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Against the odds

Last week I was in a family meeting with a patient and her relatives. She had come through an incredibly rocky period and was making painfully slow but steady progress. Her satisfaction at her guarded improvement was tempered with her very natural frustration at the pace with which she was getting her faculties back. This resulted in a few fits of pique and threats to take what would be a potentially catastrophic self-discharge. The aim of the meeting was to get all relevant parties on board to prevent this most undesirable outcome.

“Am I getting better doctor? Because it certainly doesn’t feel that way. It’s three months since the operation and I still have drains, still can’t walk without a frame.”

“You’re certainly improving, no doubt about it, and when you take an overview, you’ve done an awful lot, but there’s still more to do. You are recovering, but we need to keep the recovery going,” I replied.

I still struggle to believe I allowed that sort of meaningless cant leave my mouth. If and when I do go home, I’m really going to have to up my platitudes game, because neither of those are going to wash in Ireland ever again.

I can only attribute my lapse to tuning into the rhythm of Irish news again over the last few weeks. I tried to explain Irish politics to a few colleagues recently and it is harder than you’d think. One of them came over on the Saturday to watch the Ireland-England rugby match and caught sight of the RTÉ interview with the Healy-Raes. Being unfailingly, Englishly polite, he did little more than affect a sort of quizzical look as the brothers railed against “smart alecs in Dublin”.

When even serious political commentators were discussing the potential outcomes of the election, it was rare to get through much before hearing what the bookies were favouring

There is though, only so sniffy you can be about buffoonery in politics when you come from a country that has elevated Boris Johnson to a state of secular sainthood.

Nonetheless, for better or worse, as a parent of toddlers I can identify that Ireland has decided that Fianna Fáil has been on the naughty step long enough and they just don’t have the heart to see its sad little face any longer — ‘just say sorry to mammy and promise you won’t do it again’.

One thing I have noticed about listening to Irish news again is the utter reverence that is afforded to the pronouncements of bookmakers.

No matter what the subject of the discussion is, it’ll eventually turn to what the bookies’ odds are. For all that people like to sniff at American politics and the manner in which its media covers it, I doubt if a discussion on the rise of Donald Trump would be punctuated by frequent references to the odds Vegas bookmakers were giving on his election.

However, when even serious political commentators were discussing the potential outcomes of the election, it was rare to get through much before hearing what the bookies were favouring, which in reality is the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophesies. Bookmakers’ odds will reflect where the punters’ cash is going to protect themselves from risk. It gets worse when you get to the sports report, where the odds get quoted, the spread and God knows what else. This is usually accompanied by knowing remarks about the bookies never being wrong and never losing money, a viewpoint that is also patently false. Ask poor old Ivan Yates. Or the once mighty Ladbrokes chain, whose Irish operation was in examinership last year and had to close 60 of their 196 shops.

The gross revenue from gambling in Ireland every year is estimated to be as high as €1.1 billion and an increasing proportion of that is being spent online, where gamblers can play 24/7 from anywhere in the world using their phones or devices. Lots of times I’ve been home recently I’ve been watching games in pubs or stadia with fellas who were more glued to betting on their phones on the game they were watching than what was actually taking place on the pitch. Figures don’t exist specific to Ireland that I am aware of, but it is estimated in other countries that 7 to 8 per cent of all gamblers are at risk of problem gambling and given our propensity for being outliers in many other affairs of addiction studies such as alcohol and recreational drugs, that may be a fairly conservative estimate of the scale of the Irish problem. A problem that leads to considerable misery, poverty and social destruction throughout the country.

Perhaps it is time for us to reflect on gambling and stop putting its promotion and glorification at the heart of our national conversations.

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