I guess I could say that drink gave me my first “spiritual experience”. A glass of wine – or a pint down the pub – can still relax me into a space which seems to expand my consciousness. My inhibitions relax, and words & creativity seem to flow more freely. It’s easy to feel how the bars of Dublin were the favoured haunts of the Irish writers and poets of the 1950s. In the Palace bar, with the skylight offering both a literal and metaphorical view to the heavens, the pints of black porter lubricated the flow of poetry and prose.
As an Irish born man, I’m very aware of the strong influence of alcohol on the culture of Ireland. I’ve never had any issue with drinking alcohol. Being Irish gives me a “license to drink”.
I grew up in an alcohol–free house. “The drink” was not a part of my childhood experience.
For my parents, there was a mixture of fear and pious abstention. There had been alcoholism in my mother’s family and the Catholic church encouraged the taking of the “Pioneer Pledge” whereby children receiving confirmation undertook to be alcohol free for life. Both my mother and father took, and kept, this pledge.
For me, drink was an illicit pleasure to be investigated outside of the home.
On a recent visit to Rome, I stayed with an Italian couple in their apartment. Each evening, we ate a home-cooked dinner, and drinking wine was an integrated part of the meal. My previous personal experience had been that eating and drinking were two distinct activities – that potatoes and porter are separate. Here was a different scenario. An integration. A balance.
A balance I feel that was missing in the Ireland in which I grew up.
And this imbalance was the basis of my curious relationship with alcohol.
My first “real” job was in a TV station. Full of creative people, working odd hours, often traveling away from home, overnight, to work – the perfect opportunity to indulge in alcohol. I was a kid straight out of art college. The glamour, the lights… A lot of fun. A lot of creativity. A lot of drinking.
After a while, I began to realise that my relationship with alcohol was different to some of my friends. While I was choosing to drink, they were not making a choice. They were driven by something else, something I could only touch vicariously.
I had a hole in my heart. I knew there was something more to life, but I did not know where to find it. I did not even know where to look. Alcohol, and the Irish culture around it, enabled me to hide. To hide my pain. To hide my shyness. To hide my sensitivity.
But drink is a fickle mistress. Court her and she will flirt, gifting you with glimpses of wonder. But she is a siren as much as a muse. As she enlightens you, so she befuddles you. Many a man in many a pub in Ireland has solved all the problems of the world. But has he solved his own, internal conflicts?
And what about potatoes? For the common Irish people of the nineteenth century, potatoes were the staple food. A disastrous failure of potato crops in the 1840s led to years of famine, death and emigration. It has been said that The Great Famine left a deep scar on the Irish psyche and perhaps that is true. I have visited places in Ireland where it seems that sadness hangs in the air – that the land itself is in mourning.
Now part of a more balanced diet, potatoes are also used (both legally and illegally) to produce a distilled spirit called Poitín.
Porter is a black beer with a burnt, hoppy taste, so named because of its historical popularity among the men who loaded and unloaded ships in the ports.
In my youth, pubs close to the docks had a special license to enable them to open at 07.30 in the morning. It was in these “early houses” that you could often find the ones who could not bear to face the world sober. The ones who were ending the night, or beginning the day, in the only way they knew how – anaesthetised by alcohol.
I visited this strange world on a few occasions – curious and experimenting. Luckily, I could walk away, looking to find a clearer way to fill the hole in my heart. I’m still walking that path, and my heart is becoming whole again.
These days, if someone asks me where I am from, I cannot give a straight answer. To define myself by the geographical location of my birth seems silly. At the same time, while I do not wave the flag, I carry the genes, the conditionings, and the “je ne sais quoi” of Irishness. The playful charm which is as much a part of my heritage as the doom and gloom – along with the ability to laugh about it all.
I may not define myself as Irish, but I am grateful for the rich cultural background of that land of saints and scholars. That land of potatoes and porter.
Every so often, I pause to look over my shoulder.
I see the path that I have walked and I remember the people I have walked it with. The stories of my past are not my story. I am grateful for all I have experienced, but I am even more grateful for now. This place where past and future meet. This place where I live my present spiritual experience.
“Eat me, drink me”, he said.
And I do.
He lives peripatetically, creates images, loves beauty, uses words and attempts to play the guitar – not necessarily in that order.
(he also makes silly Dad jokes and dodgy double entendres)
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