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How Ireland drinks now: Teetotallers, wine-o’clockers and ex-drinkers

More people are consuming alcohol at home, fewer in pubs and many aren’t drinking at all

How Ireland drinks

The choices of tipple and the places for consumption may be ever-changing but alcohol still plays a central role in Ireland’s life and culture, even for those who choose abstinence or moderation. We spoke to a number of Irish people about how they drink now, and to public health officials and industry professionals about changing habits.

How ireland drinks montage 2 -Grace Watson

The non-drinker

‘You see a different side to people. People have less inhibitions’

Grace Watson has just finished her first year in UCD. She doesn’t drink alcohol. She’s unusual among her friends. She has tried alcohol in the past, the odd cocktail, she says. And she’s never had a “scarring” moment that turned her off alcohol. She just decided not to drink.

It arouses curiosity among her peers. People ask her “do you have a reason?”. And she always explains there is no reason. That’s usually enough to end the questioning, she says. Watson’s older sibling drinks alcohol now, but she didn’t when she was Watson’s age, so her parents don’t see it as anything out of the norm. And Watson’s mother worries less about her going out because of it, she says.

On college nights out, when she tells people she doesn’t drink, their immediate presumption is she just means for that night. She finds it noticeable in college because so much of the socialising revolves around alcohol, but she never finds it awkward. She’s quite happy “to go out and be sober” and says she still has “as much fun”.


It’s “actually pretty good for mingling”, she says, because it can be a decent topic for conversation, she thinks.

Having to be the responsible friend on a night out is rarely an issue, Watson says, because her friends aren’t “liabilities” or people she feels she’d “have to watch over” all the time.

As the sober one in the crowd, Watson says it’s fun. “You see a different side to people. People have less inhibitions”. She’s conscious that perhaps her sobriety could make someone else feel awkward, though she has never been made to feel that way.

Plus there’s the benefit of no hangovers, she says, which she’s particularly grateful for when her friends are suffering after the night before. The money saved is a big motivator too.

Trends in alcohol

‘Moderation’ and ‘premiumisation’

The chattering clusters of post-work drinkers spilling on to the pavement outside favoured pubs in Dublin city centre might look the same as years past but life was never going to be the same after the first Covid-19 pandemic lockdown four years ago.

For a start, it is a Thursday night, which is now very much the new Friday night. Most hybrid employees try to work from home on the last day of the week, even if it means a weekly wind-down with colleagues will be followed by having to log on to the laptop the next morning, instead of a potential Saturday lie-in.

But it is behaviour in keeping with talk of an “out early, home early” trend in socialising, along with “moderation” and “premiumisation”. When lifestyle factors and living costs reduce the frequency of people’s nights out, they want the experience to be a good one when they do go out.

Alcohol consumption is traditionally regarded in Ireland as an integral part of the “craic”. On shiny nights out and amid convivial drinking at home nobody wants to think about alcohol’s miserable flip side - deaths, illness, violence and childhood trauma. The latest comprehensive overview of alcohol use in Ireland published by the Health Research Board (HRB) drills into data around who is drinking what, where and how, and the effects. To what extent changing behaviour is due to pandemic fallout and/or the impact of the significant Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 that, among other measures, introduced minimum unit pricing in 2022, is not yet clear.

The report, Alcohol: Availability, Affordability, Related Harm and Policy in Ireland, finds that as a collective population we are drinking less. On average, each adult (or rather person over 15) ended up drinking 9.9 litres of pure alcohol in 2023, down from 10.2 litres the previous year and lower than pre-pandemic levels of 10.8 litres in 2019. Despite a common perception that most people were swilling drink to cope with the anxiety, stress and boredom of lockdown, just 13 per cent of drinkers surveyed in 2021 said their consumption had increased and for nearly half it had dropped.

While Dr Sheila Gilheany chief executive of Alcohol Action Ireland, welcomes “green shoots of change” around the country’s long-standing problematic relationship with alcohol, she is quick to point out that much of the drop in per capita consumption is down to the growing number of non-drinkers. Take that 30 per cent of the population out of the equation and you are left with the “scary” average of every drinker working through 284 cans of beer, 12 bottles of spirits, 43 bottles of wine and 35 cans of cider a year.

The majority of that is drunk in their own home, or at somebody else’s. Some 2.5 per cent of overall household expenditure goes on alcohol, and more is spent on drink to be consumed at home than on alcohol in licensed premises. The most frequently reported location for alcohol use in one 2022 survey was own home (44 per cent), followed by a pub (30 per cent), restaurant, hotel or cafe (13 per cent) and somebody else’s home (10 per cent).

