Since at least as far back as the New Stone Age, people around the world to varying degrees have drank alcoholic concoctions to alter their perceptions, thoughts, and modality of being.

But the desire for drink and its emotional reward tends to vary greatly by individual and by group, with the Irish of the modern world known in particular for a predilection for strong drink, in popular culture and in practice.

In new research funded by the U.S. National Institute on Aging and the Irish Higher Education Authority, investigators seek to answer the question, "Why Do Some Irish Drink So Much?" American and Irish academics examined drinking patterns in the country as well as cultural norms among students at an Irish university, in a study limited by dependency on observational self-reporting. Among findings, Irish youth drank more alcohol than students from other countries, with men drinking more than women — particularly when those men are isolated from women, at all-male boarding schools, for example.

"We find evidence of strong associations between amounts of alcohol students consume and the drinking of their fathers and older siblings," the researchers wrote. "In contrast, we find little evidence of any impact of other non-drinking aspects of family background on the students drinking. Parental and older sibling drinking also appears to affect subjective attitudes of students towards what constitutes problem drinking behavior."

Students whose parents or older siblings drink more alcohol were more liberal when evaluating their own objective drinking behavior, too, pointing to possible genetic and epigenetic causes of greater use and abuse of alcohol.

As part of the wide-ranging analysis, the investigators looked at the historical origins of drinking behaviors, examining the role of the Church, English cultural influences on Ireland, the centrality of the brewery and distilling industry to the economy and culture, and the influence of the isle's dreary and rainy weather. "We find relatively strong influences of the Catholic Church and English colonial settlement patterns on Irish drinking but little influence of Irish weather," the researchers wrote, dispelling the long-held notion that dreary weather drives many to drink.

A greater influence by the Catholic Church, as seen with higher attendance at mass, was associated with less drinking, while areas more integrated with English culture, as measured by exposure to the game of cricket, were boozier than the rest.

"Overall, our results point to a pattern of transmission of parental drinking and sibling drinking affecting both actual alcohol consumption and standards for what is considered normal or acceptable drinking behavior," the researchers wrote. "Our results also point to complex deep-rooted cultural and historical factors that facilitate alcohol consumption and explain variation even among the student sample."

While drinking behavior varied greatly by regional influence within Ireland, they found subjective thresholds for alcohol acceptance appeared to reflect more universal norms across the study sample. "However, the role of the national-level culture in influencing thresholds is borne out by the very large effect of being Irish on standards of acceptable drinking compared to foreign students," they wrote.

Future research may seek to understand the development of subjective thresholds for alcohol acceptance and their role in determining drinking behavior, the investigators wrote.

Source: Delaney L, Kapteyn A, Smith JP. Why Do Some Irish Drink So Much? Family, Historical and Regional Effects on Students' Alcohol Consumption and Subjective Normative Thresholds. Review Of Economics Of The Household. 2013.