My day of wine and roses was a long, dry Good Friday
Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30
The misery of certain nights remains with you forever. I still recall the military-style planning involved in an expedition where my then girlfriend and I planned to spend a romantic Friday night in Balbriggan in 1986, after a friend loaned us his house there.
Careful consideration was given to the purchase of alcohol the previous evening - a good bottle of wine and some brandy to wash it down when savouring the treat of a night away. She worked in a nursing home on the Swords Road. After her shift ended, she had five minutes to race down to meet me at the bus stop, where the Balbriggan bus was due to stop.
I grew so worried about her making it in time that I had an inexcusable meltdown and left the bag with the wine and brandy at home. We both realised my mistake at the same moment amid our exhilaration at reaching the bus stop with seconds to spare.
It was too late to turn back. We boarded the bus with a sense of doom. We often went for weeks without touching alcohol. But this was Good Friday. Because Good Friday is the only day when we Irish are legally prohibited from drinking in public, it seemed inconceivable to us, as Irish citizens, that we would not exercise our right to have a drink on the night its sale was forbidden.
Reaching Balbriggan, we found Balbriggan closed. We walked its deserted streets and admired the architectural remnants of 19th-century hosiery factories. We surveyed the Wavin pipes factory and stood outside its many vibrant, friendly pubs - all shuttered and closed. Finally, in despair, we availed of the finest battered cuisine available in the sole establishment open - the local chip shop.
Since then, when someone asks me to define existentialist angst, I never refer to Jean Paul Sartre. I just say: "Balbriggan on Good Friday."
Visitors to Ireland at Easter experience this same sinking feeling each year - a bewildered sense of being all dressed up with nowhere to go. Ireland has changed since 1986, when gay men needed to speak in code. Nowadays, the Angelus on TV chimes in code, lest the professionally offended take umbrage at 60 seconds of campanology.
The Holy Hour - imposed by John Charles McQuaid to send dockers home for their dinners - has long vanished. Even fixed closing times have been abolished, with no greater displays of hedonistic lasciviousness or debauchery than was always common on Saturday nights.
Rather than turn Irish pubs into Sodom and Gomorrah with separate 'his' and 'her' toilets, the abolition of fixed closing times gave them a relaxed ambience. Gone is the frantic rush for last orders at 11am in winter, when the queue at the bar, coughing in clouds of smoke, resembled the scrum for lifeboats on the Titanic.
Our streets are no more dangerous now than when thousands of sullen drinkers were all prematurely evicted from pubs at the same time, creating mayhem and long queues for taxis.
Each change to our licensing laws came without God sending any greater wrath than banishing us from the Garden of Eden that is the finale of the Eurovision Song Contest. Sadly, Eastern Europe's new nation states don't care for our music and - when their peoples move here - don't much care for our pubs, either. The emigrant Irish made publicans in Kilburn rich, but Irish publicans have not enjoyed similar custom from newcomers here, who prefer their own brands of beer at home.
When trudging past Balbriggan's closed pubs in 1986, I could never have envisaged walking past so many once thriving Dublin hostelries that are now closed. But - depending on location - Irish pubs are thriving or floundering.
The barmen who spent an eternity pretending not to see you are thankfully gone, as are plastic ham sandwiches, grudgingly toasted. But so too are so many courteous elderly publicans like Seamus MacShane, whose pub in Dunkineely was a step back into a friendlier time. He recently died, to the sorrow of anyone who ever enjoyed his hospitable company.
If the advent of electricity killed ghost stories in Ireland, the arrival of supermarket chains with cheap alcohol has killed much of the pub trade. Therefore, it is unsurprising that vintners campaigned this year to see pubs open on Good Friday. The Government refused to yield, despite centenaries, soccer internationals and hordes of tourists due to arrive over Easter.
This prohibition is the last relic of a vanished Ireland, when virtually all commercial activity ceased on Good Friday. Vintners claim it costs the government €6m, but I doubt it - unless drinkers spend Good Friday opening Swiss bank accounts. Most will be drinking on Thursday instead, with off-licences enjoying an annual bonanza.
Because even people who only take a drink once a year take one on Good Friday. When asked how to encourage children to read, the author Philip Pullman advised every parent to select a good book, tell their children they are forbidden to read it, place it on a high shelf and leave the room.
We love doing what is forbidden. Therefore, Good Friday veterans will board trains and ferries, where they are allowed drink. Brendan Behan spent one Good Friday at an RDS dog show with a drinks licence, so intoxicated that he forgot why so many people had dogs with them.
But mostly we'll just enjoy a tipple at home, while thinking of forlorn English hen parties wandering through a deserted Temple Bar.
Politicians promise to review our licensing laws. I can't think of any reason to keep this outdated prohibition. It stems from an era when dancehalls closed for lent and the actress Sheila Richards risked bomb threats by staging a play during Holy Week.
I suspect it will become a thing of the past. Publicans will be pleased, and yet it ends one of the unique quirks of Irish pubs, like the old lock-ins that tourists have treasured memories of. When it goes I'll still treasure my memory of once drinking in a remote County Limerick bar one Good Friday in 1982, when the publican's son illicitly allowed 50 drinkers in.
The woman of the house always appeared from her back kitchen at closing time to banish customers with the words: "We're closed now."
She emerged that Good Friday night to utter those same words. But, before we could shuffle sheepishly towards the door, she stopped in bewilderment, and said: "What am I saying? We can't be closed - we're not even open."