Ditch the drink and find some pride
“I think we hit the zeitgeist of people saying, ‘Wait a second. This has gone too far.’ Sober St Patrick’s Day is perhaps a manifestation of that and an opportunity to redefine who we are as a people, to combat that stereotype.”
The Irish angle
Now Reilly’s attention is turning to Ireland, where he hopes a similar shift in perception can be harnessed. While last month’s cross-Border survey, Alcohol Consumption and Alcohol Related Harm in Ireland, helped highlight Irish drinking habits, Reilly was disappointed to see Róisín Shortall resign as minister of state for health, and he hopes the drive to challenge drinking attitudes will continue.
In the meantime, Reilly has met with support groups in Dublin, convened with members of Belfast City Council, and says he’s pushing for appointments with Shortall’s replacement, Alex White, as well as Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton, who attended the inaugural event in New York. The short-term goal is to double the size of Sober St Patrick’s Day in New York, launch it here, and find corporate sponsorship to help the concept grow.
But there is another motivation behind Reilly’s campaign. Seven years ago, he almost lost a family member to addiction. “In the process of that catastrophic situation, I began to learn about the much larger issue of how alcohol effects not just the alcoholic but the whole family, how dysfunction kicks in and creates lifelong problems unless they’re properly addressed.”
Although Reilly speaks with the persuasive focus of a producer, often chewing thoughtfully on the ends of his glasses, he grows animated and outspoken on the subject of recovery. He has nothing against drinks companies, he says, but is adamant that for some people the slogan “drink responsibly” simply does not apply.
“The root of why I did this is because of the great misinformation and ignorance of this drug,” he says. “I’m not a clinician, I’m not trained in this. I just happen to be, like countless others on the street, someone whose family has been affected and who wants to do something about it. I’m passionate because it’s a much bigger problem than people admit or realise. But since it’s part of the culture and we all use it, what we do is rationalise to the point where if people aren’t crawling around in some gutter, then it’s considered okay.
“We live in a society where it’s put up with, where we allow it to go on because it’s legal and people want to believe it’s different – but it’s not different at all.”
For now, Reilly recognises that sobering up the Irish reputation will require long-term effort. The reaction to his campaign so far, however, suggests he is not alone. “There are a lot of Irish or Irish-Americans who have drinking problems, but so do other nationalities. Rather than just propagate the stereotype, I think there’s a new awareness that we can finally do something about it.”