The Friday before Easter Sunday, or Good Friday, is one of the most important days of the year in Christianity. In Ireland and Northern Ireland—which both have deep ties and a long history with Catholicism and Protestantism—Good Friday has traditionally been a day of prayer and abstinence from drinking, which even included a nationwide ban on alcohol sales. However, changing times and relaxing views on religion have lessened the impact of Good Friday across Ireland.
While Good Friday is still an important religious observation and many Irish attend church on this holy day, whether it's a public holiday or not depends on what part of the island you're on. In the Republic of Ireland, Good Friday is not a public holiday and locals don't have the right to a day off of work. However, since most schools aren't in session on this day and it falls right before Easter (the following Monday is a public holiday), many Irish choose to take the day off and enjoy a long weekend. If you're in Northern Ireland, however, it is an official holiday and everyone is off work.
The actual date of Good Friday changes (as it is tied to the lunar calendar), but it will always be in March or April, and sometimes the date can coincide with the Jewish feast of Passover. In 2021, Good Friday falls on April 2.
Good Friday in Ireland
In the Republic of Ireland, you can expect most restaurants, bars, and other attractions to be open on Good Friday. It isn't a public holiday, but it is a bank holiday, meaning that most banks and schools are shut down for the day. Since it's the first day of spring break in Ireland—along with most countries around Europe—hotels may be booked up and flights could be more expensive than usual during this popular travel time. If you're traveling to Ireland at any time around Easter, make sure to finalize all of your reservations as early as possible to get the best deals.
If you're traveling to Northern Ireland, you're more likely to see closed down restaurants and other establishments that are observing the public holiday. While this used to be a total shutdown around the country, it's now more common to see food locales and other retailers open, especially if you're in a major city or tourist area such as Belfast. Local eateries may have reduced hours, however, so be sure to confirm that whatever restaurant you're heading to is open before you set off.
The Old Alcohol Ban
Until 2018, Good Friday was one of two days in the Republic of Ireland when the sale of alcohol was completely banned (the other day being Christmas). It might seem hard to believe in the land of Guinness and whiskey, but the day was completely dry (unless you remembered to stock up at home before the holiday).
The lift of the ban is especially good news for travelers and the pubs that serve them, since the Easter holiday is a popular time for tourists. Before 2018, thirsty visitors to Ireland who arrived on Good Friday were generally unaware of the alcohol ban until they were confronted with closed down bars and empty streets.
Now, you can enjoy a pint of Ireland's best anywhere on Ireland on Good Friday without worry. Many people were happy to see the ban overturned and go out to pubs in the evening, while others stick to the tradition of staying home for a quiet night.
In Northern Ireland, the rules are a bit more strict. Alcohol sales are allowed on Good Friday, but only between the hours of 5 p.m. and 11 p.m., so you'll have to wait until dinner time before you can imbibe.
The History of the Good Friday Agreement
Good Friday has strong historical importance in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland apart from the Christian holiday, as well. The Good Friday Agreement (in Irish, "Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta"), was the major political breakthrough in the peace process during the Troubles, a nationalist conflict that spanned three decades and left more than 3,500 people dead.
The agreement was signed in Belfast on April 10th, 1998— which happened to be Good Friday that year. It is a multi-party agreement involving most of Northern Ireland's political parties and an international agreement between the U.K. and Irish governments.
The Good Friday Agreement covers many issues and changed the system of government in Northern Ireland. It also regulated the decommissioning of arms held by paramilitary groups and the release of (most) members of paramilitary groups from prison.