How ireland drinks montage 2 - Jamie Mac Giolla Bháin

The home drinker

‘It’s a lot cheaper to get drunk indoors. That’s when I tend to drink more’

DCU student Jamie Mac Ghiolla Bháin had his first drink at 15. He was babysitting children when their parents told him “there’s a couple of beers in the fridge if you want one or two”, he says.

His own parents allowed him to drink the odd glass of wine at home and his early consumption of alcohol was always with an adult’s permission. He only started “drinking properly” after his Leaving Cert. “Drinking properly” depends on where Mac Ghiolla Bháin goes, and the occasion. He describes himself as a “heavyweight” drinker in comparison to his friends and says he can drink a lot without becoming drunk. “There have been occasions where I’ve taken upwards of 12 pints and really not been too bad”, he says.

He tends to stick to the one type of drink – pints at the pub, spirits at a club and wine at home – and only really mixes his drinks if he’s “hopping between a pub and a club”, or at a student party.

Cost influences how much he drinks. Sometimes he buys beer “in the North” and brings it “over the Border” because it’s cheaper. “It’s a lot cheaper to get drunk indoors. That’s when I tend to drink more.”

Mac Ghiolla Bháin says he drinks less than he used to. He sees “weed vapes ... popping up a lot”, among his college peers, but says drink is definitely part of the [student] “culture”.

He doesn’t worry about his alcohol intake. He says he knows to drink in moderation. But he feels he could have made better use of the money he spent last summer on alcohol.

The vintners

‘We had a strong bounce back after lockdown’

Publicans say they have to work harder to get people in the doors, whether by offering quality dining, high-end cocktails or curated entertainment. The “on” trade is in a continuous state of slow evolution, says Donall O’Keeffe chief executive of the Licensed Vintners’ Association representing the capital’s publicans, “and what we’ve seen since Covid is a kind of intensification of what was already going on”. Namely, long-term decline in alcohol consumption over 20 years, coupled with the majority share of the trade moving from pubs to off-licences.

This is a permanent shift, he says, driven by changing lifestyles and people drinking less out of the home during the week. However, Saturdays are “exceptionally strong”. One of the “big silver linings” of having the longest and most severe lockdowns in Europe, he says, was “it rekindled people’s love of the pub. We’ve attracted a whole new demographic of people in their 20s that we really didn’t have pre-Covid. We’ve had an exceptionally strong bounce back after lockdown and business has been very good.”

As customers’ behaviours change, “we’re seeing the trade pick their priority”, he says. For many it is food, while some city-centre bars see late nights as their best business opportunity and more traditional pubs without food rely on exceptional staff and service for “authenticity”. The capital’s large numbers of concerts, sporting occasions and conferences also boost business hugely, as does tourism. It means, O’Keeffe adds, that despite a “softening” in trade so far this year, the Dublin pub scene is holding up and outperforming the rest of the country.

Certainly his counterpart in the Vintners Federation of Ireland, Pat Crotty, paints a far less rosy picture for publicans outside Dublin. Small bar owners face post-Covid challenges such as trying to get staff.

“Even to get people to your pub and home from your pub has become a huge issue” due to “the complete lack” of taxi services. “I know husband and wife teams who have two cars on the road into the wee hours to get customers and staff home and, if they didn’t do that, they wouldn’t have anyone coming.” The trend of going out earlier and home earlier is seen here too, partly due, he reckons, to people having to rely on family members to come and collect them.

Increasingly people are only coaxed out of their homes with the promise of an “experience” and it is very hard for a pub with no Sky TV to offer that, he suggests. Yet adaptations cost money that small businesses don’t have.

How ireland drinks montage 2 - Jan Brierton

The very occasional drinker

‘Drinking wine just felt like a sophisticated way to be getting locked’

Poet Jan Brierton doesn’t drink anymore. Unless she’s on her annual holiday to France, she explains, where she’ll drink a panaché, which is a drink similar to beer shandy. “There’s something about a cold beer, on a sunny day. Especially on your holidays,” she says.

She used to drink wine, or “lady petrol” as she calls it, on a regular basis. She’d drink while watching TV or box sets, and “without realising” how much she was drinking. The frequency increased during the early days of Covid restrictions.

She found she couldn’t remember anything about what she had watched the next day. Her turning point came when she went to the shop to buy milk, but left the shop with “a pint of milk, a bottle of white wine and two bottles of cider [for her husband]”. She bought them automatically and without thinking, and realised she was drinking in a similar way.

It was an “unconscious kind of drinking”, she says. Brierton wasn’t behaving in a disruptive, aggressive or problematic manner after drinking. For her, it was the habit formed and the disassociated way in which she was drinking that was an issue.

