Today is St. Patrick’s Day in America and while the day is intended to celebrate Saint Patrick, it is really a day for celebrating the Irish and getting drunk.
There are all kinds of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

We have parades. We have pints of green beer selling for a nickel a glass. We wear green or live in fear of getting pinched.

Beyond the laughter, the bawdiness and the ubiquitous curse of The Green Beer — I wonder about a deeper cultural and ethnic issue bothering the whole idea of getting drunk in the name of a Saint in celebration of cultural icons.
If there another national holiday dedicated to one culture — where the overarching idea of the day is to get blasted and bleary-eyed?
Is there a reason people live to get drunk on St. Patty’s Day?

Do we honor the Irish by getting falling-down drunk?

Is there a genetic predisposition in the Irish population for alcoholism and, if there is, what does that say about our need to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by imbibing? 

One cannot become an alcoholic — genetically coded or not — unless
one takes a drink of the evil brew, so if there is a tendency in the
Irish community for alcohol addiction, is it proper for us to serve
that stereotype and mock the addiction by getting drunk and partying?

I realize this is a touchy subject. It is more difficult to discuss
genetic alcoholism in the Irish and Native American communities
than it is in the Jewish community because there is such a wide and
pervasive image of the blathering Irishman and stumbling Native
American in our cultural core.

I grew up around a lot of 100% Irish families and — if there is a
stereotype in that community for connecting with alcohol in every
recreational moment — I can testify to the verity of that notion.

One family had five brothers. Four of the brothers died of alcoholism
after drinking for 30 years. The one remaining brother remained a
“working drunk” for 55 years and he started drinking at age 10.
He was a hardcore, nasty, cruel drunk. He drank two liters of Irish
whiskey a day.

He was hospitalized many times for severe alcohol
intoxication. He always returned home to his family and the cold
comfort of his bottle.
Finally, with his liver failing, he gave up the juice for good. He did
it cold turkey. He swapped his alcohol addiction for an M&Ms
addiction and gained 30 pounds.

He is still alive, and dry, today. He’s
been sober for 15 years.
Is that a miracle? Or is that just how life unfolds on itself as one
tries for 55 years to run from the genetic demon brewing the demand for alcohol from within every corpuscle?
In 2006 Molecular Psychiatry suggested there is a genomic identifier for alcoholism in the Irish:

Genomewide linkage study in the Irish affected
sib pair study of alcohol dependence: evidence for a susceptibility
region for symptoms of alcohol dependence on chromosome 4

Alcoholism is a relatively common, chronic, disabling and often
treatment-resistant disorder. Evidence from twin and adoption studies
indicates a substantial genetic influence, with heritability estimates
of 50-60%. We conducted a genome scan in the Irish Affected Sib Pair
Study of Alcohol Dependence (IASPSAD).

If you’re going to get drunk today in the name of St. Patrick, please
be careful where and how you do it and please don’t drive if you’ve
been drinking. The risk of death isn’t the curse of a Saint you need
resting on your soul.


  1. I’ve never understood the green beer. Is it food coloring they use? I wonder why today is an excuse to get drunk? Do all nations have a similar free pass day for public intoxication?

  2. Hey Anne!
    I think it is green food coloring they use to turn the beer green. It’s fun to do that, but when you start peeing green later… you wonder why the bother. 😀
    I, too, wonder, if there is a national need to get drunk – and to claim a free “get out of jail” pass for public intoxication? In NYC there’s a big parade and everyone is drunk and peeing on the street corners. It’s pretty obnoxious.

  3. It is curious to see the Irish pride parade so linked to public drinking. Isn’t there a saying that today “everyone is Irish”? What does that say about what we think it means to be Irish in America?

  4. Anne!
    If I drink, I drink wine. Dark, deep, beautiful, red, burgundy wine. Green food coloring wouldn’t make much of a difference, I fear!

  5. I like wine, too. Red is good for the heart, right? Is beer good for anything?

  6. Red wine is, reportedly, good for the heart in daily moderation. Beer and hard liquor, on the other hand, seems only good for getting bombed.

  7. I’d like to present you with an abbreviated description of the New Orleans St. Patty’s Day parade as I’ve experienced it in pre-Katrina years. There are two, actually (and a St. Joseph’s Day parade for the Italians, and an Irish-Italian parade as well); this one took (takes?) place along Magazine Street on the Saturday before March 17th.
    Like most parades, this one featured marching bands and floats; the floats were not huge and fiber-optic-equipped like Mardi Gras floats, but cheerfully painted and loaded with intoxicated Irish-ancestry claimants who threw things at the crowd: beads, small toys, cups, lacy lingerie, carrots, potatoes, and cabbages. TONS of the last; once I saw a float rider slit open a giant net bag full of cabbage heads and pour them over the side of the float. The ones that fell into the street were kicked around or speared onto fence posts; potatoes and other produce that we captured cleanly went into soup pots later. In addition to floats, there were phalanxes of marching Irishmen in tophats and tails, many of whom carried beer tanks on their backs, most of whom were throwing beads and exchanging flowers for kisses. Off of Magazine, the streets were lined with tents of Irish dancers, strawberries n’ cream, and of course the ubiquitous green beer.
    I bring all this up because although the event certainly showcases its fair share of Irish stereotypes, the celebration was a little about ethnicity and mostly about plenitude. Plenty of alcohol, sure, but also plenty of food, plenty of shiny objects, plenty of people, plenty of entertainment. It was a family carnival, situated conveniently between the BIG one and Jazzfest.
    (Past tense, because I have not been back since to see if this is still true.)
    Perhaps other cities latch onto St. Patty’s Day because they lack any other kind of organized carnival–an explosion of enjoyment that was regulation in many societies in past centuries. It’s unfortunate that today, carnival is usually restricted to a night rather than a weekend or more, and restricted to alcohol indulgence rather than other types of plenitude (I’m fond of food vendors and street performers, myself). It’s even more unfortunate that this particular holiday plays on uncomfortable associations between Irishness and alcohol, when the copious green beer consumption probably speaks a lot more to contemporary culture than to the Irish specifically. (Have fun but have it quickly and cheaply!)

