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Politicians who own pubs tell us what has gone wrong for rural Ireland

Owning a pub and being in Leinster House – seeing the demise of rural Ireland from the outside and the inside.

shutterstock_11628574 Source: Shutterstock/Patricia Hofmeester

The plight of rural pubs in Ireland is well documented – and easy to spot. Almost 1,000 premises have closed over the space of five years. When addressing this issue, Ireland’s elected representatives fall between two stools – they must balance the need for sensible drinking while supporting these local businesses. TheJournal.ie spoke to some of those politicians who can be – or have previously been – found behind the bar. They’ve shared their experiences of running bars, and what can be done to help those struggling.

Any rural Irish pub that is only selling pints will be closed in five years.

IT’S A STARK warning, but the reality for many communities around Ireland. Their local pub, once the heartbeat of the area, is barely clinging on as a viable business.

Ciaran Cannon, TD for Galway East and former leader of the Progressive Democrats, is on the frontline of this. He and his wife run The Gate Lodge, a pub in the centre of Athenry.

He described the past decade as “exceptionally difficult”, a trend that started gradually in the mid-2000s, was exasperated by the recession, but is now starting to reverse.

That reversal hasn’t been solely by a restoration of the normal trade though, he said:

It’s a big challenge. We’re starting to offer food and have opened a theatre a couple of nights, but it’s a challenge when you only have three members of staff.

Cannon says he used a derelict function room at the back of the pub – once the Mecca for locals at a time when a trip to the local big town and into a club was a foreign concept – to diversify, running events including gigs and pizza nights.

It’s giving people another reason to come and visit the pub, and it’s working well. The community have been very supportive.

Cannon’s pub has been around for some time, but another politician hopped dove head-first into this risky business just as the first glimmer of recovery was starting to be seen.
Terry Leyden is a Fianna Fáil Senator known for owning a replica Dáil bar.

The opening of Castlecoote Lodge in County Roscommon was mired in controversy when Leyden posted invitations to members of the Oireachtas using official envelopes, but has since shaken that off.

It’s important to note that Leyden isn’t the licensee – his wife Mary handles that side of things – but the Senator helps manage this pub.


“It’s building up a nice steady trade,” Leyden said, “It’s going grand so far.”

He has focused on diversification – Castlecoote Lodge runs trad nights, darts tournaments, hosts local hunts, and has land surrounding if they ever wanted to run a larger gathering, with nearby accommodation – and then marketing this widely.

4332306_orig A scene from Castlecoote Lodge. Source: Castlecootelodge.com

“Basically, your locals are your number one priority,” he explained, “After that you add to it by having events.”

Leyden believes there is one important, key element to any pub:

If you have quality Guinness, you will do well.

Both Cannon and Leydon’s stories are quite positive, but can skim past the reality facing rural Ireland. Pubs closing have caused a rot at the very core of communities across the country. They are among numerous boarded-up shopfronts on main streets in villages and towns. Recently, Brosna in Kerry saw its last shop close its doors for the final time.

This financial crisis saw people’s pockets a lot less full, fewer jobs, and young adults much more eager to emigrate, bringing back memories of the 1980s. One TD said:

That has really turned the heart of rural Ireland.

Tom Fleming is one of the Dáil’s best known publicans, an Independent for Kerry South since 2011, and before that a Fianna Fáil councillor on-and-off since 1980

After taking up his seat in Leinster House, Fleming’s Bar in Scartaglin village was leased. Before this, he witnessed first-hand what was happening in his community.

“People are the lifeblood of any community,” Fleming said, “The reality is you have a lost an entire generation. Some of it is for lifestyle, some of it is forced emigration, people who had no choice but to leave their native areas and migrate to big cities.”

2014_Gross-and-Net-Migration Immigration, Emigration and Net Migration in Ireland, 2000 - 2014 Source: European Migration Network

“We have certainly lost a vital element. We need to regenerate our rural areas.”
This is obviously going to affect footfall in pubs, but social changes are also afoot:

The old socialising element of the pub has been diluted, and it is certainly not in the traditional style when people came in for a conservation and to maybe watch a bit of TV. By and large, it was very much a social gathering with a lot of interaction between people, but I see that diminishing.

The recession wasn’t the first big challenge for the rural Irish pub though. Difficult to label it an issue or problem, stricter drink driving laws have noticeably impacted business for rural publicans.

Obviously a force for good, it has been enforced for everyone’s safety and something that publicans have simply had to work with since the mid-2000s.

