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J Grogan pub in Dublin City Centre today has been closed for a year
J Grogan pub in Dublin City Centre today has been closed for a year
Image: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

'My face turned white. And here we are, a year on': The workers still waiting to go back, 12 months later

It’s been a year since Varadkar’s Washington speech, and many people have been out of work for almost 12 months.
Mar 12th 2021, 12:05 AM 50,949 34

IT’S EXACTLY A year since Leo Varadkar’s speech from Washington ordering the closure of schools and public buildings and calling on anyone who could work from home to do so.  

The following days were marked by uncertainty and a not inconsiderable degree of panic across the events and hospitality sector, as workers and business owners attempted to decide whether it was safe or advisable to continue trading. 

Three days later, following a hastily-arranged meeting with vintners groups, the government advised that all pubs should close for an initial period of two weeks. 

Over the coming weeks, of course, restaurants would also close.

Tourism, events and hospitality would largely shut down.

While others adjusted to a new form of work in their own home, many found themselves out of work altogether as their industries shut. 

For those people left with no work because of the pandemic, it’s been a very long 12 months. And when it comes to the 12 months ahead many believe it may take longer than that before they start to feel a real recovery. 

We’ve spoken to people in a number of industries that were among the first to close a year ago – and have yet to re-open – to get their perspective on the past year and how they’re feeling looking ahead.

Daniel Smith works at popular Dublin city pub Grogans. 

Staff at the pub put up Christmas decorations there in the hope they’d be able to open in December. 

While pubs that serve food were able to trade for most of December, the others – what we now refer to as ‘wet pubs’ – weren’t. Grogans has been closed since Saturday 14 March last year.

Said Smith: “When we closed, we never could have anticipated it’d go on this long in our wildest dreams.”

“It’s beyond anything. I go out walking, meet people for coffee and that. But it wears it out of you. I think I’ve watched enough Netflix at this stage. I go into the pub to check up on things every so often. It’s mad it’s been so long.”

For Noel Carroll, it’s also been a long year.

“I think I’m sick of walks,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“My wife has us out every day of the week. I listen to podcasts as well when I go for a run in the 5k. Mainly business ones to try get ideas on how to improve.”

Carroll runs Carrolls Tours, a company that primarily catered for overseas tourists. That tap was also turned off in March 2020.

“I remember being on an industry call with Tourism Ireland or Fáilte Ireland, and a high-ranking official was saying there’d be no inbound tourism here until October,” Carroll said.

“My face turned white. And here we are, a year on. Here again.”

Niamh Parsons has been a professional trad singer and musician for the past 30 years. In the past she’s regularly toured across Europe and the US. 

“It’s the first time I’ve taken a break in all that time,” she said. “It’s been a very strange time.

I remember heading into this week last year – Paddy’s Week – and myself and the people I know had lots of gigs coming up. A lot of big paying gigs too. Would’ve looked after my rent for a month or two. Then I had to go on the PUP. It’s been a long year, that’s for sure. 

Megan Best runs Native Events and is the operations manager for the popular Body & Soul festival. That festival was one of numerous events due to be held last summer that never went ahead. 

“It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long,” she said.

“Time is doing a sort of weird thing where there’s no way of delineating one space and time from another when everything’s the same.”

For Best, it’s been a year of ups and downs. The cancellation of Body & Soul was an example of the latter. 

“That was an emotional time,” she said. “It’s been such a huge part of my life for more than a decade. Even going back to that beautiful festival site. You develop a real relationship with the space itself.

But it was also a nice feeling too. I knew for the first time in more than a decade we wouldn’t be bringing 10-15,000 people here. A forced fallow year like they have at Glastonbury. So there was a sense of comfort. You could pause and reflect. And take a breather for once.

Tough year

Carroll worked with a number of tour guides from a premises in Dublin. Once it was clear there’d be no tourists, some of those tour guides were let go and the premises vacated. 

“I’m operating from home,” he said.

“But for people in this industry, this is their livelihood. The tourist season is everything to them. It’s devastating for so many people. I just want to get back to work.”

The partial re-opening of society before Christmas raised hopes of some kind of return to normality in the new year.

But the huge spike in Covid-19 cases that has precipitated the longest and most sustained period of Level 5 restrictions quickly put paid to that. 

“I thought we might be back in business by the end of February,” Carroll said.

“We’re here again. It feels like deja vu. We might get a trickle of business this year but it’ll be a long time before it recovers.”

Parsons said that with no gigs to perform at, her creativity when it comes to songwriting and singing “just went out the window”. 

“There was a lot fear, and that’s not good for creativity,” she said. “I miss being able to sing with other people. Rehearsing together. My fingertips have gone soft from not banging out on the guitar.

I haven’t been paid for singing in the past year. I’ve been getting the PUP alright. I know my other friends who play traditional music. They’d play in pubs on a regular basis, and that’s all impacted with them losing earnings. It’s extremely frustrating. 

