Ireland’s Relationship with Drink Driving, and mine

My heart sank deep into the pit of my stomach this week as I read once again about the ordeal of Gillian and Ronan Treacy and how their son Ciarán was snatched from them by a drunk driver. Losing a child in such tragic, painful circumstances, right before your eyes, helpless to do anything is what would amount to the oft-used phrase “Every parent’s worst nightmare.” I have thought often of Ciarán this week; what was taken from him, from his family, and the reality of what Gillian and Ronan Treacy must live with. The Treacy’s story has affected me deeply, perhaps because drink-driving has touched my own life in various ways.

My relationship with drink-driving slammed into being in the late 90s. I was six years old when a lorry driver ran a red light and collided with our family’s car, hitting the back passenger side where I was sitting. It was a Saturday morning and we were on a family outing to buy what was then a then state of the art Windows PC (equipped with solitaire as it was). It emerged that the lorry driver was over the legal limit having spent time in a morning house prior to getting behind the wheel.

Ciaran Treacy - HeadStuff.org
Ciarán Treacy, image source

Though I have no idea what unfortunate circumstances might have led that driver to drink and drive that day, I will always resent the fact that a sad chapter in his story almost became the end of mine. The lorry he drove into us had been emptied earlier that day. Had it still been bearing its load I would likely have been seriously injured or killed. My injuries were thankfully minor and have long since faded, but they were enough to cause a few years worth of childhood nightmares as well as a lifelong awareness of what can happen when someone chooses to drive under the influence. 

Irish society has a very difficult relationship when it comes to drink. Alcohol has a stranglehold on the Irish people that is hard for us to admit, and out of this silence, drink-driving has been allowed to lurk, quiet, insidious and ignored until we are confronted with its devastating consequences. This is not a condemnation of alcohol and those who drink, but a sober truth about our propensity for turning a blind eye to our friends and family when they get behind the wheel under the influence.

Drink-driving has been allowed to lurk, quiet, insidious and ignored until we are confronted with its devastating consequences.

Those not familiar with our drinking culture could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve moved on. That drink-driving is something that is now entirely spurned by our society existing only in memories of a bygone time when taking your chances on country roads after a few pints of bitter was deemed an acceptable and often necessary risk, but from my firsthand experience I can confirm that drink-driving in Ireland is still rampant. Though we mourn and rage at the devastation drink-drivers leave in their wake, we are turning a blind eye when it matter most; before people get behind the wheel.

Though I survived my early brush with drink-driving, my urge to speak about the subject derives not just from the point of view of a survivor, but also from the mind of a guilty bystander. I have seen drink-driving time and time again. A member of my immediate family is a long-term alcoholic with no hope of recovery. He has been a drinker all the years I’ve known him and it is an unfortunate fact that after years of attempted treatment and interventions, he will never stop drinking.

I’ve made a reluctant peace with his drinking, but I cannot do the same for his choice to get behind the wheel drunk. Any of the many evenings he drives home over the legal limit could be the evening that he hits someone: a taxi driver picking up one last fare for the evening, a commuter on a bicycle trying to make their way home, a young family, a family like the Treacy’s.

Drink driving - HeadStuff.org
Image source

Anyone familiar with the illness of alcoholism and the selfish, clouded mind of the alcoholic will understand how years of attempts to stop him, to make him see the potential devastation of his actions have yielded no results. Still I wonder, on a regular basis how I might feel if he killed someone – would I have done enough?

I’ve made a reluctant peace with his drinking, but I cannot do the same for his choice to get behind the wheel drunk.

I realise that this bystanders guilt is not solely my own to bear, it is to be shared with the whole of Ireland. It was only when I began to work in the pub trade some years ago that I realised just how prolific and accepted drink-driving is within Irish society. On a daily basis would I find myself serving individuals who would then collect their keys unashamedly from the bar in front of them and make their way outside to their vehicle. I’m not talking about a pint or two after work or a half glass of wine with dinner: A group of these drivers could easily put away a glass or two of wine followed by several gin and tonics. Each.

In every such circumstance, their friends and families would watch on, complacent, sometimes opting to catch a ride home with them. This issue is not confined to older generations, old fogeys who are set in their ways. I have also witnessed inebriated people of all ages attempt to get behind the wheel of a car.

Last year I took the registration of a car while its occupant cursed and shouted at me before fleeing the scene. He had walked out of a pub, gotten in his car and proceeded to scrape the back of another parked car in his ham-fisted attempt to reverse. On other occasions, I’ve kept my distance stuck behind a weaving car on poorly lit back roads. I’ve been at a party and witnessed a young mother take a shot of spirits and giggle at how it will be a challenge to drive home later. I’ve watched a couple reverse out of a driveway on Christmas Day straight into the car behind them. I’ve seen young bartenders driven to hiding car keys from their inebriated managers lest they attempt to drive home again.

I’ve seen a lot of drink driving in Ireland, and while I haven’t always stayed silent, my reaction, and the reaction of Irish society leaves a lot to be desired. We will mourn and rage when children are killed and when their killers are lightly sentenced, but we need to do something before the devastation occurs, however uncomfortable the situation may be. It’s important to understand that we are not responsible for the actions and consequences of drink drivers, but we can speak up. A quiet word or a frank conversation in Irish pubs, restaurants and homes could save lives. 

It was only when I began to work in the pub trade some years ago that I realised just how prolific and accepted drink-driving is within Irish society.

When I think about Ciarán Treacy, I regret all those times I continued polishing glasses and turned a blind eye to the drunks lurching out of the pub with their keys in their hands. I think too of my family member and the many times I have unsuccessfully tried to discourage and shame his drink driving. Perhaps his decisions are out of my hands, but that doesn’t mean that I have to remain silent.

Ciarán Treacy’s life was taken, and no amount of talk can bring it back, but we do a great disservice to his memory when we bury our heads in the sand when it comes to drink-driving. There is much to be said with regard to legislation, conviction and sentencing for drink-driving, but we as individuals, as Irish publicans, lorry drivers, after-work pinters, students, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, whoever we may be, we must speak up. 

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