There is an episode of Family Guy where the characters travel to Ireland to meet Peter’s father. As it turns out, Peter’s propensity to drinking is a result of his father’s role of town drunk, which in Ireland, apparently, is “a person of great honor.” When Peter lands, his plane is forced to taxi through an ocean of beer bottles. The characters perform an Irish jig titled “Drunken Irish Dad.” All of this pokes fun at the well-known stereotype about the Irish people: We are all drunks.
The drunken Irishman is often the butt of jokes like these. And though this may be an extreme example, the stereotype does in fact have some scientific merit to it. Studies show that Irish have both a high tolerance for alcohol, but also are more susceptible to alcoholism than other nationalities. The country itself has the fourth-highest report for liters of alcohol consumed per capita every year. A survey by the Irish Health Board reported that 54 percent of Irish citizens drink at “risky” levels, as compared to 28 percent from the rest of Europe. Essentially, it may be a stereotype, but it is also true.
But what is it about Irish, Russian, and German people that makes them more likely to develop alcoholism? Why are Jews and East Asians less likely?
This is the question that has piqued my interest the most. I have both Irish and German blood along with some Welsh. I admittedly have a liking for a good beer. My mom’s side of the family has a history of alcoholism, including one suicide. If I am at a greater risk to develop a dependency, I would like to know how.
One answer is in the cells. Humans have an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase that metabolizes alcohol. Obviously, each person is different so everyone has different levels of alcohol dehydrogenase in their system, which explains the concept of the so-called “lightweight.” To put it simply, Irish and Russian people typically have greater levels of alcohol dehydrogenase while Asians and Jews actually have a genetic variant that leads to lower levels of the enzyme, and therefore a much lower tolerance for alcohol. Some believe that since alcohol came into Ireland later than the rest of Europe, their people feel a greater attachment to it. To put it bluntly, Ireland is like the high school party of Europe. They got the keys to the cabinet and they went crazy, and they have yet to grow up all the way. That is what some believe.
A more likely reason for differences in cultural response to alcohol is the stories that make up their histories. Ireland went through a period of famine and extreme poverty. Drinking became a way to forget, at least for a little while, the struggles of everyday life. As a result, drinking has become a pastime, a way to remember the struggles of ancestors. And with the Catholic background that accompanies many Irish folk, drinking has even become a spiritual experience.
“Drinking in Ireland is not simply a convivial pastime,” says Irish journalist John Waters. “It is a ritualistic alternative to real life, a spiritual placebo, a fumble for eternity, a longing for heaven, a thirst for return to the embrace of the Almighty.”
Jews, on the other hand have historically seen drunks as a bumbling, sinful, uneducated folk. “A shicker is a goy,” says an old Yiddish saying. Culturally, there is nothing that has drawn them to the bottle.
It seems pretty clear that alcohol plays bigger roles in people depending on nationality. There are genetics, ancestors, body composition that contribute to my desire to drink a beer over a soda. I have come to grips with the fact that I have to be careful with my drinking habits, and it has caused me to miss out on a party or two, forced me to be the designated driver a few more times than I would have preferred. But I understand being mindful of my background keeps me motivated to say no to a night of drinking my problems away, even if that is how my Grandpa Sam would have done it.
Photo Credit: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02503/Pint-2_2503605b.jpg