Friday, July 9, 2010
Cannot live with it, cannot live without it.. Drink has been a good friend for most of my adult life. But now I am learning to live without it. Not through virtue but out of necessity. The medicines I am taking for a broken, well if not broken, certainly challenged, heart do not sit well with alcohol.
My first encounter with alcohol was entirely unintentional. 'A likely story', you may say. I was eleven and staying for three months in the Connemara Gaeltacht. The mother of the man of the house died. Strangely I do not remember her alive, just dead, lying out on the kitchen table. The wake became a party. I cannot remember if the deceased lady stayed for the party or was moved to another quieter room. I was promised a glass of lemonade by the kindly bean an ti (lady of the house) Cait Bean Ui Welby.
Normally she was very attentive. She had reared ten children to see them all emigrate so she kind of adopted any of the Gael Linn students who stayed with her for three months. While other Gael Linn students in other homes practically starved and had to fight for food round the table, I was spoiled rotten and was treated to as many as eggs were as laid that day - typically three eggs - and six sausages and boiled potatoes and warm freshly baked bread.
Anyway she was busy that night tending to friends and neighbours. After a few hours of waiting for the lemonade that never came, I decided to help myself. I poured a glass for myself and knocked it back. Within minutes the room was revolving. I had just drunk a glass full of 90% proof Poiteen neat. It was only years later that I put two and two together and decided I must have finished off their stock of poiteen that night.
Some weeks later I made my confirmation in Carraroe, County Galway, af ew miles from where I was staying. My class mates in Dublin were making their confirmation in Churchtown so I made mine in the local Church. I took the pledge in Irish - promising to avoid alcohol until the age of 21. Some years later I concluded that because I had taken the pledge in Irish, it did not really count.
I did not take great advantage of my self awarded dispensation because the next time alcohol touched my lips was on my 17th birthday. I spent the summer of 1968 in Paris working in the De La Salle hostel for Brothers from all over the world. Unused to alcohol, two glasses of wine were enough to send my head swimming. I remember stumbling back to my quarters on the Rue de Sevres feeling that Paris seemed so gay and exciting and full of possibilities.
My drinking career suffered a significant hiatus for the eight and half years I spent in the Seminary. However between the age of 30 and 55 I tried to make up for a lifetime of abstinence. I remember or half remember a weekend in Puerto Banus where we did not sober up for three days and various golf excursions where as the drinking improved the golf disimproved in direct correlation.
In pre Celtic tiger times, drink was an agreeable crutch in business. Three or four pints in the eving were a pleasant way to end the day's work. The last decade in Ireland became a time for deals that demanded ferocious working hours, often three or four days in a row followed by a celebratory drink that became a necessity.
We are a great country for drinking. I mean that in the best possible way. Enter a pub in Sydney, or London or Paris or Berlin and you do not have the same sense of fun and animation. The Greeks may have given us philosophy and the French may have given us wine and cheese but the Irish have given the world the Irish pub. I don't mean the 'Irish' pub in Warsaw owned by a Russian and manned by Poles, all good people, but a real Dublin pub that sells real Guinness or a a pub in the West of Ireland where traditional Irish music is played at the drop of a spoon.
I will miss those nights of quiet pints of Guinness where we ended up hugging friends and complete strangers. I am not sure if I am ready for the life of sobriety that involves a sensible glass of sweet sherry that lasts the night. I will miss the madness. The generosity of spirit.
Looking back on a life time of drink there are very few pints I regret. My family will be mightily relieved that my cheeks will not shine red and ruby and acquaintances both male and female with be spared bear hugs after midnight. Leaving drink is like leaving a good friend. There have been good days and bad days but the good far outweigh the bad.
Onto the next chapter of an unrehearsed life...