She set herself short-term goals to begin with. As time passed she wondered if she could enjoy gigs, festivals and dancing without alcohol, and found that she could. She feels she’s “gained more than [she’s] lost”. She notices the financial savings. She realised drink “dulls” how you feel about things and says she had used it to dull feelings and sensations and also “multiply feelings and sensations”.

Zero-alcohol beer is her drink of choice now, even though she never drank beer before. Wine made her feel like “more of an adult” in the past, she says. “It just felt like a sophisticated way to be getting locked.”

The off-licence owners

A 95 per cent increase from 2003 to 2021

Almost three-quarters of the population live within walking distance (300 metres) of a licensed premises. The number of pub licences fell by 20 per cent from 2003 to 2021 but this was offset by a 95 per cent increase in the number of “off” licences granted in the same period. Most of those have gone to supermarkets and convenience stores, says Cathal McHugh, chairman of the National Off-Licence Association, which represents independent, specialist operators, who were allowed to trade as an “essential business” during lockdown.

Current conditions are challenging, as recent rises in staffing costs create inflationary pressures. Post-pandemic, McHugh finds people seem to be drinking “less but better” and “if somebody wants a premium product they still come and visit us”.

How ireland drinks montage 2 - Pat Reid

The former problem drinker

‘I didn’t want to be hungover for the kids’

Pat Reid’s mother was an alcoholic, he says. He believes if the same circumstances of his childhood occurred today, he and his siblings would have been taken into care. None of the family ever got any professional help afterwards, which, he says, left a “lasting damage” on the rest of his life.

He was first given alcohol at home when he was about 12 or 13. It was “to help him sleep”, he explains. The local pub knew the family history and so refused to serve him drink until he was 19.

The financial situation at home was difficult and Reid worked part-time. He didn’t have much money. Between that and the fact he played football, he didn’t drink very much in his early 20s. But things changed after his mother died. She had left the family home three years before her death. When they cleared out her apartment after her death, Reid estimates they found about “150 gin bottles in it”.

He drank heavily in the few years that followed, and had what he describes as a “mini breakdown” the year after her death. He describes himself as having “self-medicated”, but with his sister’s support began to get back on his feet.

While Reid didn’t drink every day, he says he would binge drink at weekends. He’s married 12 years and says when his wife first met him, she would have considered him a heavy drinker. But she “persevered”, he says.

The birth of his two daughters, one of whom faced a very serious health battle, led to a change in his drinking habits. He didn’t want to be “hungover for the kids”, he says. Three years ago he gave up alcohol completely.

He had a “nervous breakdown”, two years ago, which he believes was a “culmination of everything”.

Reid’s mental health is stronger now that he has given up alcohol, he feels. He’d “even buy drink now” for other people, he says, admitting in the past to hiding when it was his round, so that he’d have more money to buy himself more alcohol. These days, a strong cup of tea is his drink of choice.

The publicans

‘People now really want their comforts’

In Dublin a post-pandemic “surge” back to communal pub drinking has settled a bit, says Noel Anderson (41), managing director of Lemon and Duke and Little Lemon in the city centre, The Bridge 1859 in Ballsbridge and The Blackrock in south Dublin, all of which he co-owns with four former rugby internationals. But he notes continuing trends rooted in pandemic experiences, such as an exceptionally strong demand for draught beer that people could not have at home and booking of bar tables, a temporary necessity they got to like.

“Where before there’d be no bother standing and having a pint at a ledge, people now really want their comforts and want to sit at a table.” He believes because people are choosing to go out less, they want to have really good service and food and don’t mind paying for higher-quality wine and cocktails. “Things that are Instagrammable would be a big factor.” Popularity of gin has waned; premium tequila is catching on.

Anderson notes how younger people are much more fitness conscious, which is fuelling rapid growth in non-alcohol products, now on draught in some pubs. The market share of non-alcoholic beer rose from 0.4 per cent to 1.5 per between 2017 and 2021, according to Drinks Ireland figures. Parents like himself are also mindful they have to be up the morning after the night before, driving children to sport and other extracurricular activities.

“I think the alcohol side of things is quite occasion driven, so like a wedding or a birthday party or something like that, then people will still go and let their hair down,” he adds.

Will Agar (40), who bought Fitzgerald’s of Sandycove, Co Dublin, in February 2022, after 17 years of managing the place, also reports a younger clientele since the pandemic, partly because older regulars moved on when its reopening was delayed.

“We put in a lot of craft beer,” although he observes this has been taken up by older people, while the younger demographic are drinking stout. His beer garden plan is also a nod to post-pandemic preferences and a way to increase capacity.

