"I'm interested in training children for life," Joan FitzGerald, the wife of Ireland's prime minister, states simply. A journey for solutions to myriad drug and alcohol abuse problems brought her to Washington this week, but she has already seen the problems.

In the past six years Dublin has experienced a heroin epidemic, and though the numbers are leveling off, the occurrences are still alarming because of the sociological spillover. The elderly are fearful as they become victims of crime, and the future is jeopardized by the drug habits of the young. In Ireland, 50 percent of the population is under 25 years old and 40 percent is under 19, and, says FitzGerald, the younger Irish are the ones experimenting.

"Heroin, and we also have a thing I don't think you have here -- and we also have alcoholism, we definitely have that -- but we have, among younger children, glue sniffing. We are about coming out of it," FitzGerald says. But, she added quickly, sniffing glue has now been replaced by sniffing the fuel for butane lighters. "And marijuana. We call it cannabis at home. And cider -- we find the sales have gone up at home. Children, 12, 13 get addicted to it without meaning to do so," says FitzGerald, who opposes the legalization of marijuana.

Her contribution, FitzGerald decided, would be education.

"I am interested in finding out at what age one should try and instruct children on the drug problem," she says. In the sitting room of the Irish Embassy, the sunshine glitters off the simple jewels on her hand and the Waterford crystal nearby. Across the room sits her daughter Mary, 31, her leg in a cast after she fell down the steps at the Irish Embassy in London. A large woman in her mid-fifties, with brown and gray hair styled into a braidlike crown, FitzGerald speaks emphatically.

"I think the home and school are the most important things for children. And I think education should not just be education of the schools but should be education of the parents. It should be all part of training for life for children. We used to have a subject called civics, which was very old-fashioned. Now I think they need whole training for life and much more of a training for leisure. I was told in school, 'The Devil finds work for idle hands.' "

Though she paid attention to drug prevention when her own three children were in school, it is only in recent months that she has renewed her support. A long bout with arthritis, which forces her to use crutches or a wheelchair, has kept her from being more active in public causes, except, she says coyly, "my husband's career." At one point during the conversation, FitzGerald leaves to take a call from Nancy Reagan, who is inquiring about the condition of her youngest son, Mark, 27, who was rushed to the hospital over the weekend and diagnosed as having viral meningitis. Joan FitzGerald had thought of canceling the trip.

"It would have been a pity. I think this is a great thing " she says of the first ladies' leadership on the drug issue, "for somebody's wife to take up something that is of use to the community."

Over the next two days, FitzGerald will be listening. Especially for ideas about how to keep the current cycle of crime and addiction from ripping apart the country. "One thing that is very sad to see -- we have always had a good relationship between the old people and young people. Now the young people break into any house where they think there are old people on their own, in case they can get money for drugs and alcohol. The level of violence among young people is fairly great. It is a subject that everyone in Ireland is concerned about."