When the Bona Fide Traveller Came to Rosses Point

By Bryan Armstrong

The Bona Fide Traveller, (who we will call the BFT for brevity) will need no introduction to our older readers. He will be remembered as a late night drinking companion, now sadly missed. Some indeed may have assumed his identity in their youth. He was created by a rather ancient law which provided that a public house could supply intoxicating liquor to a BFT during prohibited hours when the premises was otherwise required to be closed. The BFT in need of refreshment had of course to be Bona Fide. He had to be on a journey to somewhere for a genuine reason and the journey had to be more than three miles long. He was not to be just looking for drink when he was not entitled to it. The premises were not to be opened in the ordinary way. The BFT had to seek admission and if the licensee was satisfied that he was in fact Bona Fide he could be admitted and served.

The exemption to the general law on prohibited hours led, of course, to many journeys being undertaken in the Ireland of the time, particularly on Sundays. If, for example, two villages were four miles apart, residents of one might meet those of the other as they each went their respective ways. They might stop, dismount from their bicycles, have a chat and meet again on the way home. What they could not do was have a drink together in either village.

Of course, the Local Constabulary found it difficult enough to enforce these provisions. On raiding a hostelry which might be thronged with revellers in the small hours they would have to enquire of the patrons: Are ye bona fide? Where were they from? (By definition they would not be locals) and where were they going to and for what purpose? Difficult it was, to get evidence to contradict whatever answer they got and indeed the law was not going to help - the onus was on the prosecution to show that the their real purpose was to obtain intoxicating liquor.

What, our readers may ask, has this got to do with Rosses Point? It was from the BFT's point of view rather handy that Rosses Point is five miles from Sligo.

In the 1930's Redmond John Bruen ran a public house here now better known under the name of the man's respected son-in-law Austie Gillen. Attached to the premises was the Elsinore Ballroom, part of which still stands.

Mr Bruen took the view that people who travelled from Sligo to dances at his ballroom by bus were indeed BFTs and that he was entitled to give them passes into the bar where they were served. The police disagreed and he found himself charged with the offence of supplying intoxicating liquor at 12.05am on a Monday morning.

At the hearing in the District Court the Justice found that the persons in question had visited Rosses Point in search of legitimate amusement, namely dancing and were BFTs and accordingly he dismissed the summons.

The Attorney General appealed to the High Court. The Judge there held that there had been two journeys - one to Rosses Point and one back, and that the travellers were entitled to the privilege in respect of each, but not in respect of the interval between the two at the dance. The District Court decision was reversed and Mr Bruen was convicted. Mr Bruen was not a man to give in easily and armed only with half a promise of support from the Vintners' Association of the time, he brought an Appeal the whole way to the Supreme Court. The Judge there held: the visitors in the present case were travellers from Sligo and had done nothing to divest themselves of that character by the time the drink was supplied to them. The onus was on the Attorney General to prove that their real purpose was to get drink, and of course, he couldn't do that.

It did not take long for the word to filter down as to what the correct answer to the guard's question should be. Oh yes guard, I'm here for the dance. The locals were still, of course, out in the cold. Not having had to travel the requisite three miles they could never be BFTs and couldn't be served.

For Mr Bruen, there was a sting in the tail. He was not the first to find out that litigation is an expensive business and it is said that the costs of the case brought him close to ruin. Happily for us today that didn't happen.

The life of the BFT was brought to an end by the Intoxicating Liquor Act of 1960 which removed this particular exemption thereby closing an interesting anachronistic chapter in Irish legal history. Perhaps it was the advent of the motor car, which brought the realisation that intoxicating liquor wasn't quite the right thing for travellers, Bona Fide or otherwise.

Note, for those interested, the case appears in the Law reports as Attorney General (Fahy) v Bruen (No.2) 1937 Irish Reports 125.

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