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Dublin: 2°C Thursday 21 January 2021
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On a cold, wet day in Dublin pubs re-opened for Christmas - and we went to visit them

There were some nerves, some hope and a great deal of sympathy for the wet pubs still closed in the capital today.

AS I WALKED into the Old Storehouse in Temple Bar on a miserable, wintry day in Dublin city, Fairytale of New York was playing.

It was only hitting 1pm as the bar re-opened for the first time in months this afternoon, but already a socially distanced queue was forming where customers were giving their details for contact tracing and then taken to their seat. 

People walking the streets were laden down with shopping bags, while others nipped into a pub to have a pint, and a meal, while festive tunes played in the background.

Despite the pandemic and the awful year it’s been, there was something just a bit Christmassy in the air. 

Robert McCarthy, the manager at the Old Storehouse, told TheJournal.ie: “It’s an absolute joy to be opening again. All the staff are delighted and keen to be back as well. Which is great. It’s a great relief.”

After six weeks at Level 5, the country re-entered Phase 3 of restrictions earlier this week. 

And from today, restaurants and gastropubs can re-open their doors. The so-called wet pubs, however, must still remain closed as spread of the virus remains stubbornly high across the country. 

In Dublin, pubs that serve food have been closed for indoor dining since September. And, for wet pubs in the capital, they’ve been closed since March.

It all adds up to a lean, difficult year for those in the hospitality sector. 

Re-opening today, they had to keep largely to the same restrictions they had done when first opening their doors again in June – around substantial meals, social distancing, contact tracing and time limits.

During visits to a number of pubs in the city centre today, there was a contrasting set of emotions.

Some felt stressed by the prospect of putting all the effort in to re-open now, just to close again if there’s another lockdown in the new year. Some are delighted to see their customers making bookings again ahead of their re-opening. Some could see hope on the horizon for a return to normality while others felt normality is something far away. 

All of them are focused on making sure they run a tight ship and ensuring they keep to the guidelines.

And all of them feel a great sense of disappointment for the others in their trade who aren’t permitted to re-open yet.

‘Bittersweet’

Alan Campbell owns the Bankers Bar, on Trinity Street. 

He’s one of many to use the word “bittersweet” when asked how he feels to be re-opening today. 

“A lot of our friends in the so-called wet pubs can’t open up,” Campbell told TheJournal.ie. “It’s devastating for them, but at the same time we’re excited to get back working together.

It’s been a rollercoaster. Disaster after disaster, to be honest. We’re just glad to be back.

Eoin Bulfin, general manager of the Hairy Lemon on Stephen Street, said: “Opening now, you wouldn’t make up what you’ve lost in the last six weeks. Having said, we’re delighted to be open now. 

I suppose you think of the wet pubs. They’ve been open two weeks in the last nine months. We’re also thinking of them, because they’re our compadres in the business. What can you do? You just have to go with the decisions. 

Having re-opened for the first time this year on 29 June, staff across the various pubs were well versed about what they needed to do this time around.

Campbell, from the Bankers Bar, said: “We’re basically putting all those procedures back into place that we had, plus the added extras that we’ve had to put in like air ventilation.”

In the places that are taking bookings, such as Davy Byrnes and Darkey Kelly’s, to the ones primarily catering for walk-ins, like the Old Storehouse and the Hairy Lemon, all are expecting to be full to their, albeit limited, capacity from now until Christmas.

Gerry Parkinson, who manages Davy Byrnes bar on Duke Street, summed it up. “It’s great to have people back. We’re really looking forward to it. We’ve put in all the preparations here. The tables are distanced. We’ve the sanitiser, contact tracing, we’ve it all in place.”

Realism

For the pubs that would usually have a larger proportion of tourists as customers, there was a sense of realism that, even though they were re-opening, things would be a bit different and would continue to be for some time.

McCarthy, from the Old Storehouse, said: “We’re under no illusions, but we’re all set. We’re a tourist bar and we know there’s not going to be any tourists. We’re open now and that’s the main thing. We have lots of space here, the tables are very spaced out. We feel we’ve a happy medium here.”

Darkey Kelly’s is another pub that would attract a large number of tourists regularly before March 2020. 

Nathy Tower, who runs the pub on Fishamble Street, said that despite the lack of tourists, they’d received numerous bookings from locals and those that work nearby. 

“There is huge interest, which is great,” he said. “Particularly on Friday and Saturday night. We have limited capacity here, but it’s about getting people in and making sure there’s not too many. It’s about distancing, wearing masks when you’re not at the table. All the things people have gotten used to.”

Bulfin, from the Hairy Lemon, said the priority for them was to stay open to a certain level. 

“All we want to do is kind of stay open at a certain level,” he said. “We don’t want to pack the place. We just want to follow the rules. 

We’re drastically reduced in terms of capacity, but we’re happy we’ve taken the measures we need to. We’ve also expanded our beer garden to better cater for people within the guidelines.

Hectic Christmas

In previous years, Christmas would’ve seen pubs around the city packed. And the ones that have re-opened now expect to be busy in the run-up to 25 December.

However, they stressed today that every measure will be taken to adhere to the rules in place, which includes managing customer expectations.

Campbell, from the Bankers Bar, said: “I think common sense will prevail. And I think people know that they just can’t go to a pub and go on the lash. 

