‘I don’t care about fitting in any more’: The sober curious Irish people living low-booze lives

As a more mindful approach to alcohol spreads across the generations, long-time non-drinker Geraldine Walsh talks to five people who have cut back

For the guts of a decade, I struggled to make public, and perhaps acknowledge, that I was a non-drinker. It was rarely said out loud; often implied, but never understood. The world around me was made for the drinker, be it the social or casual variety of which I was neither. I had an aversion to alcohol from my early 20s for no specific reason other than not wanting to feel the vulnerability of being drunk, that feeling of being out of place, conspicuous and decidedly anxious.

Being an introvert and socially awkward in my 20s (and admittedly still today) meant I only ever saw the UCD student’s bar once during an entirely sober arts degree. I made excuses to avoid the pub for after-work drinks and probably came across as quite “the bore” as I turned down invitations I felt uncomfortable with. Despite disliking everything about the world of alcohol — the hangovers, the attitude, the expectation — I was also embarrassed to be the only one who said “no thanks”, so when the occasion rose, there would be a drink in my hand.

A saving grace for my avoidance of bar stools was when I met my now husband. Our first dates were lingering hot chocolates or lattes in Bewley’s on Grafton Street, which stayed open until 11pm in those days. A friend of his was bemused by our choice, and I remember a distinguishable double date where they peered in on our lives so that they could see what this whole dating with no alcohol might look like. It was quite an entertaining evening, and perhaps less boring than they expected. But this evening was a rarity, and there was no second double date. Perhaps because, at the time, we were a rarity. To be sober, a non-drinker, brought an assumption that we had a problem with alcohol. But our relationship with alcohol was and is as individual as we are. There is more than one reason to forgo it.

My last official drink was in 2013, a vodka-fuelled lesson learned that permanently flicked the switch off. Now, as I reach my 40s with a firm understanding of my relationship with alcohol, I no longer make excuses or avoid social gatherings, and I’m not embarrassed to say I don’t drink. It’s a new decade when saying “no thanks” has become more common and acceptable, as the rising trend of mindful drinking and sober curiosity spreads across generations.


The most recent drug and alcohol survey from the Health Research Board found the proportion of the adult population in Ireland who have consumed alcohol in the last year has decreased over the past two decades, from about 84 per cent in 2003 to 78 per cent in 2020.

People want to drink less, too; a recent survey by Drinkaware, the charity funded by the drinks industry, showed that 30 per cent of respondents reported a desire to cut down on their alcohol consumption, with 37 per cent saying they have already made small positive changes to their drinking habits. Visits to the section of the Drinkaware website covering mindful drinking have more than doubled this year, with people looking for information on a more sober lifestyle, according to the charity’s director of communications Jennifer Flynn.

The pandemic partially amplified the upward trend of the sober curiosity movement, as alcohol consumption fell by almost 10 per cent between 2019 and 2021 with the closure of hospitality venues and Covid-related restrictions. Where we initially believed consumption would rise, our pandemic habits proved the opposite as people began to choose quality over quantity. Cider and beer sales decreased by 20.3 per cent and 17.8 per cent respectively.

The range and availability of low and no-alcohol beers, spirits and wines has exploded in recent years to cater for people looking for alternative options, with Drinks Ireland reporting a 129 per cent increase in sales of non-alcohol products between 2017 and 2020.

To be sober curious does not mean giving up alcohol completely or for good, but rather figuring out where alcohol fits in your life.

“To be sober curious essentially means to wonder if you would enjoy not consuming alcohol as frequently as you do, in the same quantities as you currently do, or indeed at all,” says Andrew Magee, a psychotherapist in private practice in south Dublin. “Sober curiosity extends to people experimenting with changing their behaviours around alcohol consumption, such as not drinking on a night out, trying non-alcoholic alternatives, or engaging in periods of sobriety such as Dry January. It is exploring and understanding our relationship with alcohol and why we consume it.”

If you are sober curious, examining habits and behaviours alongside understanding priorities and needs in life is a good place to start. “It doesn’t take much to start exploring,” says Magee. “Ask yourself why you drink, what would prevent you from stopping, how you might feel if you were socialising without alcohol, and if it would improve your quality of life. Sometimes we try to avoid asking ourselves questions that might have uncomfortable answers, which is all the more reason to ask those questions. Sobriety is increasingly not just acceptable, but it’s entirely normal not to drink alcohol.”

Here, five people who’ve recently decided to embrace a sober curious lifestyle share their experiences.

