A few pints? Go slow

Updated: 2013-03-31 08:19

By Douglas Dalby (The New York Times)

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KILGARVAN, Ireland - Kilgarvan is a tiny spot on a busy road between the tourist towns of Killarney and Kenmare. But it became the center of an international media frenzy this winter when the local council voted to legalize drunken driving.

That was the way it was portrayed, at least. What the Kerry County Council actually did was to pass a motion calling for people who live in country areas to be allowed to have a few beers before driving home.

The measure was proposed by Danny Healy-Rae, a local pub owner and politician, with an eye to addressing two issues at once: the decline of pub culture and the isolation of rural life, particularly for older residents.

Mr. Healy-Rae's motion called on the minister for justice to allow the police the discretion "to issue permits to people living in rural isolated areas to allow them to drive home from their nearest pub after having two or three drinks on little-used roads driving at very low speeds."

He argued that this would help combat isolation and even lower the risk of suicide.

Political rivals, however, labeled it an empty, populist stunt. But the fact that it passed at all speaks volumes for the complex hold that alcohol still has in many facets of Irish life.

How much so could be seen early on a recent Saturday afternoon here, as some of the local lads were enjoying a pint in the Healy-Rae family pub. To a man, they supported the motion, although most were willing to talk about it only anonymously.

John, a retired construction worker who never remarried after the death of his wife more than 30 years ago, describes the pub as "a great excuse to get out of the house."

"I wouldn't drink every day or anything like that, but it does give me a lift to have a couple of pints and maybe bump into some friends and hear what's happening in the world," he said.

Since the drinking motion was passed, the pub has hosted film crews from across Europe and beyond, and Mr. Healy-Rae continues to stand his ground despite a torrent of criticism.

"I am not advocating on behalf of the kind of individuals who cause accidents on our roads," was his much-practiced response. "I am talking about mainly elderly people who live in very remote places who come to town to get a bit of shopping, enjoy a couple of pints and a chat with friends and then drive home at less than 30 miles an hour," he said.

A fellow Kerry County Council member, Toireasa Ferris, who was absent when the measure passed, says she was stunned when she heard the result.

She also believes that rural isolation is a serious issue, but she says it has been obscured by promoting drunken driving as part of the solution.

"Some in an older generation who were used to having a few pints and driving home may still think it acceptable, and they may be lost to us," she said. "But we have to break the link between socializing and drinking for the generations following."

The New York Times