Countermeasures – John Horgan on ways around a dry St Patrick’s Day

An Irishman’s Diary

The imminence of St Patrick's Day in an era of lockdown coincides, roughly, with the elapse of some six decades since the end of the fatwah which had closed all the pubs in Ireland every St Patrick's Day for more than three decades since the late 1920s, to the bewilderment of tourists and the frustration of the citizenry.

This was only one of a notable series of initiatives by the Free State government which included the so-called “holy hour” when pubs were briefly closed in the early afternoon of each weekday, supposedly to encourage male members of the labouring classes to return to their paid employment.

Although the citizens affected were not exclusively male, women did not frequent pubs to the extent that later became common, and those that did were sometimes confined to the “snug”, a discreetly segregated part of the premises where they could drink unobserved and without male company.

The only place one could legitimately purchase and consume alcohol on the national saint's anniversary in that era, apart from hotels, was the Dublin Dog Show in Ballsbridge.

There are several anecdotes dating from that period featuring notable Dubliners who had, perforce, to pay a visit on March 17th to the RDS headquarters, where the canine exhibition was the occasion for an official annual extension to this policy, to assuage the raging thirst which had unaccountably accompanied the closures of every other public house in the country.

One such Dubliner, according to the lore which rapidly attached itself to this occasion, was none other than Brendan Behan, who was reported as having stumbled over some inoffensive canine during a visit to Ballsbridge in search of refreshment, and to have remarked: "What an effing place to bring a dog!" The same anecdote has also, since then, been attached to the reputations of a number of other well-known citizens. It might well have been true of all of them.

Although it was a bank holiday, some people still had to go to work.

They included a skeleton staff of broadcasters in the old Radio Éireann headquarters, then located on one of the floors above the GPO in O’Connell Street.

Their annoyance at having to go to work on a bank holiday was undoubtedly intensified not only by the absence of any lunchtime conviviality, but by the fact that the radio studios were not only soundproof, but – because the absence of extraneous noise had been judged by the engineers to be more important than ventilation – virtually air-tight. This occupational disadvantage sometimes raised the broadcasters’ body temperature, and the thirst which inevitably accompanied it, to unmanageable levels.

Various libations were then sourced and paid for, and the lockdown, as I suppose it could legitimately be described, continued unabated

On one of these festive occasions, a broadcaster noticed, through a GPO window which gave onto Henry Street, that although a local hostelry normally much patronised by broadcasters was shut, its proprietor could be observed through the first-floor window of his premises, apparently catching up on his accounts and stock control.

A small delegation descended into Henry Street, and hammered on the locked door of the establishment concerned until the proprietor, with exceeding ill-grace, opened it, and reluctantly allowed them to enter. As none of the ordinary bar staff were in attendance, the unwelcome visitors were informed that draught beer could not be served. Various libations were then sourced and paid for, and the lockdown, as I suppose it could legitimately be described, continued unabated over the lunch-hour and beyond.

The convivial atmosphere that developed was, however, abruptly interrupted by the proprietor in the early afternoon.

He pointed to the large wall clock above the bar, which was now showing the time to be 3pm, and announced, with barely concealed disapproval: “To think that, at this very hour, our Saviour was dying on the cross, and was offered only gall and vinegar to drink!”

There was a brief silence as his clientele took this remark to heart, before one of them found a voice.

“At least,” the ungrateful customer remarked, “he wasn’t being charged one and ninepence a glass for it.”