Sheelin Conlon: ‘I don’t care about fitting in any more’

For 38-year-old Sheelin Conlon, founder of sustainable lifestyle store The Kind, sober curiosity was poured with every glass as she mindfully sought answers to whether alcohol should be a part of her life or not. “I remember meeting people over the years who didn’t drink and being quite shocked. I felt sorry for them,” says Conlon. “Who wouldn’t want to drink and have fun? But if I’m honest with myself, I was intrigued by them. I admired the confidence they had. How could they possibly have a good time, loosen up and be social without a little Dutch courage?”

Conlon started her career in advertising in her 20s, an industry notorious for its “work hard, play hard” ethic. “Taking clients out for nights out and boozy lunches were part and parcel of the job, and drinking gave me confidence,” she says. “Fridays were celebrated with TGIF drinks. One agency I worked at even had a fully stocked bar at reception, all you could drink on tap. How lucky was I? These were the amazing ‘perks’ of the job, or so I thought.”

Conlon’s sober curiosity developed slowly in her 30s. For her, there was no rock bottom moment. It was a slow understanding of her relationship with alcohol that stretched over five years.

“Alcohol became my coping mechanism. I was finding myself even more wound up, more anxious and ultimately more stressed as I tried to battle on working, unable to think straight from the weekend,” she says. “I became less able to deal with the aftermath. This just wasn’t fun any more. I’d told myself a million times over, ‘I’m never drinking again’.”

New habits and behaviours, such as changing what she drank to how often she drank, did not bring the results Conlon was looking for. “The lows outweighed the highs. My mental health was suffering,” she says. “I knew this wasn’t who I wanted to be, but I didn’t know who I was without alcohol. I’d known for a long time that alcohol is a depressant and causes anxiety, but I had to undo a lifetime of conditioning that had convinced me otherwise. I still somehow believed that it was fun, social and that I’d be missing out by giving it up. I joined The Alcohol Experiment by Annie Grace, a free 30-day challenge with daily videos and exercises sent to my inbox. I began to break down what I believed alcohol did for me, questioned why I was choosing to drink at all and set about deconstructing everything that I thought was true.”

She was hooked. She listened to podcasts, audiobooks and devoured “quit-lit” like her life depended on it. The more she read, the more she loved the idea of being alcohol free. “Doesn’t everyone ultimately want freedom,” she says.

Conlon stopped trying to put rules in place and stopped making promises never to drink again. She was curious. “What if every single day I simply chose to do what is best for me,” she says. “I definitely don’t miss alcohol, but I do sometimes still miss the idea of it. It’s hard not to look back through rose-tinted glasses and remember all the good. I don’t know whether they would have been as good without alcohol because I never allowed myself that experience.”

The benefits of a sober life for Conlon, who is now more than five months alcohol free, are obvious. “I look healthier, happier. My eyes are whiter. I’ve more confidence in who I am now. The dark clouds that were hanging over me are gone. I have more money and energy, am clear-headed, focused, stronger and better able to take on the challenges I desperately tried to escape. I have better connections with friends and family and with myself. I listen to and trust my gut for the first time in what feels like a lifetime. I’m kinder to myself and compassionate about my past. I don’t care about fitting in any more. I’m not afraid to stand out and stand up for what I believe in.”

Noel Perry: ‘My friends are generally supportive, but there is always peer pressure to drink’

Noel Perry, who is 30, is a musician who did not have a bad relationship with alcohol. While he has not given up alcohol fully, his sober curiosity grew as the pandemic shifted his health and fitness goals. “During the pandemic, I cleaned up my diet,” he says, “and initially gave up alcohol for three months to help with this. I found that easy; the main reason I drank alcohol was for the social aspect. In lockdown with nowhere to go, I wasn’t tempted. I even thought that after completing my challenge I would reward myself with a drink, but afterwards it was the last thing I wanted and I extended my sobriety for another month.”

One of the challenges with cutting back or giving up alcohol is that alcohol is often a source of temporary escapism from life’s stress, burdens and anxieties. “A few drinks were relieving, a way to push any feelings aside and not deal with them,” says Perry. “It can sometimes be a fine line between drinking to relax after a hard week’s work and drinking to escape. That is where things were blurred for me for a while.”

As he switched to a more mindful approach to alcohol, Perry recognised the benefits, including being healthier overall, finding it easier to monitor and lose weight, a better and more stable mood, increased concentration and improved sleep.

“I’ve not fully given up alcohol, but I have cut down a lot,” he says. “When it comes to cutting it out for an extended period, I do miss it initially but only in social settings as I feel unsettled, a little anxious and not fully comfortable. My friends are generally very supportive, but there is always a hint of peer pressure to drink socially because they are used to you drinking in that environment. It seems that you have to have a reason to cut back, or an excuse. When myself or friends have a fitness goal, it is an easy out not to drink because friends want to be supportive of that goal. When there isn’t a reason, it is much harder.”

