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Would we miss the long Good Friday?


An alcohol-free Good Friday marks us out as different, according to Ed Power.

An alcohol-free Good Friday marks us out as different, according to Ed Power.

An alcohol-free Good Friday marks us out as different, according to Ed Power.

The Good Friday booze ban is as Irish as spontaneously quoting Father Ted in public or having a panic attack as it crosses your mind that you've possibly left the immersion on (it's okay, you haven't).

Yet with vintners agitating once more for an end to the prohibition on serving alcohol on Christianity's most solemn feast day and a majority of the public backing a change to the law, for how longer will this unique quirk of Celtic Catholicism endure? And might we lose something should the Government assent to finally making post-Stations of the Cross tipples a reality?

The question is more important than it may seem. In this age of rampant globalisation,very little can be said to be "uniquely" Irish.

We watch the same television shows as the rest of the world; eat the same foods; follow the same annoying Twitter feeds. But Good Friday as observed in this country is uniquely ours. No other European nation, regardless of how historically devout, requires hostelries to close just because Jesus might have disapproved.

In dispensing with the alcohol ban, is it possible we might lose some precious part of our heritage - something that not even the option of a Good Friday pint could really compensate for?

The subject is at least worth debating, no matter that the probation is in fact of comparatively recent, um, vintage.

Throughout British rule, pubs were free to serve alcohol on Good Friday until 7pm. Only with independence and the imposition of a stultifying Catholic morality (upon an overwhelmingly supplicant populace, it is true) was the present ban placed onto the statue books.

Typical of an era when policing morals was seen as part of the State's duty, the 1924 licensing restrictions were among the first 50 pieces of legislation enacted by the new government. More trivial matters such as child poverty, crumbling infrastructure and soaring unemployment were left on the backburner.

This being Ireland of course, while many were happy to see the law enacted, they were just as keen to find ways around it. The loopholes would over the decades acquire quasi-mythic status. Was anything more heavenly than a legitimately acquired Good Friday pint? Almost certainly not. Behold a quintessentially Irish cocktail: sin-and-absolution in one delicious serving.

There were numerous exemptions. Out of recognition that schlepping across the country could be a thirsty undertaking, you could order a drink at the train station bar (but only with a ticket showing you were travelling 40km or more).

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The same privilege was extended to those on the move by ferry and, later, plane. Thus was born the traditional Good Friday pilgrimage to the airport; though confusion reigned as to whether a valid plane ticket had to be produced in order to secure a precious pint (sadly yes - as parched pilgrims discovered upon reaching the arrivals' hall).

Other avenues were soon uncovered. You could order a drink at the theatre or a greyhound meeting. Hotel guests, meanwhile, had free run of the bar.

Others preferred the nuclear option: a ferry to Holyhead and back (taking in the blink-and-it's-gone view of the Welsh coast from the on-board bar). Unofficially, Good Friday became a sort of national drinking day for the disaffected. The patent absurdity of the situation soon became too much to ignore. While the alcohol ban remained firmly entrenched, Irish attitudes towards Good Friday were starting to change.

By the late 80s, many under the age of 40 regarded the day as a pious fandango imposed by their sanctimonious - and often hypocritical - elders.

This led to another thoroughly Irish phenomenon, the Good Friday "beer and burgers" party. Here students and others with too much time of their hands highlighted their rebel without-a-care credentials by knocking back supermarket lager and undercooked beef patties on Good Friday.

Swigging a flat Heineken at a wet and miserable "barbecue" may have seemed like pathetic point-scoring. Nonetheless, you felt you were making a serious point about the country's unhealthy religiosity, even as they got merrily blathered. Good Friday might own Ireland, but it didn't own us.

Decades later, with Ireland more or less secularised, the drinks ban arguably feels far less consequential.

A significant chunk of drinkers nowadays tipple at home anyway - Good Friday may as well be national No Trousers day for all the difference it makes.

Nor did the world exactly tilt on its axis as in 2010, a judge granted permission for pubs to open around Thomond Park, Limerick ahead of a Munster-Leinster rugby match.

They came, they saw, they chugged beer. Nobody died, Knock was not consumed by a plague of locusts, the altar of St Mary's Pro-Catherdal failed to split in two. It was almost as if God was entirely indifferent as to how people spent their spare time on a random day in early spring.

What was equally undeniable was that the rebellious undertones of partaking on Good Friday were gone. For the first time since 1924, having a drink was just having a drink. There was one less thing to revolt against.

Which brings us again to the great imponderable of the debate. Is the inconvenience of a day without alcohol a fair trade off for a historical quirk which sets us apart from everywhere else? Especially when such quirk can be easily got around simply by visiting your off licence on Holy Thursday?

You could well argue it either way. After all, the things that we love about Ireland and the stuff that infuriates us are often one and the same. We may, for instance, decry the often fitful quality of public services while proudly boasting that Ireland has a more "relaxed" pace than elsewhere (actually many of us would settle for decent services - but that's another debate).

The point is that an alcohol-free Good Friday marks us as different - and it is at least worth asking whether we'll miss it when, as seems increasingly likely, it is tossed on history's scrap-heap. The publicans will be glad it's gone, have no doubt. Would the rest of us share their zeal?

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