Since Covid, some 349 pubs have called time for the last time, which signals the extent of the pandemic’s blow to the hospitality industry.

Paul Hopkins: Down the local with the ‘mindful drinkers’

When the Public Health Alcohol Bill finally passed all stages in the Dail, more than three years ago, it was passed amid loud whooping and cheering in the House because it had taken 1,000 days to get through, facing an onslaught of opposition from the drinks industry and other vested interests.

The Bill introduced minimum pricing — only in force all this time later — segregation of alcohol from other products in outlets, and advertising restrictions as well as a broadcasting watershed.

Then Health Minister Simon Harris said: "This is the first time in our history that we have endeavoured to use public health legislation to address issues in relation to alcohol."

I remember at the time musing over these "issues in relation to alcohol".

Was it that we were, as traditionally depicted, a nation of drunken blackguards for whom alcohol had now to be regulated to save us from ourselves? Or was it the more serious concerns regarding our health, including possible alcohol links with cancer? Or was it to be the fallout from below-cost selling?

Anyhow, 18 months after the Bill was passed, Covid-19 came rolling into town showing neither fear nor favour to "issues relating to alcohol". Since then, some 349 pubs have called time for the last time, which vintners say signals the extent of the pandemic's blow to the hospitality industry.

Perhaps, also, it is about our changing relationship with, and attitude, to alcohol.

Pubs have been intrinsic to the Irish psyche, entrenched in our social activities and mores. That said, the place of the pub in society the last decades has changed dramatically, thanks to drink-driving laws, the availability of alcohol in supermarkets, the smoking ban, the growth of other options like coffee shops, and a growing awareness of alcohol-related health issues.

I think it fair to say the pandemic gave many of us time on our hands to reconsider, to re-evaluate, many things in our lives — our work, our play, our relationships with one another. And, for many, time to rethink our relationship with alcohol.

Finances aside, for many that rethink has related to health in an era that is focused on such and its attendant issues. Strangely, one of the most contentious issues in the vast literature about alcohol consumption has been the consistent finding that those who don't drink tend to die sooner than those who do, according to the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Moderate drinking, defined as one to three drinks (units) a day, is associated with the lowest mortality rates in almost all comprehensive studies. Moderate imbibing is thought to improve overall health, and, importantly, sociability because people who are isolated don't have as many associates who can notice potential health problems. In rural Ireland, for many the pub is the only home from home.

People used to say that if you weren't drinking alcohol, then you were "just not drinking" because those opting out of downing beer after beer, had to choose from a limited selection of sweet, fizzy, drinks. That is rapidly changing.

The growing popularity of non-alcoholic beer and wine is one of the most interesting trends — and accelerated during the lockdowns — in the drinks business. Globally, it is one of the fastest-growing beverage categories, as the competition ups among brewers to seek out more complex, more challenging options. (From early 2020 to late 2021 the sale of various 'zero-zero' drinks rose here by 31.7 per cent, with non-alcoholic wine up by 40 per cent).

Fair enough, but Ireland the past two years has seen an alarming surge in addiction problems because of a dramatic increase in drinking during the pandemic, particularly among women. An Alcohol Action Ireland (AAI) study shows a 93 per cent increase in alcohol sales from supermarkets and off-licenses in 2021 on the previous year.

When many ramped up their alcohol intake, for grave health reasons I ended up staying away from it for most of the lockdowns. It was that or give up my mortal coil.

It’s been three months since I started having a very occasional drink again – typically two pints of zero-zero, finishing with a pint of Guinness or the occasional glass of wine, thrice a month. This time around, it feels completely different – because my attitude towards alcohol is completely different. I drink less. I drink better. I’m happier. I'm now the one in charge, not the drink.

Apparently, I am one of a new breed down my local they're calling mindful drinkers.

I'll drink to that....