Ellen Brophy: ‘If I decide to have a drink I will, but I’m equally as happy without’

When 41-year-old Ellen Brophy, marketing lead at Veri Connect, served alcohol-free options at her daughter’s communion, they were snapped up. “I am delighted to see an increase in the variety and availability of alcohol-free options at venues too,” she says, “because our social lives still revolve around restaurants and pubs. We are moving in the right direction.”

When Brophy was in her early 20s, alcohol was the focus of every social event. “There was a general feeling that you ‘needed’ a drink to have a good time,” she says. “It gave us all a false sense of confidence and a license to make poor decisions. As I got older, I still enjoyed a drink but had become very intolerant of people I considered overly intoxicated.”

In her 30s, Brophy had a period of poor mental health, suffering from depression. “I noticed that after I had a drink, I was not coping as well in the week following,” she says. “When I began paying attention to my mood, I could see a clear line in the sand.”

Brophy began by restricting her drinks to one or two on an evening out and soon realised the cost of a taxi home was not worth the two drinks, so she began driving to social occasions, giving her a valid “reason” not to drink. “I didn’t miss it one bit,” she says. “That said, I couldn’t bring myself to say that I don’t drink any more. There was something too final about the statement. It seemed to me like an unnecessary step. Now, if I decide to have a drink I will, but I’m equally as happy without.”

Fiona O’Neill: ‘My love for alcohol didn’t love me back’

For 42-year-old Fiona O’Neill, alcohol was her relaxant, the reward at the end of a long day. “It was my social life, my reason to be part of the group. Everyone else had fun, got drunk, had the laugh, sure wasn’t that what we were meant to do,” she says. “I loved alcohol. It turns out my love for alcohol didn’t love me back.”

O’Neill says she wasn’t thinking sensibly when she drank, which impacted her decision to quit. She became curious about who she could be and what she could do without alcohol in her life, while also balancing the social expectations. “My family and friends knew me as a drinker,” she says. “At first, everyone was confused, asking me why I’d given up. Sometimes when you’re on a night out people make not drinking alcohol a sin. It emotionally and psychologically makes you feel different. The peer pressure can take a toll.”

O’Neill, who shares her non-alcoholic journey and recipes of non-alcoholic drinks on Facebook and Instagram with her Dash (de-alcoholised, sober and happy) Ireland groups, says there are still some days when she has a “longing” for a drink, but recognises that emotions trigger this. “Alcohol is a depressant for me,” she says. “Not necessarily after one all-night drinking, but the additional random drinks throughout the week accumulate. Over time, I’d lost the ability to control my thoughts about myself, reality and my abilities.”

This month, O’Neill celebrated one year with no alcohol and has never been prouder of herself. “I walk with confidence and clarity and I am nowhere near the person I was 12 months ago.”

Eric Finn: ‘Now I have a drink once every three or four weeks’

Eric Finn, who is 25, is a professional Fifa player and coach signed to Jesse Lingard’s Jlingz Esports team, doesn’t think drinking is bad in general, but he recognises that in Ireland “there is a grey line between how much is an acceptable amount to drink and what makes us feel the need to drink as much as we do”.

“We are only beginning to destigmatise sobriety, and it is still questioned when somebody in a drinking environment enjoys a virgin cocktail,” he says. “I have always said that my drinking days are numbered, while I am still struggling to find the balance between alcohol enjoyment and productivity. Sometimes I find myself burning the candle at both ends where I work hard and ‘play’ hard, which leads to productivity burnout. I spent two nights at the weekends drinking, then three days becoming my full self again. I changed habits and became very conscious that alcohol is not something my productivity can keep up with regularly. Now I have a drink once every three or four weeks, lessening my burnout.”

Due to his work, Finn does not drink from September until Christmas. “I get very busy during this time,” he says, “and it wouldn’t be good for business if I spent some days at 0-50 per cent. But as the business grows and other seasons get busier, I will be even further prioritising my levels of productivity, meaning I’ll not touch a drink for more months of the year.”

During the months when Finn is not drinking, he sees his friends less, maybe not at all. “Being 25, the only occasions to avail of are drink related,” he says. “And while I would go to some of the events due to a fear of missing out, it’s not really the same. It’s not as easy to connect or be on a similar level as your surroundings and you can feel out of place. I’m no saint but I’m working on it, so it’s best to distance myself from these events during those months and deal with my fear of missing out accordingly. Drinking regularly drains the life out of me. I’m not as confident or as sure in myself for days after, and it has a spillover effect on other areas of my life.”

Drinkaware is hosting a webinar on the positive mental health benefits of more mindful drinking on September 16th at 1pm; tickets are free from eventbrite.ie

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family