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Diarmaid Ferriter: How Ireland ended up with its antiquated licensing laws

Soon to be reviewed 1935 Public Dance Halls Act was a church and State attempt to legally control morality

While Ministers Donohoe and McGrath were busy finessing their budget to try to take the sting out of the soaring cost of living, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee was promising an overhaul of what many regard as ridiculously antiquated licensing laws, include the Public Dance Halls Act (PDHA) of 1935 and the Habitual Drunkards Act of 1879.

Referring to such laws, McEntee said “the fact they’re still even law at this stage is fairly mad”, a view shared by many representatives of the night-time economy seeking longer opening hours for pubs and nightclubs to rescue ailing venues and expand nocturnal entertainment.

It is time once again, it seems, for the devil to flourish. The focus on the dance halls was very much a product of the perceived permissiveness of the 1920s, reflected in a pastoral on occasions of sin from the Irish Catholic Bishops in 1925 that referred to “the special danger of drink, imported dances of an evil kind, the surroundings of the dance hall, withdrawal from the hall for intervals ... the dark ways home have been the destruction of virtue in every part of Ireland”.

For all the justified focus on antiquated licensing laws, contemporary perils also need to be considered when it comes to all night revelry

The bishops felt obliged to up the ante by Christmas 1933, asserting that during the dance intervals “the devil is busy; yes, very busy, as sad experience proves, and on the way home in the small hours of the morning he is busier still”.


One cause of concern was the unlicensed dance hall with its unsupervised dancing; as sociologist Jim Smyth characterised it, this popular rural pastime “became a classic terrain of fantasy projection and pseudo knowledge, involving a potent brew of alleged sources of evil and degradation; cars, darkness, jazz music ... the motorcar was seen as an instrument of seduction in the hands of unscrupulous males”.

The Gaelic League was also energetically promoting its anti-jazz campaign at this stage; a music it insisted was “suggestive” and “denationalising”.

The PDHA was passed into law in February 1935 without any Dáil debate; it gave authority to district justices to grant or deny dance licenses and apply restrictions to them. It was one example of the attempts by church and state to legally control morality, and historians have linked it to wider moral panics reflected in legislation relating to contraception, censorship and public houses.

We should be wary, however, of throwing our 21st century eyes up at what appear now as hysterical denunciations crushing youthful vigour. Historian John Porter makes the case that enforcement and observation of the PDHA was problematic and there were also fire and safety concerns that influenced the introduction of the legislation as well as the fears of local communities.

One of the busiest night-time settings on the island of Ireland is the local hospital emergency department

In 1938, the Department of Justice requested gardaí to report on dance licenses granted and the effect of the PDHA.

There was undoubtedly a move away from the home or barn dance in the 1930s, but that did not mean they always moved to parochial halls under the wrathful eye of blackthorn stick wielding priests. Commercial halls continued to function and there were halls operated by clubs, trade unions and the GAA; profit and fund raising rather than passion killing was often the priority.

Flann O’Brien wrote satirically in 1941 about the PDHA, noting the demand of some district justices that Ceilidhs be promoted: “they believe that Satan with all his guile is baffled by a four-hand reel and cannot make head or tail of the Rakes of Mallow”. That did not mean, however, that there was no appetite for jazz music and new sounds; nor did the PDHA necessarily encourage sobriety in dry dance halls, Flann noting the “craft of going out for 20 separate drinks to a pub 400 yards away without ever appearing to have left the hall at all.”

For all the justified focus on antiquated licensing laws, contemporary perils also need to be considered when it comes to all night revelry. A north-south study in 2020 by the Institute of Public Health (IPH) — Alcohol-related harms in nightlife settings on the island of Ireland — looked at the challenge of “how to balance the pleasures and benefits of nightlife in our towns and cities with the need for a safe environment where the risk of harm, and sometimes tragedy, is minimised”.

Those aged 18-24 are identified in this study as the group with the highest level of problematic drinking in this context as they are most likely to consume alcohol in nightlife settings, while the role of alcohol in sexual assault, self-harm and public disorder is long established.

One of the big differences between the days of the devil in the ditch and now is that, as stated in this IPH report, “One of the busiest night-time settings on the island of Ireland is the local hospital emergency department.”