This Friday, for the first time in nearly a century, Irish pubs will be allowed to open on Good Friday. If you are in Dublin, please join us for the first ever Good Friday Atheists in the Pub session, from 8pm in the Hairy Lemon on Lower Stephen Street. There is a Facebook event page here.
In 1924, Ireland had one pub for every 200 people, twice the ratio of England. The new Irish Free State parliament was debating keeping Good Friday and St Patrick’s Day dry, as well as closing pubs during “the hours of Divine Service” on Sunday mornings.
Were the new regulations aimed at keeping public order? No. Justice Minister Kevin O’Higgins made clear that: “They were not inserted from that angle at all, but rather as an attempt to interpret the collective mind or wish of the people concerning matters that are partly religious and partly sentimental.”
Most TDs agreed. Deputy Jouis J. D’Alton said Good Friday “should be specially devoted to the Lord. It is a day on which there should be devotions for all Christians”. Deputy Tom Johnson said it was “a Christian memorial day” and the ban would “fit in with the wishes of the people when seriously contemplating their religion”.
But TDs wanted a tipple on our national holiday. Deputy John Daly noted that “Good Friday is a day of sorrow, but St Patrick’s Day should be observed as a day of joy”. And Major Cooper said “Good Friday is a day of mortification. Is St Patrick’s Day to be a day of mortification, too?” And so we ended up with only one day of mortification.
Nearly a century later, we live in a pluralist and multicultural Ireland. The 2016 census results on religion broke a significant barrier – more Irish people now have no religion (468,400) than members of all minority religions combined (439,000).
Another 125,300 people declined to answer the religion question. So the actual figure for No Religion, whatever it is, is over 10%. Also, in Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire and Galway, more than one in three of the population is non-Catholic.
A global WIN-Gallup poll some years ago showed fewer than half of Irish people considered themselves religious. An MRBI poll at the time of the last Eucharistic Congress in Dublin showed nearly one in 10 Irish Catholics do not even believe in God.
All of this should encourage more atheists to stand up for our rights, particularly in the education and healthcare systems, and to support equal treatment for everyone, regardless of religious or nonreligious beliefs.
Atheist Ireland is an advocacy group for ethical secularism. We support the right of every citizen to believe in any gods, and to practise their religion without infringing on the rights of others. But the State should remain neutral between religious and non-religious beliefs.
The Good Friday drink ban is silly. If Christians or atheists want to remain sober on any day of the year, they are perfectly entitled to do so. But we should be adult enough to be able to separate the issues of religion, alcohol, citizenship and personal liberty.
The Good Friday ban is just one annual note in the constant background noise of religious interference in our public life. Every day RTE broadcasts the Angelus, a Christian call to prayer. Can you imagine the outrage if they broadcast a minute of Richard Dawkins before the news every day?
The Dail starts every day by asking the christian god to direct its work. The President, judges, Taoiseach, Tanaiste, Attorney General and other Council of State members have to swear a religious oath, preventing many conscientious atheists from holding these important posts.
The Catholic Church still controls over 90pc of our state-funded primary schools. They integrate their religious ethos into the whole curriculum, and they can legally discriminate against teachers on the ground of religion.
Our abortion laws are still subject to the religiously-inspired ‘pro-life’ amendment, though this might change with the referendum in May. Atheist Ireland is campaigning for a Yes vote as part of the Together For Yes group.
Will allowing us to drink on Good Friday solve these problems? Not on its own, although it might help some people to forget the problems for a day! But as a small part of a wider package of secular changes, it will help Ireland to respect all of its citizens equally.
Independently of religion, we should of course tackle the social problems caused by excessive drinking. But these problems do not depend on the day of the week. We should be free to drink in the same way on any Friday as we can on any Thursday or Saturday.
To celebrate this small step towards a more normal society, please join us for the first ever Good Friday Atheists in the Pub session, from 8pm in the Hairy Lemon on Lower Stephen Street. Check out the Facebook event page here.