It’s the new normal – as we keep calling it – but it’s the reality that it’s all controlled. I mean, if people have this misconception that people are going to go into pubs and go on the lash and be shouting and singing, that’s not going to happen. They’ll be sitting at tables, we’ll have contact tracing, time restrictions. We’ll have full control over it. They can enjoy a meal and a few drinks.

Gerry Parkinson, from Davy Byrnes, said that it’ll certainly be different compared with previous Christmases.

“But I think this year, people understand they’ll have to sit at their tables,” he said. “I suppose the only issue is the time. People are having a good time, and they don’t want to leave. But we’ve staff here to look after things.”

Towey, who runs Darkey Kelly’s, said that once people are on a premises, the onus is on those who run the pub to be sensible and make sure the rules are adhered to. 

“It’s up to a premises to control what goes on in the inside of a premises,” he said. 

You know it’s Christmas time. Guys might be sitting at a table with a few friends. The next thing they see see a friend at another table, maybe someone from work they haven’t seen in a while. They’d be inclined to go over. That’s where the pub – who’s in charge – comes in with people on the floor to gently remind people what the rules are.

Bulfin, from the Hairy Lemon, said that it was something they’d become well used to, and were happy that there’d be enough staff working to make sure the rules are adhered to.

Looking ahead

Even as they re-open today and plan for a busy few weeks, the uncertainty looming on the horizon is more of a worry for those in the hospitality industry now than in the summer. 

Bulfin, from the Hairy Lemon, joked: “Beyond having kids, this is the most stressed out I’ve been. It’s been a stressful time. I feel the mentality is there that ‘we’re open, how long are we going to be open?’.”

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Parkinson, from Davy Byrnes, said the obvious worry is another lockdown.

“So that could be a worry, but I feel we’ll still be able to have outside dining,” he said. “I know it’s not ideal. But it keeps staff in a job. Looking forward, I don’t think everything will be back to normal by next Christmas. We just have to learn to live with it for the next year and try to keep the doors open.”

McCarthy, from the Old Storehouse, said that there’s a general sense of hope that things will take an upturn after Easter 2021, after what’s been an unprecedented year.

He said: “I’m 48 years of age, and I’ve been in the bar trade since I was 18. I’ve been through Foot and Mouth. I’ve been through the volcano [cloud] in Iceland. I’ve lived in loads of different places. I was in Temple Bar for the recession in 2008 and 2009. But this beats them all hands down.”

“We’re lucky to be open”

Towey, from Darkey Kelly’s, said that because the likes of his pub is open and others are not, that also puts a certain level of responsibility on pubs such as his.

He said: “First of all, we’re lucky to be open, there’s lots of guys that haven’t got that chance. So I think the onus is on the ones that are open to do what’s right.

And if we’re doing it right then you would hope in the new year that the other guys might get a chance. But if we mess up now and we let customers mingle across tables, singing songs or if we let too many in, then we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. And I don’t think the ones who don’t have a chance to open will forgive us for that. So there’s a lot of responsibility on our shoulders. But we’re well able for it.

Towey added that, looking further ahead, he could see some strands of light at the end of the tunnel. 

“I think it will be a seated environment for the first half of next year,” he said. “It could be a while yet before we see people sitting at the bar again, and where people can have those great nights where the pub is packed and they’re standing beside each other. But that will come again. Next year, we’ll be in a happier place.”

From being in pubs that had re-opened, doing everything they could to follow the guidelines while still creating a festive atmosphere, being in the empty Swan Bar on Aungier Street brought the harsh truths of 2020 flooding back.

As chairperson for the Licenced Vintners Association, Swan owner Ronan Lynch advocates for the pub sector in Dublin.

But, on a day when many of his fellow publicans can open again, he remains closed to customers, though he and his staff still serve hot drinks for takeaway from the entrance to the pub.

Inside his pub are all the screens to separate tables, hand sanitising stations and seats and tables spaced out. Only there’s no customers. As a wet pub, he can’t re-open. 

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” he said. “It’s just terrible that we aren’t given the opportunity to show that we can have this controlled space. There’s no bar service, it’s all table service.”

Before Level 5, the Swan was serving people outdoors having made arrangements with the nearby Dublin Pizza Company to supply food. 

“It’s about ‘can you control the space for people to come in and socialise?’. And yes, we can. We’ve followed all the guidelines when we opened up previously. When we were inspected by the guards, there was no problem whatsoever.

The outlook is bleak. And it’s incredibly uncertain. We don’t think we’ve gotten a fair crack at the whip at all.
Today is bittersweet. I see all these fantastic pubs. I see the Palace. I see the Long Hall. I see ourselves. I see Sheehan’s. I see McDaid’s. O’Donoghues. These are the pure pubs. The real pubs of Ireland. They’re all closed. We’ll do the restrictions, we’ll do whatever. We just want the chance to open again.  

The Swan was my last stop of the day before trudging through a rainy city centre to head home. 

Public health officials and politicians have been saying that it won’t be a normal Christmas this year, amid fears cases could rise sharply again. 

The businesses that have re-opened today are keen to get their customers get back in, and make sure they adhere to the guidelines at the same time. 

The ones that are still closed want to do the same. 

Even with the hopes on the vaccine, the grim reality that is Covid-19 means it’ll still be some time before that normality comes back. Going to the pub is still a thing that can be enjoyed – just not the same as we did before. Not yet. 

About the author:

Sean Murray

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