Clear Heads on Campus


They’re young, in college, and enjoying every moment of it, but the worst thing these young people will have to worry about early on a Thursday morning is the prospect of a boring lecture. Cormac Duffy meets the students who say no to alcohol.

Who likes to drink more than the Irish? Who of the Irish to drinks more than students?

By this logic, Irish students should be amongst the world’s most dedicated drinkers. For the most part, this seems to be the case: the evidence is everywhere, but has probably been best seen by anyone who took a stroll through the Freshers’ Tent last week, where opportunities to drink were numerous and varying. Tired of your standard night at a club? Try wine with the French Society, or Hot Whiskey with the Kevin Barry Cumann. And if all this is too classy, you can always go with the unique institution that is UCD’s very own Dutch Soc.

It doesn’t take much to see that alcohol is an inherent part of student culture. But like all rules, there are exceptions. Students do, from time to time, break the stereotype and abstain from alcohol during the time in college. I caught up with a few of these to see how their abstinence influenced their studies and their social life as well as their general perception of a very different approach to the college lifestyle.
One of the core groups in UCD who abstain are members of the Islamic faith, represented on campus by the Islamic Society or ISOC. Muslims do not drink alcohol as it is forbidden by the Qur’an, but they see many other advantages, especially when it comes to buckling down to their coursework.

“For starters, there’s no chance of a hangover,” remarks Shahid Omar, a Second Year Physiology student. “It’s also not a common thing for us to be going out all the time, so we can focus more on our work.”
Anyone who has ever sat through a 9am lecture with a stinging hangover will have little difficulty in grasping the accuracy of his observation.

Muslim students were also open in discussing some of the problems that can accompany abstinence from alcohol. “At parties, we cannot drink, so we are asked about this [by those who do drink]. It’s quite hard to mix with them, to mingle with them” says Nur Nabila Jusoh, a Second Year Medicine student.

But she doesn’t mind, and is anything but negative about her abstinence, saying “we still have fun, even though we don’t drink,” and seemed to have the whole society in consensus with her.

Of course, many students do not drink for secular reasons, both practical and personal. Christopher Cummins, an 18-year-old Trinity student who has never taken a drink in his life, is a perfect example of this.

“The main reason I decide not to drink is my own experiences of when I was younger.”

Cummins goes on to cite personal family difficulties which arose from alcohol abuse. These are the kinds of problems students often put to the back of their minds as they drink, ignoring the potential issues that arise from long term alcohol use, including dependencies, health problems and the strain it can put on personal lives.

For Cummins. “drinking is embedded in our culture and encrypted in our minds at a very early age”. He thinks it is not just a large part of student culture, but of our whole culture. Despite this, he has found that most students have been tolerant of his abstinence, which, to him, is “a way of life [he hopes] others would understand”.

The decision to stay way from alcohol was somewhat more straightforward for William Gillespie, a 21-year-old UCD student. William, in his final year of a History degree, explains that as an 18-year-old in Donegal, he simply wasn’t all that bothered about drinking.

“I’ve tasted it, and decided ‘Nah, I don’t like it’. I would have been sitting with friends, watching a match or whatever, and decided ‘I’ll try that’… [but] I just didn’t like it. I’ve since been told that different types of alcohol taste different, but I’ll stick with my Coke. I haven’t touched it since.”

The taps in UCD's Centre Club bar during one particularly quiet moment. Photo: Gavan Reilly
The taps in UCD's Centre Club bar during one particularly quiet moment. Photo: Gavan Reilly

William’s experience as a non-drinking student has been relatively free of the kind of peer pressure and difficulties student abstinence might instinctively bring to mind.

“I wouldn’t be someone who’d tend to go out all the time anyway, so there’s not much pressure on me to drink. But when I do [go out], I tend to leave earlier, because after a certain time, people can get annoying when they’ve had a few.”

He is cheerfully dismissive of any suggestion that socialising as a non-drinker might be a tortuous experience. “I enjoy myself just as much if everyone else is drinking, I just might leave earlier. At home, it’s just me [who doesn’t drink], out of maybe five or six who might go out together. We’ll go to someone’s house first, they’ll have a few beers, and I’ll sit there drinking tea or whatever! It’s pretty normal – they’re still good craic because they’re my friends.”

For Gillespie, the decision not to drink was, for him at least, not a particularly profound one.

“It’s not something I’d tell people. It’s not that I wouldn’t tell them, but I just don’t care. [When I tell them I don’t drink], people always say ‘Oh, well done’. I just think, ‘Well, it’s not that hard’.”
When it comes to the issue of whether or not avoiding alcohol makes any tangible difference to his academic performance, Gillespie is dubious.

“It doesn’t make me perform any better, I don’t think. People would say ‘You must do really well in college’ and ‘you must have much more money’, but you find other things to spend your money on. You still find other things to do. If you’re on your time off, you’re on your time off. Maybe people who do drink study less, but I certainly don’t study more.”

One group with an established historical record of encouraging Irish abstinence from alcohol is the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association – its efforts still very much ongoing in 2009. The group’s CEO, Padraig Brady, spoke to The University Observer last week about the success or otherwise the organisation has had in attracting young people to its message of religious-inspired abstinence from alcohol.
“Less than ten per cent of our membership would be in the 18-25 age group. I think there is always room for improvement. The Pioneers have a hard working Youth Group through which we would hope to continue attracting young people on an ongoing basis. We are currently planning to re-introduce Pioneer clubs to the university sector.”

Brady provides his own analysis of the reasons that can cause young people to stay away from alcohol.

“There are many factors that influence a young person’s relationship with alcohol. They can range from health, to cultural, to emotional and spiritual reasons. Abstention from alcohol is only one of the many choices young people can consider.”

When it comes to the question of just how difficult or challenging that choice can be for a young person who makes it, Brady is cautious, but honest. “Abstaining from alcohol is a very personal experience for anyone who engages in it. Therefore the experience of the young person’s choice is as individual as their motivation behind making such a choice in the first place. It can range from being difficult to bringing relief.”

Interestingly, the group has experienced a slight increase in interest from young people since the beginning of the current economic downturn. “If we use our e-mail system as one measure, then yes, since late 2008 we have been experiencing an increase in interest from young people.”

For now, the students who’ve already made the decision to stay away from alcohol show no signs of changing their minds in the future.

“I don’t see why I would [drink], really. I can’t see any reason to at this stage”, says Gillespie.

Alcohol and UCD: The Morning After truth

  • The most recent survey by The University Observer examining UCD students and alcohol consumption found that 81.7 per cent of students questioned felt that alcohol plays a significant part in college life.
  • 67.9 per cent of student respondents had, on at least one previous occasion, drunk so much that they couldn’t remember all or some of the night before.