There are three times of the year when Irish people will go “on the dry” (a peculiarly Irish way of saying “on the wagon”) — January, Lent and November. Before examining the phenomenon of Dry January, as it has come to be called, let us first look at the motivations for leaving off the drink during the other periods.
Giving up alcohol in Lent is principally devotional. In the same way a child might give up sweets or a smoker might cut down on the fags or give them up altogether and offer the suffering up to higher powers, a drinker might refrain from his or her favourite tipple during those forty long days. There are two factors that make abstemiousness during Lent easier to bear than at other times of the year: every second of hardship and deprivation one puts oneself through will be rewarded many times over through the Catholic brownie point system (also known as indulgences), so that a couple of nights of the DTs and watching strange green lads crawling up and down the bedroom walls will be repaid many times over — veritable years off one’s post-mortem incarceration in Purgatory; no less important a consideration is the occurrence of St Patrick’s Day smack bang in the middle of Lent. As everyone knows, all Lenten bets are off for Paddy’s Day and one can in clear conscience spend twenty-four hours guzzling sweets, smoking one’s head off or, to paraphrase Christy Moore, reacquainting oneself with one’s old buddies port, brandy, vodka, stout, Smithwick’s, Harpic, bottle, draught or keg. The falling of St Patrick’s Day during Lent proves two things: God’s soft spot for the Irish; and that Patrick himself was a grand fellow altogether by choosing to die in the middle of the thing in the knowledge that his feast day would forever constitute a cease-fire in the Irish people’s excoriating of themselves.
November is All Saints, the month of the dead. Many Irish people, as well as regularly visiting their loved ones’ graves and going to mass throughout the full month, also go on the dry. The hardship is offered up, just like their prayers, for the souls of their dead. I did it myself last November and it felt good. Outside of remembering and honouring one’s dead through prayer and sacrifice, for many people giving up the drink during this month has much to do with the month coming after — December. For some, abstention during November represents a significant saving of money which can be put aside for Yuletide feasting and the purchasing of presents. For others, being on the dry in November represents just one part of a greater struggle — the battle to lose weight in order to fit into that little black dress. And for more, laying off the booze pre December is a way of accumulating bodily health and physical fortitude before the onslaught of the Christmas party season, December debauchery and what for many constitutes a month of making a pig of themselves.
If one has pigged out, gone ape or gone over the top on the demon drink front there is always Dry January. While Dry January has no associations with traditional Irish Catholicism, the concept behind it does bear a strong resemblance to the sacrament of confession. One has pushed the boat out so far into the burning lake of hedonism and gluttony during Christmas that the only path to redemption is a Dry January — thirty-one days of sackcloth and ashes, shorter than Christ’s sojourn in the desert but just as testing and with the total elimination of alcohol from one’s diet being the principal form of atonement.
For many, Dry January constitutes part of a package. Along with forsaking the drink comes gym membership and a fad diet that would put the bestselling New Testament‘s desert diet in the shade. One has accreted so many extra layers of blubber during the holiday season’s calorie-fest that one cannot picture oneself on the white sands of Fuengirola in July without waves of shame and embarrassment rippling across said adipose layers. Thus, Dry January is a vital component of what the Spanish call Operación Bikini.
A curious thing about us Irish is that we’re always looking for signs of alcoholism in ourselves. Irish media is filled with warnings about drinking responsibly and how many units per day constitute safe consumption. We’ve seen friends and relatives inch down the slippery slope, going from people who “enjoyed a drink” to “heavy drinkers” to “alcoholics” and finally coming to entropic rest at that stage known as “hopeless alcoholic”. However far down that slope we are ourselves, going on the dry for a month provides us with the reassurance that we can stop whenever we want and ascend to the summit of a happy coexistence with the gargle.
At the moment three-quarters into Dry January, I’m feeling quite good about myself. I’m telling myself that I can go for a month without booze, that I can live a perfectly normal life without it — that I don’t need it in my life. There is a catch though and in a sense, like many going through Dry January I’m codding myself: come St Bridget’s Day I’ll be cracking open the IPA and the stout and the Connemara single malt as if prohibition was just around the corner. I’m seeing the first of February as the light at the end of the tunnel, which means my relationship with alcohol, while not one of dependency . . . let’s just say there’s something there. As with many relationships, it’s complicated. Can live with it, can live without it, but couldn’t contemplate never having it again. I’ll leave the last word to the Sunday Independent‘s Declan Lynch, who recently wrote a great article on the topic:
Dry January has become a slogan, even an institution, based on the idea that everyone needs to take a look at their relationship with alcohol, and that January is the perfect time in which to reflect on the matter in a state of sober tranquility.
It is complete nonsense, of course, because anyone can give up the drink for a month, as long as they know that there is a great reward at the end of it — a drink.
Indeed Dry January is damaging overall to the project of education on alcoholism, because it can give the drinker the delusion that he is not dependent on the drink, when in fact he may be engaging in a mere tactical withdrawal. And such delusions are at the very core of the addiction.