On November 18th, Alcoholics Anonymous celebrated the 70th anniversary of its first meeting in Ireland. Bill Smith looks at how the organisation first came to the country and how its has grown hugely since then, with 40 meetings a week in West Cork alone
IT must have seemed to him at times that he was on a fool’s errand. Conor, originally from Roscommon but now living in the US, had suddenly felt inspired while on a holiday back in Ireland to leave behind something as a way of saying thanks for a life-changing event that had brought him back from the brink of destruction just three years previously.
It was then he had taken his first step into a new life by going to his first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in his hometown of Philadelphia. There he had learned from the other members not just how to stay sober one day at a time, but also how important it was out of gratitude to pass on the message of sobriety to others. And what better way of showing gratitude could there be than helping to set up a meeting of AA in his native country?
The Ireland of 1946, however, was not ready to embrace immediately what Conor and AA had to offer. He was told by some priests whose help he sought that there were no alcoholics in Ireland, he was verbally attacked by a psychiatrist who was insulted by the idea that a layman could do anything for his patients, and he was informed by the authorities of one large hospital (ironically, now well known for its treatment of alcoholism ) that ‘they never did have alcoholics and never would have alcoholics’. It looked to Conor that he would have to return home with only the satisfaction of knowing that he had least tried, but then, almost at the last moment, he met one man willing to listen -- Dr Norman Moore of St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin. Dr Moore was impressed and introduced Conor to one of his patients, Richard P, and it was as a result of them coming together that the first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous took place in Ireland on November 18th, 1946 – the 70th anniversary of which is being marked throughout the country on November 18th next.
That meeting was also in fact the first one in Europe and came 11 years after AA started in Akron, Ohio, when two alcoholics -- one a struggling businessman, the other a doctor -- came together almost by chance and realised that by talking openly with each other about their drinking they could possibly stay sober on a daily basis.
The meeting in Dublin grew from a small kernel in the following few years, thanks to the efforts of dedicated members, one of the most able of whom was a retired army officer, Sackville O’C.M. who came to his first meeting in April 1947. He was involved in setting up the first meeting in Cork city in 1949 where after a shaky start it flourished. In the mid-1950s the first meetings were in West Cork, initially for a short time in Bantry, and then in Dunmanway where it struck deep, permanent roots.
There are now 40 meetings held in West Cork every week, from Bandon to Castletownbere, a phenomenal growth that has been echoed in other parts of Ireland and throughout the world. It is as if at that first meeting in Akron, Ohio, a spark ignited to light a flame that continues to be passed on from one person to the next, bringing hope not just to the alcoholic but to those close to him or her who have suffered in equal measure.
The spreading of the AA message depends above all on the efforts of its members and not through any centrally organised, richly funded advertising campaign. The organisation is unique in how it refuses any funding from outside sources, making the world aware of its existence not through promotion but through attraction, by its members simply showing in their everyday living that it is possible to break the shackles of alcoholism and live full and useful lives.
What also adds to AA’s uniqueness is that there is no central authority in charge; the control and management lie with the members themselves, and no one member is entitled to speak for AA, which is one of the reasons (as well as safety for themselves and their families through anonymity) that members never use their full names.
Nor does it claim to have all the answers, but merely says, ‘We have a drinking problem, and this is how we stay sober.’ And above all it does not preach, but simply says, ‘If you want to drink, that is your business. If you want to stop, that’s ours.’
Bill Smith (not his real name), is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.
• To celebrate 70 years of AA in Ireland, an Open Public Meeting will be held in the West Cork Hotel in Skibbereen on Saturday, November 19th, at 5pm. As well as a male and female speaker from AA, there will be a speaker from Al-Anon, which helps the families and friends of problem drinkers. Everyone is welcome.