‘We don’t believe enough in the future not to stuff ourselves with what’s in front of us now’

The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing showed that almost 80 per cent of Irish people over 50 are either obese or overweight – nature or nurture? Photograph: Press Association.

The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing showed that almost 80 per cent of Irish people over 50 are either obese or overweight – nature or nurture? Photograph: Press Association.

Tue, Jul 22, 2014, 12:01

We Irish are not alcoholics – we are everything-aholics. Of course we drink too much, but we also take too many drugs, eat too much rubbish, gamble too wildly and splurge too much money. And we can’t get to grips with these individual impulses because we don’t join them all up and ask what lies behind them. In particular we don’t ask whether there might be some connection between our guzzling and overindulgence on the one hand and our political culture on the other.

Every few weeks we get a new report into some aspect of Ireland’s terrible trouble with consumption. Last week, it was the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing which showed that almost 80 per cent of Irish people over 50 are either obese or overweight. Before that, it was figures showing that 32 per cent of Irish seven-year-olds are overweight or obese.

Last month it was the Health Research Board report that showed 75 per cent of all alcohol consumed in Ireland is part of a binge-drinking session and that 1.3 million of us are classified as problem drinkers. Before that, it was the revelation that between 2004 and 2011, 4,606 people died directly, or indirectly, from illegal drug use in Ireland. Or, to look at reckless consumption from another perspective, 55 per cent of Irish credit card holders do not know what interest rate they are paying and 31 per cent depend on those credit cards to meet monthly household bills. No one of these things may be unique to Ireland but the combination of them all adds up to a strikingly dysfunctional absence of self-control.

When these reports come out, we look at them as individual problems. There’s a good reason for this. The researchers who produce them are not in the business of speculating about what common factors might lie behind them. This kind of speculation is, moreover, dangerous. It plays into stereotyped and essentialist ideas of Irishness, the colonialist notion of a wild people unable to restrain itself that goes back to the Norman invasion.

If we are to speculate, then, we have to be clear that we’re not talking about Irish “nature” but about Irish nurture – the ways in which a culture has been formed in response to real historical circumstances. These dangers have to be braved nonetheless. We’ll get nowhere if we don’t talk about the underlying culture common to so many of our individual problems. Two things in that culture are surely relevant: an inability to think about the future and a sense of comfortable powerlessness.

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