Alcohol and the Law in Ireland

O'Donoghue's Folk Pub in Dublin, Ireland
Andrea Pistolesi / Getty Images

When a destination is famous for its pubs, its only natural to wonder about the drinking laws in Ireland. Learning the rules and regulations governing booze in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is also important to make sure to steer clear of breaking any laws, including underage drinking and drink-driving (a.k.a. drunk driving, which is never a good idea, whatever the law defines as a tolerance limit). 

Dreaming of Ireland tends to bring to mind certain clichés like Saint Patrick, Irish Coffee, round towers, Guinness, 40 shades of green, Irish Whiskey, and the long and winding ​Irish history. Did you notice how often alcohol crept up in this short list? Indulging in "a drop of the good stuff" can be as much a part of an Irish vacation as a stop to see the Cliffs of Moher or Bunratty Castle.

Yet the laws governing the sale and enjoyment of alcohol in the country are fairly strict.  So what do the drinking rules actually say regarding alcohol in Ireland? Here's a short run-down for you: You can only drink when you are 18, and more than likely not in a public place.

What is the Minimum Age to Purchase and Drink Alcohol in Ireland?

The drinking age in Ireland is 18. That means you must be at least 18 years old it to buy, attempt to buy, or consume alcohol in Ireland. It is also illegal to obtain alcohol for anybody below the minimum age. So if you are under 18, or if you are pestered by anybody who is (or seems to be) ... don't even think about it! If you are under 18, you can't even step inside an off-license (liquor store) unless you are with a parent or guardian. 

What is the Definition of Alcohol in Ireland?

This is easy - any drink containing alcohol in any quantity is "alcohol". However, drinks with minute quantities of alcohol like “soft” shandy and non-alcoholic beer are exceptions, as are liquor-filled sweets. Though be aware that having a few brandy-filled chocolates might lead to a positive result in a breathalyzer test, which can, in turn, lead to a negative experience involving arrest and a blood sample. Best to go easy on these sweets if you plan on getting behind the wheel.

Where Can You Drink in Ireland?

Generally, alcohol can only be served to the public on "licensed premises", the pub (short for "public house") being the most common place where it is possible to get a drink. In addition, in recent years more and more bars and clubs have sprung up, concentrating on a younger, more sophisticated and/or seriously affluent market segment. Restaurants may be licensed to serve alcohol, though not all are. You will usually have to order a full meal to be served drinks in a restaurant. There are also restaurants that only have a license to serve wine and cannot legally sell any other alcoholic drinks.

What if I Want to Have a Drink in my Room / at Home?

A large number of shops sell beer and wine with a so-called "off-license", meaning that you can't drink them in the store but you can buy alcohol to take home. Most off-licenses in Ireland are well marked and easy to spot. You may also find a limited selection of wines in shops without a full "off-license". Many pubs also sell bottled or canned drinks for consumption off their premises.

Can I Drink Everywhere in Ireland?

Definitely not - drinking in public places is banned nearly everywhere in Northern Ireland, and in many places in the Republic of Ireland as well. The exact restrictions are laid down in local by-laws, that most visitors are not instantly aware of so keep an eye out for signs and notices. If you do not see any information posted, you can risk playing it by ear ... or stay on the safe side by not drinking at all in public places. Note that the "clever ruse" of covering a bottle with a brown paper bag makes you even more conspicuous, and will not save you from a fine. While drinking out in the open outside of a pub or restaurant is usually not allowed, there are no laws against carrying alcohol in cars (unlike in many US states), and you can actually drive with an open(ed) container of alcohol in the passenger compartment. But ...

What Does the Law Say About Alcohol and Driving in Ireland?

The legal limit for alcohol in your bloodstream whilst driving is below 0.05 percent (in the Republic, in Northern Ireland 0.08 percent) - depending on body size and the strength of the drink you might be over this limit after only one drink. Both the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Gardai (Irish police) rigorously enforce the drinking and driving law and will breathalyze suspect drivers. Should a driver's alcohol level be found to be over the legal limit, you will not under any circumstances be allowed to continue your journey and a court appearance is (usually) mandatory. Avoid any legal run-ins by not drinking or having a designated driver. Apart from the legal implications - driving in Ireland as a tourist is already complicated enough without the influence of alcohol, medication or drugs.

Are There Any Restrictions on Enjoying Alcohol in Ireland?

No - as long as you are enjoying alcohol sensibly. But if you overindulge and are becoming a nuisance or even a danger (to yourself or others), then the law might get involved. You might be warned by the police to cut it out and move along - or you might (in serious cases) be asked to come along to the nearest station. Remember that a hangover is child's play compared to spending a few hours in a crowded holding cell.

And Finally ... When Can You Not Get a Drink in Ireland?

You can drink alcohol in Ireland in pubs and restaurants that have a license to serve it. It depends on the specific license but you can expect that it is generally served- from just before midday to just before midnight. Alcohol sales in shops in the Republic of Ireland are legal only between 10.30 am and 10.00 pm on weekdays, and from 12.30 pm to 10.00 pm on Sundays. Take note that Saint Patrick's Day is regarded as a Sunday for this purpose because excessive early morning drinking rained on many a parade in years before. In Northern Ireland, the hours for alcohol sales in shops depends upon the individual license granted - generally speaking, on weekdays it would be legal from 8 am to 11 pm, on Sundays, from 10 am to 10 pm.​

There is only one day a year when you will be hard pressed to buy a drink: Christmas Day. (It used to be that alcohol sales were banned on two days a year, but drinking is now allowed on Good Friday).

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