How ireland drinks montage 2 -  idris jimoh

The ‘never got into it’ non-drinker

‘I think you can have a good time without it’

Friends used to try to push drinks on to Idris Jimoh (23), an accountant with Grant Thornton in Dublin, but now most know he does not drink and have stopped. “If I wasn’t Muslim I don’t think I would drink anyway,” he says. “It’s something I never got into or understood because I think you can have a good time without it.” He happily socialises in bars and is co-founder of Seventeen Entertainment, an events company running mostly student club nights.

For Jimoh, who was born in Kilkenny and lives in Dublin, an enjoyable night out is all about “good friends, music and the vibe” and does not depend on drink. “I have tried to tell people this but obviously they don’t like to listen – so I sort of gave up on that,” he laughs.

The public health officials

More than half of drinkers are in the ‘hazardous’ category

“How people drink is a valuable yardstick with which to measure the extent of alcohol-related harm within a population,” notes the HRB report. More than half of drinkers in Ireland are “hazardous drinkers”, and this is more commonly reported among men than women, particularly younger men, although there has been a decline in this pattern of drinking since 2010.

The average age at which children report having their first drink rose from 15.6 years of age to 16.6 years between 2002 and 2019. Early initiation of use is an important factor, says addiction specialist Dr Hugh Gallagher, who works in an alcohol-specific HSE programme covering north Dublin city and county.

Gallagher is also the medical director of a private residential rehab clinic, Smarmore Castle in Co Louth, where the noticeable trend is the combination of alcohol and cocaine use driving the admission of patients, typically men in their 30s. They may say cocaine has brought them to rehab “but there’s generally an awareness that alcohol is a factor that needs to be addressed and, without doing so, they’re unlikely to maintain any sort of sustained recovery”.

The HRB report expressed concern that parents of children aged under 18 were more likely to report increasing their alcohol use since the beginning of the pandemic compared with those without children under 18. Gallagher urges parents to think hard about their drinking habits, not just for their own health but also for the example they are setting for the next generation.

Both he and Dr Sheila Gilheany share the HRB’s view that the imminent Sale of Alcohol Bill (2022), which is expected to allow increased standard opening hours of 10.30am-12.30am seven days a week, conflicts with the aims of the 2018 legislation to reduce availability of alcohol.

Publicans argue it will make very little difference to the actual operating hours of the vast majority, although it is conceded that those near big sporting venues would be glad to open earlier than 12 noon on Sunday match days. The big change for others would be abolition of the costly and cumbersome “special exemption orders” for late trading and the introduction of an annual late bar permit up to 2.30am.

As for the proposed new nightclub permits for up to 5am, that would be for well-resourced businesses focusing on the expert management of such outlets, says Donall O’Keeffe, “and we think that’s good for the city”. Not everybody wants to go home early.

The bottle-a-night drinker

‘The big joke about wine o’clock makes people think it’s normal’

Claire (not her real name) started drinking when she was about 17 or 18. She’s in her 50s now. Throughout her 20s, 30s and 40s she would go out most weekends. She drank beer on those occasions, and would only have wine with dinner.

As she and her husband got older, they got into the habit of drinking wine in the house. Her husband drinks beer too. She moved from drinking wine at the weekends only to drinking on Monday nights also, with the excuse “it’s just after the weekend”. Thursday nights soon followed because “it’s nearly the weekend”.

Claire would “easily drink a bottle a night”, she says. She’d sometimes open a second bottle if her husband was there. She says she’s nervous about discussing her drinking habits, because she says if she talks about it, “then it’s real”.

She feels guilty about drinking. But if she’s at the shop and sees other people buying wine, she takes comfort from it. She’s never missed work because of drink. She’s conscious of her teenagers. “They see us drinking all the time”, though they don’t see an issue with how she drinks, she says.

Claire sometimes wakes up in the morning and wonders what time she went to bed at. She drinks out of “boredom” oftentimes, and while she’s “pottering around the house” doing various jobs.

She tries not to drink until after 8pm. Her husband starts about 6:30pm, she says. On Sundays, though, she may start drinking at about 5pm. She drinks four or five nights a week.

The “big joke” about “wine o’clock” makes people think it’s normal, Claire feels. She doesn’t do anything “wrong” when she drinks, but feels she shouldn’t be doing it, and that she and her husband drink too often. Covid exacerbated things with wine-fuelled catch-ups with friends over video calls.

She says she has decided to try to stop drinking this week. “But sure we’ll see how it goes. Today is Thursday,” she says, noting the day we speak.