched at almost the same time as the Government was trying to put in place regulation around alcohol. The Scots have a very similar problem as we have with alcohol. When they attempted to bring in minimum pricing, Diageo took a case against them while running a (awareness) campaign. It doesn’t make much sense.”

RTE journalist and author of Wasted: A Sober Journey through Drunken Ireland, Brian O’Connell has been trying to make sense of our relationship with alcohol since giving up problematic drinking 10 years ago. He occasionally visits schools to talk to teenagers about the perils of alcohol.

“I used to talk to fourth and fifth year pupils and the occasional third-year class. Now, schools ring me saying they have a problem with first-year pupils, aged 12 or 13.

"Something might have happened on a school tour or there might be an issue outside of school. My feeling is that conversations (around alcohol) should now take place at primary school.

“I tell pupils that hopefully, they will be the generation that might question our engagement with alcohol, fed by marketing and advertising.

“Something that I would never have said when I was their age, but which I now firmly believe, is that the legal age for drinking should be raised from 18 to 21.”

This, O’Connell says, would delay first drinking experiences “from an average age of 13 to maybe 15 or 16.”

Alarming figures from Temple Street Hospital in Dublin recently revealed that six children aged 12 or under were among the 100 minors who presented at the children’s hospital over the past three years, diagnosed with alcohol poisoning, a potentially fatal condition.

Sr Consilio, who set up Cuan Mhuire, an alcohol rehabilitation charity, says: “It is tragic to see young teenagers having to attend A&E as a result of over indulging in alcohol. It is so hard for young people today. There are too many options and too little support and guidance.” She welcomes the ‘Paddy’s Day Unlocked’ initiative.

Despite some green shoots indicating a shift away from our drunken Paddy stereotype, alcohol abuse is still a major issue.

As playwright, Conor McPherson once said: “Irish people think the fella at the bar with a Ballygowan is an alcoholic.”

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