Irish city lifts Good Friday drinking ban

DUBLIN, Ireland ― Today, Good Friday or the day of Christian pilgrimage, when pubs in Ireland are traditionally banned from serving liquor, many people will be making a secular pilgrimage to the city of Limerick. There, for the first time in nearly a century, all the city and suburban bars are being allowed to open for business. A judge lifted the prohibition on the sale of alcohol this Good Friday because of a rugby match between the provinces of Munster and Leinster that is expected to bring 26,000 thirsty fans to the city.

The exemption has been widely hailed as a consequence of the diminished moral authority of the Catholic Church, which has been severely damaged by sex abuse scandals and falling church attendance in recent years. Father Tony Mullins, the administrator of the Catholic Diocese of Limerick, conceded that the decision was a “further reflection of a changing society, where religious beliefs and the practice of one’s faith is becoming more a matter for the individual.”

This was put more crudely by the makers of T-shirts on sale in the city that bear the slogan: “Officially bigger than the Catholic Church: Munster Rugby.”

In previous years a challenge from a bishop might have influenced the court’s decision but this year not a single objection was raised.

The ruling by Judge Tom O’Donnell may become a precedent for a nationwide lifting of the ban in future years.

“It’s a groundbreaking decision,” said lawyer Gearoid McGann, who took the case on behalf of pub owners in Limerick, a city of almost 100,000 situated at the mouth of the Shannon River. “Once the doors are open it will happen again.”

Getting around drink bans is an ancient custom in Ireland, where poteen was once illegally distilled from potatoes in rural areas. There used to be a law in Dublin that pubs had to close for an hour after lunch (known as the Holy Hour) to prevent all-day drinking. This led to the story of an American tourist who arrived in a Dublin bar just as the Holy Hour was starting, and was told no drink could be served for 60 minutes. When the tourist asked if he could sit there until the hour expired, the barman said, “Sure — would you like a drink while you’re waiting?”

Ireland’s antiquated licensing laws, some dating to Victorian times, have been changing in recent years to accommodate the demands of a more secular and modern society. Bars are allowed to stay open until nearly midnight and drink is readily available in supermarkets and corner stores. The current ban on the sale of liquor on two days of the year, Good Friday and Christmas Day, is easily circumvented by people stocking up in supermarkets on the previous day, or by going to clubs and sports grounds where special exemptions are common.

Thomond Park in Limerick, for example, has a special arena license. O’Donnell ruled: “It is somewhat absurd that pubs in the locality should be closed when there will be available to 26,000 people the possibility to buy alcohol, if they wish, in Thomond Park.”

One of the reasons the bar owners in Limerick were so keen to see the ban lifted is to boost their flagging sales. The consumption of alcohol per person in Ireland last year was down by some 9 percent on 2008, and is back to the levels of the mid-1990s, as Ireland's economic boom was just beginning. Confirmation that the Irish are drinking less came in a report last week from the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland, which lamented that 2008 was "the worst performance in decades for the overall drinks industry. Unfortunately the 2009 performance was worse than 2008 and the title of worst year now passes to 2009."

The drop in alcohol consumption matches the decline in construction work, a phenomenon most marked in vodka sales: As eastern European migrants left the country at the end of the building boom, sales of vodka plummeted. The growth in unemployment means that people have less disposible income.

Irish adults still drink about three gallons of pure spirits a year, considerably more than the European average. The number is especially impressive considering Ireland has the most teetotalers in Europe, one in five of the population.