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Irish city lifts Good Friday drinking ban

Are open Limerick bars a sign of the Catholic Church's diminishing authority?

An Ireland fan attends the group D Rugby World Cup match between Ireland and Georgia in Bordeaux, Sept. 15, 2007. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

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?”