Tuesday 12 November 2019

Good Friday alcohol ban may be archaic, but that doesn't mean it's all bad

Publicans say closing pubs on Good Friday costs them €30m to €40m a year. Stock image. Photo posed
Publicans say closing pubs on Good Friday costs them €30m to €40m a year. Stock image. Photo posed

Shane Coleman

It looks as if this year will be the last Good Friday where there is a ban on the sale of alcohol. Another relic of old Ireland is about to bite the dust as we barely pause for breath in our race to be 'modern', 'worldly' and 'with it'.

There's no doubt the ban is "archaic" - the word that vintners and other critics routinely attach to it.

It dates back 90 years, after all. But just because something is archaic is not sufficient reason for getting rid of it.

The word fits neatly into the current prevailing narrative that the Ireland of half-a-century ago was all 'bad' - repressed, nasty, insular and backward. And the Ireland of today is all 'good' - tolerant, outward-looking, uninhibited and fun.

Just to be clear, what's coming is no homage to a romantic or Catholic Ireland that's dead and gone. It's beyond debate that there was indeed much wrong, indeed evil, with Ireland in the 20th century. Too much has emerged to even begin to think otherwise.

But nor should we ignore that our headlong rush to prove we're liberal, secular and more concerned with matters material than spiritual has created its own problems.

The aforementioned narrative means that to point that out immediately runs the risk of being branded 'conservative' or 'reactionary', just as people who might have questioned society's mores half-a-century ago were branded heathens or, even worse, communists.

A more balanced perspective might suggest that the Ireland of the past had many good qualities as well as bad and that the same holds for contemporary Ireland. But then balance has never been a particular national characteristic. We tend to swing from one extreme to another in this country with the baby being thrown out as often as the bath water.

Ireland today is a kinder, gentler place than it was a few decades ago and that is to be celebrated. It's more tolerant in many ways - but a glance at the bile regularly spewed out on social media suggests certainly not all.

Repression hasn't gone away. It's just in a different form. We are thankfully no longer slaves of the Church. But materialism, consumerism and pornography are just as dictatorial. We are certainly more 'liberal' (though necessarily in a literal sense) and probably more liberated and free. But only the naïve can ignore the reality that the instant-gratification society we've created over the past 20 years has created its own chains. The norm has changed dramatically but the pressure to conform is just as strong. There are reasons why anxiety is so prevalent today.

So where does the drink ban on Good Friday fit into all of that? Its repeal is hardly going to have much of an impact on where we're heading. Yet, it was a bulwark, however small, a slight pause from the madness, the hedonism that we all routinely engage in.

Particularly when it comes to booze. It's beyond argument that we have a national drink problem in this country. On average we consume the equivalent of more than 41 litres of vodka, 116 bottles of wine or 445 pints of beer per person per year. Three-quarters of all drinking is binge in nature and it's estimated that 1.35 million of us can be termed 'harmful drinkers'.

A strong case can be made that those figures won't be greatly altered one way or another by the repeal of the ban on Good Friday drinking. But equally is it not odd that we're planning to introduce measures that can only increase drinking further?

Is the idea of the pubs closing on this day so dreadful? Drink is central to so many aspects of our lives today. No first Communion, birthday gathering, (alco-)holiday or sporting occasion is complete without booze. We routinely tell ourselves (and yes, this writer is as guilty as anyone) that, after the day just endured, we've "earned" that bottle of wine.

In the face of all that, the closure of the pubs on Good Friday was at least a pause for thought. A break in what's become the norm; a hiatus from the hooch.

It's true that many people (again including, most likely, this writer) will still have a drink at home this Good Friday. We've all seen the queues at off-licences on Holy Thursday with shoppers weighed down with crates of beer. But you can drink at home 24 hours a day if you want and nobody's suggesting the pubs should replicate those opening hours.

It's worth remembering that pubs used to also close on St Patrick's Day (up to 1960). Can anybody honestly say St Patrick's Day, which gets downright messy in cities and towns across the country, is better for the pubs being open?

The notion that we should make the change for tourists is ridiculous. No self-respecting nation legislates on that basis. Irish holiday-makers in Germany or France find it a nuisance when the supermarket doesn't open on a Sunday, but we accept and respect that's how things are done in those countries. We don't expect them to change for those of us who arrive there once in a blue moon.

Of course, no government in today's post-Catholic Ireland would bring in the ban of the sale of alcohol on Good Friday. Nor should it. But we've had it for 90 years and the reasons for changing it now are hardly convincing.

The publicans, who form one of the most powerful lobby groups in the country, say it's costing them €30m to €40m a year - they must be making some money the rest of the year. Even if that figure is true, must commerce and consumerism prevail on each one of the 365 days a year?

If the vested interests have anything to do with it, the answer will be 'yes'. But if change must happen, what about an alternative compromise? That pubs be allowed to open on Good Friday but drink can only be served with food? It would be a powerful statement of intent from the Government of a desire to shift to a more continental culture of drinking predominantly with food.

How very 'modern' and 'with it' would that be? And, how very ironic. More than a decade ago, intense lobbying by publicans killed off a noble attempt by then justice minister Michael McDowell to curtail binge drinking by licensing for cafe bars.

So, if the vintners groups want pubs to open on Good Friday, at the very least let it be on our terms, not theirs.

Shane Coleman presents Newstalk Breakfast weekdays from 7am

Irish Independent

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