BOSTON, March 10 (AP)--Some Irish Catholics may have a beef with the church on St. Patrick's Day.

This year, the March 17 holiday falls on a Friday in Lent, when Roman Catholics are asked to abstain from eating meat as an act of penance and a reminder of the sacrifices of Jesus Christ.

Many Catholic bishops, including Boston's and New York's, are giving dispensation to parishioners who want to partake of the traditional Irish-American meal of corned beef and cabbage.

But some bishops have refused to let their congregations off the hook. One, Fall River, Mass., Bishop Sean O'Malley initially refused to issue a dispensation but has since changed his mind because, he said, of the large number of inquiries he received and what he discribed as confusion over the policy. As a result, Catholics with a hankering for corned beef on March 17 won't have to head for nearby Boston or Providence, R.I., where the bishop has also granted a dispensation.

An easing of the rules is not uncommon, particularly in dioceses where the Irish have a prominent role, said David Early, a spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But even without a dispensation, there is an out for Irish Catholics who don't want to ignore the rules but feel a craving for corned beef: They can travel to another diocese where the meal is deemed OK.

``The application of a dispensation applies to the geographical region you happen to be in, not to you as a person,'' Early said.

Jerry Burke, owner of Doyle's Cafe, an Irish pub in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, expects to sell thousands of pounds of corned beef and cabbage next Friday.

``Corned beef and cabbage is a mainstay of our menu,'' Burke said. ``And people are going to do it anyway.''

New York's Cardinal John O'Connor--whom O'Malley is rumored to be a candidate to succeed--has granted the dispensation. But Bishop James T. McHugh of the nearby Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and Bishop Thomas Dailey of Brooklyn, N.Y., will not.

In Maine, Bishop Joseph Gerry has decided to grant dispensations on an individual basis.

``If a pastor calls and asks for a dispensation-- an Irish parish, for example - he'll grant it, rather than do a universal dispensation,'' spokesman Marc Mutty said.

The story is similar in Richmond, Va. Bishop Walter F. Sullivan did not issue any special dispensation before he left on a trip to India, said diocesan Chancellor Anne Edwards, but individual requests are being considered.

Corned-beef-eating Irish Catholics in Manchester, N.H., Seattle, and Madison, Wis., have received the go-ahead.

Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua granted his flock a dispensation but said those who take advantage of it should try to make some other act of penance or sacrifice.

The Rev. Thomas Reilly, pastor of Immaculate Conception church in Holyoke - where Springfield Bishop Thomas Dupre has granted a dispensation - said he plans to eat corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day. He said Catholics in his diocese would be upset if they didn't receive the customary permission.

``I would tend to think there would be an uproar,'' he said. ``People come to expect it.''

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