Despite this, Parsons said that getting a break from the relentless nature of the industry has been welcome. 

“I still get up to an awful lot,” she said. “I’m big into history, so you can learn more about the songs you’re singing. I’m taking that into some of the teaching I do too.”

Smith, from Grogans pub, said there’d been a lot of “really tough days” in the past year. 

“Particularly around that time in the summer when there was talk of re-opening,” he said.

It was in early September that wet pubs were given the go-ahead that they could re-open in a few weeks. However, a deteriorating situation with Covid in Dublin meant that plans were shelved in the capital. And then, in mid October, the whole country entered Level 5.

“When you’ve geared yourself, mentally prepared, got all the training done, and then told ‘no’. It takes its toll. 

Looking back at what happened, it might be a blessing in disguise we didn’t open for Christmas. But that was the toughest day of the year seeing other places opening up. 

“I’m quite fortunate I live with my parents. But a lot of the staff have families, mortgages, rent to pay. They’re living on €350 a week, and it was €300 at one point for a while. I can only imagine how challenging it is.”

Going from being incredibly busy to having no events on at all was a bit of an adjustment for Best, but she said she is doing everything she can to make the most of it. 

“We were on such a merry-go-round for years,” she said. “The business was so, so busy. It’s incredible the way the festival industry has exploded. From May to October, there were three-four big things on every weekend. 

We were chasing our tails and it was getting to the point it was overstretched. It was really nice in a way not to spend a summer running around in fields. 

Best said she’s treating this fallow time for her industry as a “learning opportunity”, to take a step back and plan how to do things more efficiently once they can do so again. 

“The difficult thing now is the uncertainty going forward,” she said.

“We’ve no way of knowing when we’ll be able to book acts again. It’s hard not having a fixed date in your mind.

“But, on the other hand, we know we could put on an event to watch paint dry and people would go to it at this stage, just to get out of the house.”

Looking ahead

Best said that there has been contact with events promoters and contractors in the UK about the possibility of events there later in the summer, which may mean work coming her way. Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown would see the lifting of almost all restrictions by late June. 

“I was on a call with a guy last week, and once that announcement was made his phone started hopping,” she said.

“He does equipment hire for events. But I think there’ll be a much bigger gap here. I think the licencing authorities will be nervous of okaying anything.”

She said it will likely be 2022 before we see any festivals of the size of Body & Soul in Ireland, but that events like these might be “smaller and more intimate” than before.

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One area of concern is a brain drain in these industries as people out of work for so long have simply taken their skills and experience elsewhere. 

“A lot of the crew and staff with their industry knowledge will have dissipated,” Best said.

“When they go into other industries, they’re welcomed with open arms. Stable jobs with 9-5 hours and weekends off – they’re probably not going to come back into the event industry. And that’s a shame.”

46 Coronavirus Dublin Lunch time in Dublin City shows a practically deserted Ha'Penny Bridge on 19 March 2020 Source: Leon Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Carroll isn’t giving up the fight anytime soon but is realistic that it’ll take a long time for overseas tourism to return to its pre-2020 heights.

“It’s about survival at the moment,” he said. “The tourism industry has had knocks before. 9/11. The ash cloud. But this is the worst I’ve ever seen. 

This year is survival. And the next year is recovery. Get that vaccine rollout ramped up. I don’t see us getting back to 2019 levels until around 2024.

Parsons will this weekend perform in her first gig online since the arrival of the pandemic. 

“Yeah, I am a bit nervous,” she said. “I’d usually gauge the reaction of an audience and react to that. Now I’m singing into a computer.”

She said she fears that even when gigs are permitted to happen again, they could see venues at reduced capacity which in turns hits performers’ incomes. 

“Bums on seats pay the salaries, and artists get paid last,” she said. “If venues are limited in the amount of people they bring in, that’ll mean less money all around. 

“We’re going to be the first locked down and the last to be released. And we won’t be getting the same earnings as before this.” 

The first gigs that Parsons has booked in are for her postponed tour of the Netherlands. That’s now re-scheduled for 2022.

“I’m feeling positive,” she added.

“I do a bit of teaching and supporting musicians through the Musicians Union of Ireland. The secret is to have a plan to do something different every day. [Singing] accidentally became a full-time job. It’s still my hobby. So it’s a great thing to have.”

Smith, who plans to emigrate in the near future, said that the pub industry will be facing difficulties even after they all manage to re-open. 

“From the top down to the very bottom, anyone involved in the industry is definitely going to struggling,” he said.

“We’re not out of the woods once we-reopen. There’ll be a 12-month phase where places are bootstrapping, and money is going out as quickly as it comes in. 

They’ll need time to get back on their feet. And it’s important they can keep those business supports after they re-open. So many jobs and livelihoods depend on it. 
As for the pub he works in, Smith notes:
“Our Christmas decorations are still up. We may leave them there till we re-open at this stage.” 

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