Provincial Activities Committee
Ciaran Coll: 'I've seen the way too much alcohol can affect people ... I'm pretty sure I'm not missing out on much' Picture by Declan Doherty
Alcohol abuse is seen by many as the primary culprit for the violence on our streets. The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association is aiming to make itself more relevant to teenagers. JOHN MEAGHER on the teens who are saying no to alcohol
It is one of the most intense periods of Ciaran Coll's life right now, as he and 58,000 others sit the Leaving Cert. The course of his adulthood could well be decided by his performance this month.
But two weeks ago, he made a decision that may have even more impact on his future. He took a pledge - blessed by the Catholic Church - to abstain from alcohol for life.
The 17-year-old student from Falcarragh, Co Donegal, has been a juvenile pioneer since the age of 13. He has never tasted a pint of Guinness or a glass of wine or an alcopop. And he believes he never wants to.
"I've seen the way too much alcohol can affect people," he says. "I've played in a trad band in pubs here and it can really turn you off drink. I'm pretty sure I'm not not missing out on much."
Like many other teetotallers, he is anxious to clear up a misconception. "Pioneers aren't against people drinking. People have this idea that we're killjoys and we want everybody to be dry, but that's not the case at all. We're in favour of people drinking moderately. It's when they drink too much that problems start and people get hurt."
Justice Minister Michael McDowell certainly thinks so, and is anxious to introduce tougher legislation to deal with the so-called "drink to get drunk" culture.
Public order offences as a result of alcohol abuse have been well documented this year. An especially large number of drink-fuelled attacks has attracted the public's attention and prompted debates about the degeneration of Irish society.
In April, 35-year-old librarian Barry Duggan was almost killed when he was beaten in an indiscriminate attack just off Grafton Street. When the middle class attackers, former tennis internationals, turned themselves in to the police the next day they blamed excessive drinking for their behaviour.
There is no doubt that we're drinking more alcohol than before. A 2002 survey by market researchers, Mintel, discovered that all-Ireland consumption has increased by almost 50pc since 1997. That "World Drinks Trends" survey places the Republic second to only Luxembourg in per-capita volume of alcohol consumed in the EU. The Irish drink 12.3 litres of pure alcohol per year, compared with 8.4 litres in Britain. It also found that the 18 - 24 age bracket accounted for the largest part of the Irish drinks market.
It is this sector that the 105-year-old Pioneer Total Abstinence Association has made its number one priority since 2000. "Excessive drinking among young people has become a serious issue in this country," says the association's director, Fr Micheal Mac Greil. "I think the saturation marketing by the big drinks company is doing exactly what they set out to do - make more people drink more."
The Mayo-based Jesuit priest, a sociologist, says there is greater interest than ever among young people in becoming pioneers. But he admits that this is just anecdotal evidence. "We don't actually know how many young members we have," he says. "We haven't surveyed it." In fact, the figure of 142,000 members in the Republic is based on a questionnaire of a smaller number of people who say they don't drink. Guinness Ireland's corporate affairs manager Pat Barry says anecdotal evidence suggests that about 20pc of Irish adults abstain from alcohol.
Fr Mac Greil, 72, and a life-long pioneer, believes young people should not be exposed to advertising from the drinks industry. He believes the blanket ban on all tobacco advertising and sponsorship, introduced in the early 1990s, should be extended to alcohol. "Young people are bombarded with clever advertising from these companies, who seem to be going after a younger market than before. I'm particularly opposed to Guinness' sponsorship of the hurling championship."
He is heartened by the Government's plans to ban alcohol ads from buses, trains, cinemas and sporting events involving young people, while no ads for beer or other alcoholic beverages would be permitted before 10pm on Irish television. Efforts to slap health warnings on beer, wine and spirits would require approval from the European Commission, though.
Ciaran Coll believes the Government should help finance the Pioneer Association's drive to recruit pupils at primary level. "I really believe that if people have taken the pledge they will be less likely to start drinking before they are 15," he says. "It certainly helped me when some of my classmates started to drink. If I hadn't been a pioneer I think I might have tried alcohol."
Coll says the importance of the company young people keep should not be overlooked. "I was lucky that my group of friends accepted my decision not to drink. They've never put me under pressure to try it and they have been very supportive. I think they respect my decision. But I know very well that if I had another group of friends they would have put a lot of pressure to try alcohol and I probably would have given into it.
"I was also lucky that my family were very supportive. My brother, who's 26, encouraged me to take the pledge. But I know that other people aren't as fortunate and if their family and friends are heavy drinkers it would be next to impossible for them to abstain from alcohol. It's particularly difficult for those whose parents turn a blind eye to drink."
His sentiments are echoed by Fr David Keating, the chaplain at Waterford Institute of Technology, the college which made headlines for banning alcohol during "Rag Week" this year. "Irish society has an obsession with blaming young people for drinking too much alcohol," he says. "The irony is that these same young people are just responding to the environment around them, a culture of alcohol that has been created for them by adult men and women. They have been born into a society where the alcohol industry is an immensely lucrative one, where the drink lobby is powerful and has a hold on public policy. Irish culture is advertised across the world as a drinking culture and Irishness is now practically synonymous with alcohol."
Fr Mac Greil says this doesn't have to be the case. "Punitive measures are all well and good, but we've got to look at why young people are drinking. It's not just what they see around them, it's also got something to do with boredom. A lot of teenagers feel there is nothing available for them. That's why our National Youth Committee is strongly focused on creating activities for them - talent nights, discos, weekends away."
Gillian Lynch, secretary of the Associations' youth branch has helped organise a weekend for all pioneers under 27 in Ballyhaize Agricultural College, Co Cavan on August 8 - 10. "It's important that young pioneers meet other people who've made the same choices about alcohol. It can feel very isolating to take the pledge if you're the only person in your class who doesn't drink."
Lynch, a 25-year-old nurse from Cavan and based in Tallaght Children's Hospital, has been a pioneer since the age of nine. While most of her friends drink, and she has no problem with that, she says she's never felt that she is missing out. It really is possible to have a good night without alcohol. That might be hard for some to believe because we're always under the impression that to have a good night we should be drinking - heavily."
Fr Keating says it is understandable why young people are buying into this myth. "Ireland now accepts excessive consumption of alcohol - one could say a 'mentality' of alcohol exists - where drinking is more than just an occasional way to celebrate or socialise," he says. "For many young people the culture of drink is now the primary way in which to sense a belonging to life and to other people."
Not for Ciaran Coll, though. He says his Catholic faith is important to him in his fight to stay away from the temptations all around him. Pioneers are obliged to pray twice daily and wear their pin prominently. "I know it sounds old-fashioned, but pioneers believe that by abstaining they are taking penance for someone with a drink problem. And you have to hope that your decision might inspire others to become teetotal as well.
"But please get one thing across: we're not anti-drink."