Billy Keane: ‘God be with the days when men drank deep and silent of that five-past-midnight post-Lent pint’


Billy Keane: ‘God be with the days when men drank deep and silent of that five-past-midnight post-Lent pint’


'A gang of us young rebels met every Good Friday for steak and beer at a safe house in Tralee. It was known as the mortal sin party.' Stock Image
‘A gang of us young rebels met every Good Friday for steak and beer at a safe house in Tralee. It was known as the mortal sin party.’ Stock Image

I didn’t notice any great burst of repairing or decorating in the pubs yesterday, which happened to fall on a Good Friday.

It was never any bother to find a busy tradesman to do the Good Friday jobs.

Some of the jobs were beyond men of my uselessness at maintenance. My late mother said “our Billy would have to call the electrician to put in a bulb”. The getting of anyone to do the small jobs was next to impossible in the build-up to Good Friday.

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There wasn’t a picture hung nor a board swapped for glass in the broken window. Tiles were loose. Sashes tangled. Skirting boards exfoliated. Cisterns didn’t gurgle.

Up until last year the pubs were closed by law. Our friend Paddy Fitzgibbon wrote: “Christ crucified, and the pubs closed.”

The maintenance men would helpfully suggest: “I can do that job for you but we would need to have the place shut as the customers’ enjoyment of the drink would be disrupted. Does Good Friday suit?”

The few pints were all the sweeter for the drinking by the construction industry because no one else could have any.

There was a custom though when I was a kid and that was no nail should be driven until after 3pm on Good Friday. This was a mark of respect for the nailing at the crucifixion and the folk tradition was that Jesus died at three o’clock.

Yesterday was an open-as-usual day and what with the passing of the new laws, the only sound of a drill was in the dentist’s surgery.

So it was then that one old custom ended. The going off the drink for Lent is as good as gone as well. There used to be a time when there would be a queue up at the counter from about 11.55pm on Easter Saturday night. These heroic abstentionists were the hardy souls who would abstain from all alcohol for the 40 days of Lent.

There were two men from here who never missed a night at the movies over the full run of Lent back in the days when a different movie was shown every night. Going to the pictures took their mind off drink.

One of the men broke out. The phrase is interesting as people break out of prison. His friend was peeved at the breakdown of solidarity. When the weakling returned to the cinema and sobriety he asked his dry friend if the cowboy movie he missed was any use.

“The western was so good,” replied the friend, “that when I came back from going to the toilet there was an arrow stuck in my seat.”

As I was about to tell you before the cowboy story, there are two time zones in Ireland. One is Greenwich Meantime and the other is pub time. There isn’t a pub clock in the country that isn’t at least 10 minutes fast.

The John B’s temporary temperance men synchronised their timepieces to ensure not a drop of alcohol would pass their lips until exactly one second past midnight on Easter Sunday morning. The pints were lined up on the counter waiting to be drunk when the clocks struck 12.

This was their resurrection from the six weeks of sobriety. They drank deep and silently. The famine was over for another year.

Now going off the drink for Lent has been replaced by the heathen practices of Sober October and Dry January.

But the old days weren’t all they were cracked up to be. There were boys in my class in primary school who never got any Easter eggs because their mams and dads couldn’t afford it. One of the country lads was delighted because he said they got an extra hen egg for the breakfast on Easter Sunday morning and his mom decorated the egg with pretty patterns.

I read somewhere 18 million Easter eggs will be eaten in Ireland on Easter Sunday.

There was a receptacle in our house known as Billy’s basin. I hated Easter eggs but still I ate every bite. Before long, I would get violently sick into Billy’s basin.

Some kids get 10 eggs or even 20 eggs for Easter Sunday. I always stand well back. Easter egg vomit is often airborne.

There were customs going back to even beyond my recollection that we could well do without.

Time was when the people only ever took three sips of water and three bites of bread on Good Friday. Many got sick from doing without all through Lent. There’s a great tradition of being miserable around now.

Up until about 15 years ago the TV only showed sad programmes about bleeding Italian saints. There was no meat. Although a gang of us young rebels met every Good Friday for steak and beer at a safe house in Tralee. It was known as the mortal sin party.

I stay off meat now, just for the one day. I have no notion of closing down our farmers who have backed us in our pub for so many years and are still the mainstay of rural Ireland.

This will come as a great shock to many of you, but I was wrong once.

The bus load of Americans called in to John B’s last week. This man from Cincinnati greeted me with a “top of the morning”.

“No one in Ireland says top of the morning,” I say.

And says the American: “Not one of the restaurants we visited in Ireland serve corned beef and cabbage either. You are losing the old ways here in the old country.”

“We are no such thing,” says I, adamantly. “Corned beef and cabbage is an American invention.”

How wrong can a man be?

Kevin Danaher’s book ‘The Year in Ireland’ gives the true history of corned beef and cabbage.

There was a time many years ago when richer farmers salted down beef during Lent and when Easter Sunday came they gave the cheaper cuts of corned beef to the poor. The custom of eating corned beef at Easter was taken to the United States by the Irish emigrants.

I’m off to Coventry this morning for the big Munster game. Some say I should have been sent there a long time ago. We will bring you all the news in Monday sport. I hope to get back home in time for a drink on the other side of midnight.

I didn’t do the 40 days of Lent. But not a drop of alcoholic drink has passed my lips for nearly 72 hours, if you exclude last night’s mandatory barman quality control samplings.

Happy Easter.

Irish Independent


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