When I was reading Joyce’s Dubliners, I came across the following quote:
Mr Harford sometimes formed one of a little detachment which left the city shortly after noon on Sunday with the purpose of arriving as soon as possible at some public-house on the outskirts of the city where its members duly qualified themselves as bona-fide travellers.
It’s quite an obscure reference. What does bona-fide traveller mean here? Why was a detachment leaving the city to go for a drink? Why not just get one at a public-house local to them?
Oddly enough in this case I knew the answer, because my grandfather once told me it. Back in the early 20th Century there was a temperance law in the UK (which for a while of course included Ireland). The law provided that you couldn’t buy alcohol on a Sunday, unless that is you were a bona-fide traveller. The point was that ordinary folk were restrained from drinking on the Sabbath, but those who were travelling (likely on business) and needed to refresh themselves weren’t barred from doing so.
My grandfather knew of the law from the one of Scottish islands where he had family. There was a minimum distance you had to travel to qualify as a bona-fide traveller, so every Sunday each half of the island got up and went en-masse to the other half, swapping sides, so as to ensure that they all passed the test and could legally buy a drink.
There’s something oddly wonderful about that sort of absurdity. Everyone dutifully complying with the letter of the law, and everyone utterly flouting it at the same time. The line between farce and reality can sometimes be very thin.