Episode 51: Kayleigh P. and Freethinkers of Alcoholics Anonymous Ireland

This week’s podcast features a conversation with Kayleigh P., founder of Freethinkers of Alcoholics Anonymous Ireland. I think you will enjoy this conversation and be inspired by Kayleigh’s enthusiasm and love for AA. After speaking with her, I became interested in learning more about AA in Ireland, which led me to the story of Conor Flynn, the man who first brought AA to the country. As I read about Conor, I thought about Kayleigh, and it seemed appropriate to include a small portion of his story here to make this a tale of two founders. 

Alcoholics Anonymous in Ireland: A Founder’s Story

In 1943, Conor Flynn, an Irish immigrant from Roscommon in the west of Ireland, joined AA in Philadelphia, and after three years of sobriety, he was anxious to bring Alcoholics Anonymous to his mother country. This turned out to be a more difficult task than perhaps he imagined. It seemed he was met with roadblocks at every turn. Some even suggested there were no alcoholics in southern Ireland, that he might have better luck finding prospects in Northern Ireland. 

Feeling deflated, Conor was ready to give up on the entire idea when he met a woman by the name of Eva Jennings at the hotel where he was staying in Dublin. Over breakfast, he told her of his various struggles with trying to start an AA meeting in Ireland. Eva was sympathetic to Conor’s plight and gave him the name of a doctor she knew who might know of an alcoholic with whom Conor could talk. 

The doctor introduced him to Richard P., from County Down in Northern Ireland, and together the two men founded the first AA meeting in Ireland; in fact, it was the first AA meeting in all of Europe. 

They both stayed sober for the remainder of their lives, and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have been occurring in Ireland since the founding of that first group in Dublin on November 18, 1947. Today there are approximately 850 AA groups in Ireland with an estimated membership of 12,000. (Alcoholics Anonymous Ireland)

Freethinkers of Alcoholics Anonymous Ireland: A Founder’s Story 

Kayleigh P.’s drinking crept up on her seemingly out of nowhere. It was a problem long before she knew it was a problem. This is her story. 

As a young girl, Kayleigh was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a painful disease that for periods of time made it impossible for her to walk. But it was more than physical pain that she endured, there was also emotional damage as the disease eroded her self-esteem. After a decade of treatments that never worked, she had had enough. Frustrated, she convinced herself that she no longer had the disease; and she began to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. 

For a time, Kayleigh was a functional alcoholic, seemingly holding everything together. She learned to use drugs whenever she was in pain, and soon she relied on both drugs and alcohol to help her switch off her brain. She needed the ability to just shut down. 

As her addiction to drugs and alcohol progressed, she found that she needed a drink to start the day, and it became impossible for her to hide the problem from others. She was a blackout drinker and had no memory of what transpired when she was drunk, so her husband would have to fill her in on the details.

She hit rock bottom one morning after coming out of yet another drunken episode. With no memory of what transpired the night before, she could see in the pained expression on her husband’s face that something awful must have happened. Kayleigh was horrified when she learned from her husband that her parents had seen her the previous night and that they were in tears, pleading with her to get help.  

Her husband showed her a pamphlet for a treatment center that her mother had left behind, and he asked if she would like to go. Kayleigh agreed, but before the treatment center would accept her, she would need to detox from drugs and alcohol. This meant nine horrible days at home coming off of everything. It was tough, but she did it. 

The treatment center she attended was run by two nuns who practiced a holistic approach to recovery, helping each client find his or her own way that worked best for them. They included cognitive behavioral therapy along with 12 Step facilitation, and they carefully matched patients with counselors. Kayleigh feels that she was lucky to have found this treatment center, and she never felt as if God was being pushed on her while in treatment. She wouldn’t experience this pressure until she was in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.  

After leaving treatment, Kayleigh began to attend AA meetings, which she loves and needs. The input that she receives from the experience as shared by other alcoholics is invaluable; even the more religious Big Bookers will often have something to say that helps her. At times, she does feel uncomfortable, for example, when the meeting topic turns to Step Two, but overall she can tolerate the religious talk in meetings, and she’s accustomed to ignoring much of it.  

Her experience with AA became more challenging after she got a sponsor and began going through the 12 Steps. Her sponsor was a kind woman who is very much a lover of the Big Book. Kayleigh didn’t like the Big Book at all, and she felt like she was arguing with her sponsor which isn’t what she wanted. Kayleigh really wanted to figure out how to make the program work for her, whereas her sponsor assured her that she would “come along in time.” 

