Illicit drinking was always a matter of humour.
Compton McKenzie’s classic comedy Whisky Galore centred around the shipwreck of a ship on a Scottish island, its cargo of hundreds of cases of whisky being salvaged and hidden by the islanders. The series Yes, Minister included an episode where a meeting with an Arab delegation brought cunning methods of allowing the British delegation to continue drinking spirits. The manufacture of illegal alcohol was at the heart of numerous humorous tales.
Having a forebear who kept a cider house, an illegal drinking place, in our village, there was an assumption that to drink alcohol that was unregulated and untaxed, to drink outside of licensing hours, to sell jars of cider, these were acts that caused no great harm. Tales of the cider house were told with laughter.
Licensing hours were a particular cause of annoyance, it seemed an infringement upon individual liberty to tell people when and when not they could drink a glass of beer in a public house. Licensing hours were never intended to become the socially restrictive device they became, they were used in the First World War to try to ensure munitions workers turned up at factories.
It was in Northern Ireland during the 1980s that I first encountered a darker side of illicit drinking. There were tales of shebeens controlled by the paramilitary organisations, places which contributed funds to those who dealt in murder and destruction. Illicit drinking did not seem so funny when it was controlled by those who did not hesitate at shooting innocent men in the back of the head, or blowing to pieces people who had done no more than go shopping on a Saturday afternoon.
As I sat at traffic lights outside a public house this afternoon, a group of three people approached the building. Standing on the pavement outside a building that adjoined the pub, one of them knocked a window in a rhythmic way, then immediately went to a door and knocked again. The door was quickly opened, the three stepped briskly inside, and the door was closed. Clearly, the closure of licensed premises and the ban on gatherings were measures that they regarded as not matters of concern for them.
The illegal drinkers have the potential to cause numbers of deaths greater than those caused by the paramilitaries, their refusal to isolate themselves could account for hundreds of deaths.
At the moment, illicit drinking is as funny as a paramilitary gunman.