Why the Irish drink

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XIV (2) start of chapter

The question here naturally arises,—do the Irish drink more than the people of any other nationality in America? The result of my observation and inquiries leads me to the conviction that they do not. How, then, comes it that the habit, if common to all, is so pernicious to them? There are many and various reasons why this is so. In the first place, they are strangers, and, as such, more subject to observation and criticism than the natives of the country. They are, also, as a rule, of a faith different to that of the majority of the American people; and the fact that they are so does not render the observation less keen, nor does it render the criticism more gentle. Then, be it constitution, or temperament, or whatever else, excess seems to be more injurious to them than to others. They are genial, open-hearted, generous, and social in their tendencies; they love company, court excitement, and delight in affording pleasure or gratification to their friends. And not only are their very virtues leagued against them, but the prevailing custom of the country is a perpetual challenge to indulgence.

This prevailing custom or habit springs more from a spirit of kindness than from a craving for sensual gratification. Invitations to drink are universal, as to rank and station, time and place, hour and circumstance; they literally rain upon you. The Americans are perhaps about the most thoroughly wide-awake people in the world, yet they must have an 'eye-opener' in the morning. To prepare for meals, you are requested to fortify your stomach and stimulate your digestive powers with an 'appetizer.' To get along in the day, you are invited to accept the assistance of a 'pony.' If you are startled at the mention of 'a drink,' you find it difficult to refuse 'at least a nip.' And who but the most morose—and the Irishman is all geniality—can resist the influence of 'a smile?' Now a 'cocktail,' now a 'cobbler'—here a 'julep,' there a 'smasher;' or if you shrink from the potency of the 'Bourbon,' you surely are not afraid of 'a single glass of lager beer!'

To the generous, company-loving Irishman there is something like treason to friendship and death to good-fellowship in refusing these kindly-meant invitations; but woe to the impulsive Irishman who becomes the victim of this custom of the country! The Americans drink, the Germans drink, the Scotch drink, the English drink—all drink with more or less injury to their health or circumstances; but whatever the injury to these, or any of these, it is far greater to the mercurial and light-hearted Irish than to races of hard head and lethargic temperament. The Irishman is by nature averse to solitary or selfish indulgence—he will not 'booze' in secret, or make himself drunk from a mere love of liquor; with him the indulgence is the more fascinating when it enhances the pleasures of friendship, and imparts additional zest to the charms of social intercourse. In his desire to gratify his friends, and stand well with his acquaintances, he is too likely to overlook the claims of those at home—the wife and children, who are the sufferers, if others are the gainers, which is very questionable—from his generosity and his geniality.

It must be admitted that, in some cities of America—by no means in all, or anything like all—the Irish element figures unenviably in the police records, and before the inferior tribunals; and that in these cities the committals are more numerous than they should be in proportion to the numerical strength of the Irish population. This is undoubtedly the case in some instances, But, painful as this fact is to the pride of those who love and honour their country, it is not without a consolatory feature—namely, the character of the offences for which the Irish are made amenable to the law. These offences are irritating to the sensitiveness of the orderly, the decorous, and the law-abiding—to those whose position in life raises them above the region in which such offences have their origin—and they are damaging to the reputation of those by whom they are committed; but they are not of a heinous nature—not such as cause a shudder to the heart and a chill to the blood. The deadly crimes—the secret poisonings, the deliberate murders, the deep-laid frauds, the cunningly-masked treachery, the dark villany, the spider-like preparation for the destruction of the unwary victim—these are not common to the Irish.

Rows, riots, turbulence, acts of personal violence perpetrated in passion, are what are principally recorded of them in the newspapers; and in nine cases out of ten, these offences against the peace and order of the community, and which so deeply prejudice the public mind, not only against the perpetrators, but, what is far worse, against their race and country, are attributable to one cause, and one cause alone—drink. The American may drink from morning to night without injury to his country, without peril to his nationality; the German may snore himself into insensibility in a deluge of lager beer, without doing dishonour to Faderland; the Englishman and the Scotchman may indulge to excess—as both do indulge to excess—without compromising England or Scotland thereby; but the Irishman, more impulsive, more mercurial, more excitable, will publish his indiscretion on the highway, and will himself identify his nationality with his folly. Were it possible to induce Irishmen, if not to abandon drink altogether, which is not at all likely or probable, at least to be moderate in its use, the result would be a blessed one. It were impossible to imagine any result more blessed, more glorious. It would lift up the Irish race in America as with a miraculous power, simply because Irishmen would then have an opportunity of exhibiting, without flaw or blemish, those qualities which, whenever they are allowed fair play, excite the admiration and win the affections of the American people.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America