Eventually, Kayleigh’s sponsor asked her point blank what she wanted out of the program. Kayleigh explained that she loves the Steps but hates the Big Book, and furthermore she doesn’t believe in a Higher Power. So with that, Kayleigh and her sponsor amicably parted ways.

Desperately wanting to be part of the Fellowship, Kayleigh didn’t feel that she fit in. Feeling deflated, she looked to her husband and told him she just didn’t know what to do. How could she make this work for her? Searching the Internet for answers, she found AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief, and she read all the articles and listened to all the podcasts. Finally, she knew that she belonged, she had a home in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Kayleigh went on to build the website Freethinkers of Alcoholics Anonymous Ireland, and she created a Facebook page for the group. Her plan is to first build an online community and to take her time with starting a face-to-face meeting. She has reached out to people who started secular AA groups in Canada, the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and she is finding tremendous support from their experience.

She feels that even if her group starts out meeting only once a month as a supplement to the other meetings, that it still be helpful. She has already been contacted by one person through her website, and as far as Kayleigh is concerned, once the two of them get together, this will constitute the first meeting of Freethinkers of Alcoholics Anonymous Ireland. 

Nervous about how her group will be accepted, Kayleigh can visualize the faces of those who will oppose her efforts. She’s not a fighter and wants to approach this in a respectful way and help to educate the AA community in Ireland that secular AA is not something new. This has been going on for a very long time. We are AA.

One concern of Kayleigh’s is that so many AA groups seem to insist upon one way to work the program, and the message often seems to be “follow this path or die.” It’s her hope that Freethinkers of Alcoholics Anonymous Ireland avoids this danger. She feels it’s important that we speak the language of the newcomer. If a new person walks through the doors of AA as an atheist, then the language from the Big Book may not be the best approach. Her attitude about AA is taken from a long-time AA member she knows. He’s a believer, a religious man, but he is open-minded and respectful of how others approach the program. His advice is to wear the program as a loose garment. Use the Steps and the books and the Fellowship as an umbrella under which recovery takes place.

Freethinkers of Alcoholics Anonymous Ireland is in the early stages of its development, but with Kayleigh’s enthusiasm and dedication to service, the gateway to recovery has been thrown wide open, just as it should be.

I hope you enjoy the podcast and that you have a happy St. Patrick’s Day. 

Sources used for this article:

Alcoholics Anonymous Ireland


Barefoot’s World

Freethinkers of Alcoholics Anonymous Ireland

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  1. Jennifer October 12, 2017 at 8:14 am - Reply


    Thank you for sharing! Lots of good stuff to think about.


  2. Elizabeth May 18, 2017 at 6:59 am - Reply


    I enjoyed your podcast so much! A lot of what you shared makes soooooo much sense to me. I never had a sponsor relationship that worked. I had questions and all I ever got back was read this or that. I felt I was never listened to and that I was expected only to say what the normal lines were. We have a very small community here since I live on a small island. I remember one day I shared an irritation – my husband still drinks and I was venting a bit about that. It felt like the room came to life because other people agreed that this can be annoying at times. I also feel like most of our meetings are (were – I haven’t been lately) morose and not fun. For me, if I am going to live a clean life, I want a happy life and I want to have fun. I am going to laugh at how ridiculous I was/am. The graveness in the attitude in the rooms turns me off. One other thing that has bothered me since the first time I went to AA was that if a person is coming but is still not abstinent, I feel that many members look down on them or snub them. I want to greet everyone and show them that the rooms are a good place and that life is good away from the bottle. I feel like so many people are holier-than-thou, and, like you said, are waiting for someone to stray and go back out so they can say, I told you so!!!!! At any rate, thank you for your wonderful podcast and for allowing me to vent here 😛

  3. Daniel B March 21, 2017 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    I really enjoyed your podcast Kayleigh, I’ve been hoping someone would start an Irish freethinkers group for some time, I’ve been sober for some time in regular aa in the west of Ireland but occasionally get to freethinkers meetings in London, It’s wonderful to be able to share freely with like minded people.

  4. Gerald March 15, 2017 at 11:56 pm - Reply

    Like the nuns who helped you, it was traditional, religious AA’ers who helped me. Simply, I was lucky in where I landed in AA. They practiced the Traditions there. As you can imagine, in the years since, I’ve visited many fellowships that would have got the newcomer me killed with their messages.

