Rugby now more popular than Jesus?

Dot writes: three ecclesiastical years ago yesterday, when Hugh was but a tiny blob in my innards, I made the mistake of going for a run and ended up in the emergency room at the Rotunda hospital with a mystery pain in my side. Happily it was just stretched ligaments and not an ectopic pregnancy, so I came home again. On the DART, I got talking to a friendly drunk man. (Only in Ireland.) He waxed sentimental when he heard where I’d been, and expanded on how wonderful his own three children were and how he’d love to have more if only it weren’t so expensive. The explanation of his own state: he had told his wife he was going fishing and skipped over to Holyhead to spend the day in the pub. It was Good Friday, you see, and on Good Friday Irish pubs are closed.

Only not any more. This year Celtic Rugby, in their wisdom, decided that a Magners League game between Munster and Leinster at Thomond Park (Munster’s home ground) would be played on Good Friday. Outrage ensued. How could rugby fans properly enjoy the match if they couldn’t have a drink? How could half of them watch it if not in a pub? So for the first time for – well, actually I don’t know how long this law has been in force, but it must be the first time in living memory, the pubs were open, serving actual booze in Limerick and soft drinks everywhere else.

When the issue was being debated (as it was, at length) on the radio in the weeks leading up to the match, I found myself disagreeing with both sides. When the publicans came on to argue passionately for the need of the Irish to shake off the cold shackles of the church, I thought “Surely people can manage one or two days a year without buying alcohol?” When the plea was made to keep the sacred day dry, I thought “If we want to go to church, there’s nothing stopping us. Even pub shifts aren’t that long. And most of the shops are open.” Because, basically, I don’t care that much either way.

But I do see that it is a landmark on a journey that is being made in Ireland, in which religious (specifically Catholic) observance ceases to be a public and shared culture and becomes instead a matter of private practice. Easter itself, or Christmas, are not litmus tests in the way Good Friday or (say) Ash Wednesday or Advent Sunday can be, because while they have a religious meaning they also have a secular function, as a spring and a winter festival respectively when generalised celebrations and merryment are undertaken. But Good Friday is not the occasion of marketing campaigns or family reunions: it is purely and only a holy day. And on consideration I think it is right that it should be a holy day that people choose to observe rather than one that is imposed upon them through some slightly arbitrary exceptions to business as usual. The Catholic Church as an arm – or possibly the tail that wagged the dog – of the Irish state has been shown to be corrupt, secretive and abusive. People are rejecting that kind of top-down, punitive, external catholicism. Private faith and the community of believers are something quite different; and it could only do Irish Christianity good to let that become clear.

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