  8. That’s a wonderful and deep portrait of a celebration, Tanglethis, and I thank you for sharing it today.
    I do think people and cities that are bland and in need of ethnic coloring, glom onto the nearest excuse to have fun — even if it is at the expense of another culture’s pride and historic importance.

  9. Interesting to hear about the Green Beer – over in the UK it is *black gold* or Guinness that is the poison of choice – free pints of the stuff being given away.
    Today all the pubs are full of Irishmen getting drunk watching the Rugby which they won , but not by enough points to take the 6 nations championship – 0r watching the cricket world cup where they have just dismissed Pakistan for about 130.
    There are excel spreadsheets of the UK statistics for alcohol related deaths here
    To get a world wide view this might be better
    A day to avoid going out I think !

  10. Those are great links, Nicola, thanks!
    I do love Guinness so — it’s the beer you can chew! 😀
    Boddingtons is another favorite.
    You’re right today is a day to avoid other people. Too many drunks on the street for my taste.
    The image of a “Drunken Irishman” is rich in international color and culture. I can’t image the sober Irish appreciate that caricature — true or not — as they try to lead right lives.

  11. Boddingtons – now you are talking ! Even I have partaken of that in my past.
    I don’t mind people who drink – its the people who cannot stop drinking once they have started – and the problems they create for the rest of us.
    ( I have to say I do not know any sober Irish people – all of the ones I know have a fondness for their liquor.)

  12. Hi Nicola —
    Yes, Boddingtons is a rare surprise here. If you can find it on tap, it’s even better. It’s easier to find Guinness on tap than it is to find Boddingtons even in the can! 😀
    I agree. Drinking is fine in moderation. When you can’t stop until you’re stumbling drunk — then your drinking becomes everyone else’s problem.
    Yikes! Thanks for the confirmation of your Irish experience. I don’t want to be universally condemning, but there is value in private personal experience and observation as well.

  13. The predilection for drink is American. Having lived in Ireland for many a year, I can tell you that this is a religious holiday, a day for families. The overlooked question is why we blame the Irish for our own bad habits–which is to say, why do we need a scapegoat?

  14. The teetotaling provost marshal of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. Marsena Patrick, wrote on that St. Patrick’s Day, “In accordance with a Special request from Hooker, I agreed to go over & witness some of the festivities at the Head Quarters of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. We brought up in the midst of a grand steeple chase, from which the crowd soon adjourned to drink punch at Meagher’s Head Quarters — Everybody got tight & I found it was no place for me — so I came home.”

  15. Right, Sandy, that’s why I’m wondering why St. Patrick’s Day in America is more an excuse to get drunk in public than it is to honor a Saint.

  16. Just found this great site David.
    rather late comment, but petinent, maybe next year more!
    Here in Tulsa Oklahoma the drinking to drunk is actually quite low. The drinking in moderation is quite high (with the Irish quite so). Our emphasis is first the Irish bands and music and dance, the beer and then for the singles the quest for attachment and dating. Nobody in this blog mentioned “Irish Music or dancing”. Couples abound in the crowd, enjoying their marriage and the crowds.

  17. Welcome to Urban Semiotic, Bill!
    Thanks for the great comment! I appreciate your fine insight and wonderment on this matter or “The Irish Blood!”

  18. I suppose it’s true that different cultures seem to have a predisposition to drink problems. How the Irish became synonymous with drink problems, I’m not sure. They seem to me to have the same drink culture as the Brits and a few others. Namely binge drinking at the weekends, which leads to all kinds of problems on the streets and in emergency rooms. A curious thing to note is that we’ve never had green beer here in Ireland until recently.

  19. Given the unfolding (over the past 10 years now) revelations that the Catholic Church has for generations been secretly abusing and damning millions of Irish children who clung to their faith for better of for worse….in hindsight who would not turn to alcohol to numb that pain when there was nowhere else to turn? In Ireland being an alcoholic is culturally acceptable because it is implicitly understood that you are numbing your pain. I am Irish and my drinking level is below the range of problem drinking in Ireland, but in America I would be considered an alcoholic. And yes – I was abused by the Church. Not to put a negative spin on the Church, but there is a correlation…. That’s how I came up with a new word: Cathoholic. We are many.

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