    … You know, you’re going to be helping some religious AA members in your Irish Freethinkers group some day. Some of those atheists & agnostics are going to convert some day. You know that, right? 🙂 Well, your local Intergroup doesn’t understand that, do they? 🙂 … 

    The message that saved my life was that AA is not a cult: “You have to find out who you are, but we cannot tell you who that is.” They said the same thing about God. These people, that particular fellowship, practiced the spiritual principle of anonymity as described in Tradition Twelve: “principles before personalities.” There were no other atheists there that I’m aware of.

    Where your first AA sponsor went wrong is simply this: her message was too much “Follow me” instead of “Don’t follow me, be sure not to follow me, but follow the program,” which is my message as it was the message in the home group where I landed. That’s what the message of the Big Book and the 12&12 sounds like when we practice the spiritual principle of anonymity. To yourself be true, not to any sponsor. Be honest with a sponsor, of course, but be true to yourself.

    I got sober at age twenty in 1993 in my native US state of Ohio. I’ve been atheist the whole time.

    I live by the spiritual principles of the AA program, as described in the Big Book and the 12&12. Those principles have kept me from screwing up the good deals I’ve had in life 🙂 I keep trading up from one set of problems to a better set of problems, thanks to this program.

    I practice the destruction of self-centeredness – but too many fellowships try to get you to conform to something other than the AA program, but that is actually practicing the destruction of self rather than the destruction of self-centeredness (!) I practice the leveling of my pride – but too many fellowships fail to understand that leveling means raising the low spots in our pride too, not just knocking down the high spots. I practice the confession of my shortcomings with understanding people – not with people who misunderstand; the Big Book is very clear on that point. On how to meet God, it’s sometimes better to meet Him alone than to try to meet him with the people who wouldn’t understand.

    I place my faith and trust in something and somewhere other than 100% in my own best thinking, I mean my own knee jerk reactions, my own fight or flight reactions. I’m wise enough to know better than that 🙂 and I’m also an atheist. I know it’s not an extra-dimensional being working magic in my life, but, as a result of working the Steps, I did find that promised unsuspected inner resource, a new power. It’s me. It’s a me that I didn’t know existed. And I found that love that I needed. It’s not J.C. loving me back because I finally trusted him in the right way. Instead, it was me practicing self-love for long enough until I actually grew to like myself.

    I’m a friend to myself now, and even after all these years it remains a fresh, new feeling to actually like myself.

    I guess I’ve been lucky in another way. Despite my youth and my atheism, I’ve experienced no difficulty in separating the prevailing culture of 1930’s America from the timeless, universally human message of the Big Book and 12&12, and by prevailing culture I mean, too, the religious talk and the particular personality of Bill Wilson.

    I’ve had no problems translating that language & culture. That was easy.

    The hard part is actually doing it 🙂 Who wants to practice the destruction of self-centeredness? the leveling of our pride? the confession of our shortcomings? 🙂

    Thanks for your share. It’s inspirational. If I were Stateside I’d start an AAAA meeting too.

    Gerald, alcoholic, Japan

    • Elizabeth May 18, 2017 at 7:00 am Reply

      Gerald, I am in Japan too – on Okinawa. Are you on the mainland?

  5. joe C March 15, 2017 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    In Montreal where I got sober, Irish heritage members were more than fairly represented and I heard things like, “You don’t have to be Irish to be alcoholic but it helps” and “My name is Patty O and I’m a recovering Catholic.” I procreated with the Irish so I’m part of an Irish Canadian family, now.

    Also,  in Montreal, where I got sober, we weren’t a big book culture. One day at a time was as close to dogma as I recall, back in the day. I suspect that things have changed. Big Book evangelicals spread the word so well through the 80s and 90s that if you got sober after this time you would be speachless to hear that, while I did work the Steps once or twice in my first five years , I don’t read “the book”until I was over 9 years sober. I talked about this transformation of AA ethos in my last Rebellion Dogs podcast. I don’t disparage the big book meathod but I got sober enough without out and many of us do also.

    i don’t go looking for fights in AA but zealots who take me on find someone who won’t bend over and I don’t mind standing my ground against their cliche and tired arguments.

  6. Bob K. March 15, 2017 at 8:19 am - Reply

    One of the great pleasures in being involved in “the cause” has been being brought into contact with others who share the same passion. Toronto somehow seems to be the epicenter of the action, and we have quite a cast of characters here. It’s marvelous how the internet broadens our networks.

    What a terrific young woman Kayleigh is!! So rational – so composed – so charming. How could I not be delighted to be on her team? A great start to my day. Thanks, folks.

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