When the Government clamped down on drink-driving, and clamped down hard, rural drivers were no longer able to tip home from their local pub late at night after having a few drinks.

Drink Drive Campaigns Two Gardai breathalise an actor during a mock drink-driving test Source: Photocall Ireland

Some have suggested that people in this situation should be given some kind of exemption, but few will argue against having safer roads.

Rural publicans have been hit harder than those in the city, where taxis and public transport is abound.

An initiative was launched at the end of 2013 to address this. The local area hackney service is intended to target transport deficits that would not otherwise be addressed in rural areas – but it isn’t going well, to say the least, one former publican has found.

Fine Gael’s Brendan Griffin, who gave up a brief career behind the bar (sometimes spent writing books) when he was elected in 2011, discovered just how poorly through a parliamentary question in February. At that time, a total of 42 applications were made nationwide for local area hackney licenses – but just seven were granted.

“This seems to be something we need to tweak,” he said.

It’s either not being communicated, or not feasible to do.

This scheme was meant to be the be-all-and-end-all for the problem, but publicans are still calling for more help.

Cannon encountered a similar issue. He told the Dáil:

“I can only speak from my experience of working with three distinct communities and three individuals wishing to serve those communities. They satisfied all of these criteria. Their application was accompanied by a letter from a community group that advocates on behalf of the community and works to address the needs of the rural community.

“They were also accompanied by a forensic analysis of the public transport needs carried out by the local authority and signed by a very senior figure within the local authority management.”

They satisfied all of those criteria, yet were refused. I can only speak from the experience of working with these individuals. They were exceptionally disappointed. The communities they were willing to serve were equally disappointed.

Minister Michael Ring conceded that there were “teething problems”, and has said the NTA will review the scheme.

On paper, this scheme is valid: get people to the pub, they have their few sensible drinks with friends, and then head home.

The reality is that drinking in Ireland is not like this. Pubs are expensive. It’s far easier to get six cans of Dutch Gold for under a tenner, invite a few people over, and spend the evening doing that.

File Photo PUBS, CLUBS AND off licenses will be closed for the entire day today. Despite the reduced access to alcoholic beverages, many people turn Good Friday into a reason to party. Source: Photocall Ireland

Do the same thing in a pub, and you could be pushing for a bill of €40.

The availability of cheap alcohol is not only keeping us away from pubs, alcohol awareness groups say its driving up our intake of booze.

Enter minimum pricing – and another line to skate for publicans-cum-politicians.

The Government confirmed earlier this year that this system will be introduced, where there will be a minimum price for a unit of alcohol sold in off licenses.

 

The new legislation will include provisions to prevent the sale of very cheap alcohol, making it illegal to sell or advertise alcohol at a price below the limit.

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said at the time:

It will obviously need to be sufficiently high to eliminate very cheap alcohol which really drives binge drinking, but not so high that it affects most consumers.

Leo Varadkar Visits Hospitals Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

This is something that, needless to say, many publicans find appealing. Bring the cost of a can up, and the previously expensive cost of a pint seems more reasonable. Many also argue that drinking in a pub is less conducive to binge drinking.

“The traditional Irish pub has been run in a reasonably orderly fashion,” Tom Fleming argued.

“It should be adequately supervised and there’s a standard of compliance. At a house party you can have spirits being drank without measure and there can be a high mood, and it can out of hand. That’s the reality of it.”

However, Griffin notes that it can be hard to tell someone they have had one too many:

It’s hard to call it. You have to know the customer, and if you don’t serve a regular, they may never come back.

“If you don’t know the customer it’s not always that easy to tell if they’re drunk. You might only have five seconds, before which they composed themselves. You see them later and they’re falling about the place.”

PastedImage-16508 Source: AlcoholIreland.ie

While most publicans nodded towards a level of agreement with minimum pricing, Ciaran Cannon is staunchly against it, calling it a “red herring”:

“I think it’s an unfair state intervention in a free market, and there is little evidence globally to show that it is going to affect alcohol consumption.”

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, I’m a liberal. I don’t feel like trying to force people down a particular ideology.”

“Publicans need to go out and be innovative.”

Wrapping up the thoughts of his Leinster House colleagues on all the issues facing the rural pub, Brendan Griffin summed up their future with one sentence:

The days of having nothing behind the bar except cheese and onion crisps, and maybe a pink Snack, are over.

Read: This village’s only shop has closed its doors for the final time >

More: “Ireland has a serious problem – we drink too much alcohol” >

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About the author:

Nicky Ryan

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