People have been getting hammered on alcohol since the first monkey discovered overripe fruit could get them wasted, but people trying to quit is much more recent. Science once thought that it had discovered a miracle quaff, ether, that could knock you out during surgery and cure the thirst besides. There was a hitch, though: drinking ether made you fart more than you ever thought possible.
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Which was probably seriously distracting for the doctors.
“It is said that God created the Drink, lest the Irish own the whole world.” It’s true that the Irish have a rep for drinking, as though Belarus didn’t exist and Wisconsin was as dry as the Atacama Desert. In comparison, Ireland looks a little behind the curve. Shane MacGowan’s best efforts notwithstanding, what really gave Ireland this reputation was an early temperance movement and a willingness to use the locals as bad examples in strange social experiments. One of those experiments was ether drinking.
In 1829, the Reverend John Edgar kicked off Ireland’s temperance movement by pouring all the whiskey in his Belfast home out of a window into the street. We’re not talking about that bottle hidden behind the bundt cake pan for special occasions, either: it being 1829, this was an entire barrelful. Both Catholics and Protestants in Ireland got into the act. A few years after Edgar’s call for temperance, Father Theobald Mathew called for total abstinence from alcohol, and made it as far as New Orleans on that wave, not that abstinence had much of a chance there.
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Even his resting dick face couldn’t stop Mardi Gras.
What if you were a hardened Irish drinker caught up in the new sobriety craze? Fortunately, a miracle drug had just been popularized: ether. If you had taken the pledge, a kindly Irish physician would prescribe ether for you to wean you off the sauce. Not to inhale, but to drink — at least, before a mutant potato fungus turned your country into a Kelly green post-apocalyptic wasteland. This is where the story gets a little fuzzy. The mass starvation and emigration of millions will do that.
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They don’t look like that because they’re coming off a serious bender.
When the medical historical record picks up again, a generation after the Famine, there were still ether-drinking communities in Ulster left over from the temperance movement. People there preferred ether over the local poteen and the heavily taxed “parliament whiskey.” Fifty thousand people drank 17 thousand gallons of ether a year. This was a vast improvement over the other alcohol substitutes found in Ulster, which included brass polish, boot polish, hair oil, medical specimen preservation fluid, coal gas bubbled through milk, water steeped in imported old whisky casks (whisky without an ‘e’, imported from Glasgow), and even boiled radio batteries, which you know has to be true because who the hell could make that up.
Shot for shot, ether is allegedly much more intoxicating than alcohol. As Hunter S. Thompson noted, “There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge,” and the Irish were not a counterexample. On the other hand, etheromania (the inappropriately hilarious medical name for ether addiction) was allegedly much less debilitating than alcoholism. On the third hand, ether has a physical property that kept its use as a drink from catching on: it gives you instant gas.
You see, ether’s boiling point is right below human body temperature, at 94.3 F. It will evaporate entirely away in your hands, and boil in your mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines. A gram of ether will produce over a cup of gas, which is why for ladies, ether was prescribed by the teaspoonful. A full shot of ether will produce over two-and-a-half gallons of volatilized ether gas, exactly the thing for a romantic night on the town.
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She bought a new headscarf and everything.
To keep the ether in rather than out, your dedicated ether drinker would chill his mouth with cold water (“renching his gums”), swallow the ether while holding his nose, then take another swig of cold water. This moved the immediate problem from the mouth to the stomach, and also helped with the taste of the ether, which tended to make the uninitiated vomit. Once there, it made the drinker prone to “violent eructations” (i.e., belching like Thor at a Valhalla awards banquet) and a “great dissipation of wind” (i.e. turning into a self-propelled hovercraft at the barstool), but in pursuit of a very “refined” temporary high, allegedly with no hangover.
Still, there were two dangers that the ether drinker faced that the whiskey drinker did not. The first was the fear that the swelling in the stomach would squeeze the heart and stop it. The other danger was fire. Volatilized ether is highly inflammable, and if you were a smoker or sitting near a nice roaring fire, and you experienced a belching fit or a windstorm from your nether regions, you could be in for a world of unusual hurt.
The flame even looks like it’s giving you the finger.
Fortunately, ether fumes are heavier than air, so this happened less often than you might think.
What happened to the etheromaniacs? While they were once fifty thousand strong, it was still a minority taste in Ireland. Most pubs refused to carry ether for the general public, naturally enough (though some might keep a flask on hand for a regular), so the trade went to pharmacists, grocers, and specialty shebeens off the beer and whiskey grid. If you were off the money economy yourself, you could always trade in potatoes for your ether dose, because some enterprising dealers raised pigs on their proceeds. Eventually, the different churches in Ireland came out against ether drinking, and in 1890, ether was scheduled as a poison by the British government. Although some ether-heads still managed to get their fix, sometimes from a relative working at a hospital, the practice faded away over time. It’s weirdly sad when an addict’s drug of choice becomes obsolete, but that’s the modern condition in a nutshell.
So the next time you imbibe, raise your glass to the forgotten ether drinkers of Ireland. And light a match … carefully.
Much of the above information comes from the article “Ether Drinking In Ulster,” by K.H. Connell, published in the Quarterly Journal Of Studies On Alcohol in 1965. My thanks to the good people at the New York Academy Of Medicine Library for their help in tracking this bad boy down.
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