Arts, Culture & Media

Why toasting Arthur Guinness has left many with a bad taste

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Credit: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
Customers enjoy a pint of stout during Arthur's Day in Dublin.

Happy Arthur's Day! Wait, you didn't know it was Arthur's Day? Well, it is. In Ireland, and wherever that thick, black beverage called Guinness is sold. 

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Now, as holidays go, this one's completely unofficial. It's supposed to celebrate the anniversary of the day Arthur Guinness signed the lease on the property that became the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. 

But this year, some in Ireland say it's just an excuse for a giant beverage company to sell scads of alcohol to a susceptible Irish public. 

"Fond of the drink." I've always found it one those funny, yet heart-breakingly sad Irish euphemisms for "being an alcoholic."

And on this day, a completely trumped-up Irish “holiday,” it reeks even more of both funny and sad.

If you believe Diageo, the company that owns Guinness, it all seems innocent enough. You simply raise a glass to the maker of the drink my father still describes as “liquid roofing tar.”

(Full disclosure: I truly like the stuff. Sorry, pops.)

And if you believe the Guinness ads, fun and friendship will automatically ensue after raising that pint. No, really. 

Based on the marketing, you’d think Arthur’s Day had been going strong for years and years. But really, it all started in 2009, the 250th anniversary of old Arthur signing off on the lease there in Dublin.

But four years on, some Irish are seeing things a bit differently.

“It seemed to have some sort of historical validity. But really, like a lot of these things, it’s really just a crass attempt to sell alcohol,” says Sean Moncrieff, host of an afternoon talk show on Newstalk, one of Dublin's most popular radio stations.

Moncrieff describes the Irish relationship with alcohol as "unhealthy" and "dysfunctional."

“You know, the stereotype of the drunken Irish, which here in Ireland if that's portrayed we're very quick to object to, but we’re perhaps somewhat embarrassed or reluctant to address the idea that there might be something to that cliché,” he added.

But this year, there's a push to get the Irish to take a hard look at their hard drinking selves.

First, a group of doctors noted that emergency room visits and ambulance calls spike by 30 percent on Arthur's Day.

Other researchers noted that deaths from liver disease have doubled in Ireland since 1995. And government statistics show that Irish households spent twice as much on alcohol last year as on clothing.

Critics say Diageo's "Arthur's Day" promotions aren't helping.

“Their reach is enormous, and it's particularly reaching young people,” says Suzanne Costello, CEO of a group called Alcohol Action Ireland, which works to raise awareness of alcohol-related problems in the country.

“I mean, it’s doing all things that sponsorship is designed to do, aligning a product with success and glamor and popularity, and that makes it attractive to young people.”

But, Costello cautions, the health-related problems caused by alcohol are ticking time-bombs. 

“It is difficult dealing with these problems now; imagine how much more difficult it will be in ten or 15 years. And the strain is really showing in Ireland because of the significant cutbacks in Ireland as a result of the economic crash. The health system is creaking anyway. With the extra layer of pressure added by drink-related injury and harm and illness is making the situation even worse,” she says.

Some big names have jumped on the anti-Arthur's Day wagon this year. 

Irish folk-rockers The Waterboys penned a song whose lyrics put the blame solely on Diageo, calling the whole Arthur’s Day promotion “an advertising scam.”

Even Irish singer Christy Moore, who has made a living off of singing about Irish drinkers, rogues and brigands, wrote a song calling Arthur’s Day an “Alcoholiday.” (See video, below).

All that it may be and more, says Irish law lecturer and blogger Jennifer Kavanagh. But, she questions whether it’s fair to lay all the blame on Diageo.

“If you eat 20 cheeseburgers in a day, Ronald McDonald did not have a gun to your head saying, ‘Eat them all.’ It's the same with Diageo. Nobody is forcing you to drink Guinness or any other brand of drink.”

“At end of the day,” says Kavanagh, “we all have to take responsibility for our actions, and if we drink ourselves, say, into a police cell, then that's our own fault. It’s not the fault of the people who make the product.”

And just in case you think Jennifer's got a dog in this fight. “Personally, myself, I can't even stand the taste of Guinness.”

I supposed it’s tough when personal responsibility has to battle a multi-million dollar marketing effort. 

Irish radio host Moncrieff says his listeners don't quite know what to do, or who to blame.

“A listener to my show texted in yesterday and said, ‘An alcoholic is someone who drinks as much as you do, but you don't like them,’” he relayed. “And that's the problem. Everyone else has a drink problem. So, you'll have people who will dislike Diageo, and bash them as this big corporate monster, but they'll still go to all of the events that are organized.”

Happy Arthur's Day indeed.

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