Is Ireland turning its back on Guinness?

A nascent Irish movement tired of the country's drinking culture is targeting Guinness and the annual bacchanal 'Arthur's Day' celebration it sponsors. What's going on here?

Shawn Pogatchnik/AP
Morning commuters and two schoolgirls pass a billboard advertising Arthur's Day in Dublin, Ireland, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.

The black stout is synonymous with Ireland, so ubiquitous that it is presented to every visiting dignitary including President Obama and even Queen Elizabeth II. But despite its international success, Guinness' domestic reputation has taken a hit of late.

Today is the fifth anniversary of an unofficial Irish national holiday born from a Guinness marketing brainwave: "Arthur's Day," a play on words referencing Guinness founder Arthur Guinness and "Our Thursday." Roughly 1,000 music acts from around the world will play in 500 pubs to tens of thousands of fans.

First held to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Guinness brewery, the festival has gone from strength to strength. Until now. This year's celebration is facing stiff opposition.

After scenes of reckless drinking in previous years there is a growing movement against what critics say is a festival promoting alcohol abuse. Guinness owner Diageo counters that it supports responsible drinking and the festival is about celebrating live music and the company's heritage. Critics disagree. The Labor party's Alex White, junior minister responsible for alcohol and drugs, condemned Arthur's Day as a "contrived" "pseudo-national holiday" designed to sell alcohol to young adults, noting a 30 percent increase in ambulance calls during the 2012 event.

Writing in the Irish Times, physician Frank Murray echoed this, describing the event as an attempt to connect Guinness with the youth market via live pop concerts in pubs. At a Royal College of Physicians in Ireland (RCPI) conference held on Monday doctors lined up to condemn Ireland's drinking culture, with one referring to it as an "epidemic."

Driving through Dublin last weekend the streets were chaotic: people walking out in front of cars, yelling and cheering and pubs bursting at the seams. The culprit wasn't Diageo, though. Dubliners were celebrating this year's All Ireland football championship.

Tourist trap

There's no denying it: many people in Ireland like a drink. There's also no denying that Arthur's Day has a reputation for being messy, with inebriated youths celebrating raucously, particularly in Dublin's notorious tourist trap district Temple Bar.

There is little reason to believe this Arthur's Day will be any more reserved than previous years, which have often been described as a frat party gone citywide. The scene is reminiscent of another phony holiday, this one imported from America, tacked-on to a formerly fairly stiff religious feast and also fueled by alcohol: St. Patrick's Day.

The anti-alcohol backlash has spread well beyond medics and politicians. Irish folk musician Christy Moore and pop group The Waterboys have both released anti-Arthur's Day songs this week, while actor Gabriel Byrne last year included a withering attack on the festival as part of a series of complaints about the government's tourism policy: "Arthur’s Day, what was the point of that nonsense? That was a cynical piece of exercise in a country which has a huge drinking problem."  

Christy Moore's take on the "holiday:"

Really a problem?

If Arthur's Day is a mock holiday, many of the complaints about it have a similarly unconvincing tone. A serious and important discussion about Irish attitudes to alcohol appears to be getting lost in a moral panic.

Politicized studies focus on different facts. One anti-alcohol charity emphasizes that alcohol consumption increased by 46 percent between 1987 and 2001, but ignores consumption declines in the years since. An industry study performed by Dublin City University focuses on the statistic that consumption fell 17 percent from 2001 to 2011, while ignoring the fact that drinking is still far higher today than it was for most of the 1990s.

Even the more serious health concerns are political. Irish doctors and lobbyists have been champing at the bit for an opportunity to take on the drinks industry.

For instance, an attempt to ban alcohol sponsorship of sports came to nothing this year, but campaigners and lawmakers have kept the idea alive. Left-leaning lobbyists have also been pushing hard for minimum alcohol pricing. The anti-Arthur's Day movement feels like a Potemkin campaign run by newspaper columnists with pages to fill, grandstanding politicians and government health officials alongside NGOs with no democratic credentials. Faced with a public relations backlash, this year's event may well be the last, but you can be sure it will be well-attended.

Meanwhile, the real reason for Arthur's Day is simple. No conspiracy to warp young minds is required. Pubs, once the lifeblood of the community, not to mention the tourism industry, are in trouble. Ireland's recession has called last orders on almost 1,000 pubs since 2007, and many more are facing closing time. Gerry Rafter of the Vintners Federation Ireland, the trade body representing pubs, says austerity measures have taken away a lot of disposable income and with a further $4 billion round of tax increases and budget cuts expected he fears things will get worse.

"A lot of pubs are on the breadline. In rural Ireland they're mostly family businesses and the family home is attached," he says. "The big issues at the moment are lifestyle changes [such as] people drinking at home [and] the smoking ban, plus VAT [sales tax] and local commercial [tax] rates. Over 30 percent of the price of a drink goes to the government." 

Diaego did not respond to this reporter's inquiries. 

Lawmakers haven't escaped censure. It was recently revealed they spent over 1,400 euros (approx. $1,800) on drinks during the all-night debate on the controversial move to legalize abortion.

I personally won't be celebrating Arthur's Day. I never do, but this year's kerfuffle has reinforced a key feature into our national character: if the Irish love one thing more than a drink, it's feeling ashamed of themselves.

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