Thursday 13 December 2018

Drink laws overhaul taking the good out of Good Friday

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John Downing

John Downing

Talk of ending partition paled into insignificance when we came up against the "real Irish question" - just where can you get a drink on Good Friday?

Now our lawmakers have come up with the answer: in any licensed premises from Malin to Mizen and from Howth to Inis Mór. They may or may not be "taking a lot of the Good out of the Friday". But, yep, our politics, like so much else in Irish life, are for better or worse suffused with the demon drink.

When senior politicians hit the rewind button and tell their favourite shaggy dog stories, over a nice pint of course, nine times out 10 there will be "drink involved".

Those of us who like our politics all have favourite anecdotes, and this writer's best loved tale involves the late Jackie Healy-Rae.

It was the late 1960s and he was heavily involved in a series of by-election campaigns under the tutelage of that great political bruiser, Neil Blaney. On the night of November 10, 1967, the Fianna Fáil team had clocked up a famous by-election win in Limerick West as Gerry Collins was elected to fill the vacancy caused by the death of his father, Jimmy.

The new Deputy Collins was making slow progress towards his home town of Abbeyfeale, just at the border with Kerry. It was right on closing time when he and the victory party arrived. But undaunted, and acting on the instructions of then-justice minister Brian Lenihan, Healy-Rae teamed up with a man called Maurice Galvin.

"Maurice and I took a side of the street each, directing all publicans to stay open. I had a small bit of an argument with a lady publican who had an American accent. But she too saw the light when I pointed out that Brian Lenihan said everything would be all right," the man himself recalled for Dónal Hickey's uproarious biography 'The Mighty Healy-Rae'.

Where were An Garda Síochána? Well, let's recall one of the late Brian Lenihan's tales was how he told a garda raiding an after-hours pub in which he was imbibing, to choose between "a pint or a transfer".

In that same biography cited above, Healy-Rae also recalls brushing aside warnings from a senior garda against his own favourite pastime of setting victory bonfires. Healy-Rae asked the senior garda whether he knew of a spot in Kerry renowned as a punishment station for politically unco-operative gardaí.

That night bonfires blazed until dawn in Abbeyfeale, pints were given a sudden death, and gardaí were scarce. Brian Lenihan was on the back of the lorry to lead the singing of that great old number: 'Abbeyfeale, Abbeyfeale, Abbeyfeale/ Abbeyfeale, Knocknagoshel and Duagh'.

By his own admission, Jackie Healy-Rae was not always able to call the shots in this way. He also recalled how, having become a publican almost by accident in 1969, he was later convicted and fined for giving neighbours a free drink on his premises on Christmas Day.

Last Thursday night, our TDs voted to end the ban on Good Friday pub opening, leaving Christmas Day the sole closed day in the year. But that did not happen before we heard a re-run of chunks of Dáil debates on the issue which date back to the State's foundation, which in turn have echoes from the British regime.

Dublin Central Independent TD Maureen O'Sullivan raised concerns about alcohol abuse, and how hefty alcohol consumption is imbued in every and any facet of Irish social life. Tipperary Independent TD Mattie McGrath spoke of the welfare of bar staff and publicans.

Advocating the change, Minister David Stanton said the measure dated from 1927 and a very different Ireland. He argued that tourists need a drink on Good Friday. This writer rather likes a pint. But on the question of tourists' needs, he sides with the scepticism expressed by Ms O'Sullivan on that one.

The pubs will not be full of tourists this Good Friday.

Odds are they will be full with our own crowd "necking it back". But the measure is another small milestone on slow changes to our most conservative laws regulating alcohol sales. Back in the 1920s then-justice minister, the ill-fated Kevin O'Higgins, said the drink laws created offences and also provided ingenious means of escape.

German writer Heinrich Boll, writing in the 1950s, ridiculed Irish licensing laws, as pubs on Sundays opened from noon to 2pm, and again from 6pm to 8pm. There were big queues at 10 minutes to the witching hour as people drank in anticipation of a thirst that might strike them later. Others resorted to posing as bona fide travellers, entitled to buy drink at a bar three miles from their residence.

Seán Lemass changed the laws in the early 1960s, facing down Catholic Church and temperance campaigners' pressure.

In response to the disapproval of Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, Lemass noted: "Drunkenness is a sin for which men are responsible to a higher court than ours."

Indeed. And that sin may now be compounded - by being committed on a Good Friday of all days. Cheers!

Irish Independent

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