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Dublin: 16 °C Monday 10 August, 2020
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So what's the 'new normal' like in Dublin's pubs? This reporter volunteered to find out

Just without drinking pints or having a €9 meal.

IMG-1382 The view just inside the Hairy Lemon in Dublin. Source: Sean Murray/TheJournal.ie

WALKING THROUGH DUBLIN city centre earlier today, you wouldn’t – at first – think that much has changed compared to recent weeks. 

The sight of tourists with their maps going through Dublin Castle remains absent, the mid-afternoon traffic remains a fraction of what it used to be, the lunchtime rush in cafes and delis isn’t quite there and Temple Bar is still largely empty and shuttered. 

Only the sight of the queues outside barbers and hairdressers would give you an idea that we’ve actually progressed to the next phase of re-opening the country - a full 15 weeks after it began to close. 

Look closely enough, however, and you’ll see that – here and there – some of the capital’s hundreds of pubs have also begun to open their doors again. 

One of the protagonists of James Joyce’s Ulysses muses at one point in the book that a “good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub”. 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Even though some have now opened their doors again, it actually would be quite straightforward to cross Dublin without passing an open pub, at least. 

Those that have been permitted to re-open must adhere to strict guidelines to meet the public health requirements

We’ve been constantly told about the “new normal” post-Covid and, going into some pubs today, it’s clear that that concept applies here.

You go in and a whole host of things look and seem different – while, simultaneously, a lot feels the same. 

Staying local

TheJournal.ie has opted for public transport today and, before heading into town, we sampled the atmosphere in the local pub opposite the bus stop. 

Chasers in Ballyfermot is located atop a row of shops on the main road in the west Dublin suburb. 

As you walk up the stairs, you’ll usually get a fair idea of how many people are in the main pub area based on the noise and chatter.

Walking up early this afternoon, it did sound like there was a crowd already. 

Before the doors to the bar at the top of the stairs there are a couple of signs hung up. One is a generic HSE sticker telling you the steps to prevent spread – social distancing, hand-washing etc. The other tells customers that it’s card and contactless payments only for now. 

As you walk in, the bar is on the left hand side and the first striking point is that there are no stools at the bar where before there may have been a dozen before.

There are customers dotted around the place – two in a booth to the far left as you walk in, some more at a table in the middle and then in the back. 

Joe Egan, who runs Chasers, told us:

“It’s very strange for the customers, But then it’s strange for us as well.”

As we sit down for a socially-distanced chat, staff are walking to and fro including one who’s cleaning the areas where customers who’ve already left have been. 

“We have put in a lot of work,” Egan said. “We have the hand sanitisers, the [social distance] markings. We have signs on the toilets that only two are permitted at a time.”

On a busy night, the pub could have all its seats filled and some kind of entertainment till late. 

That won’t be the case for the first few weeks at any rate. The focus is now on providing food along with a few pints to the locals coming in. 

“We’re opening 12pm-8pm,” Egan said.

“We’ll do that until 22 July. We’re doing an all-day breakfast, and we’ve a menu there to keep us going.

It’s all new to us. We’re looking to adhere to the guidelines, and we’ve done what we can there. This is a local pub that locals come to. It’s not a town pub.
People in Ballyfermot were looking forward to us re-opening. We have to do what we can to make sure it all works now.

The after-work pub

After leaving Chasers, we boarded a 40 bus on Ballyfermot road – with maybe half of the total passengers wearing face masks (the original plan – to make a note of how many pubs were open on the way into town – was soon scuppered, as this didn’t take into account how impossible it is to see when wearing a face mask along with glasses). 

The lack of traffic served as a reminder that things aren’t quite back to normal just yet. 

Those who can work from home are still told to do so according to government advice, meaning a massive reduction in footfall in the city still. Add to that a lack of tourists and the city still looks far emptier than it did back in February. 

The next stop was The Hairy Lemon on Stephen Street – just a five minute walk away from TheJournal.ie‘s HQ.

Greeting customers at the door was manager Darren Cooper. Wearing a visor, he outlined the lengths this popular pub has gone to to ensure it could open safely. 

“Everything is dusted down, painted and scrubbed,” he said.

“We’ve the safety measures to make sure everyone is spaced out, between customers and staff. When it comes to staff, everyone’s been designated one area. There’ll only been one member of staff looking after you. 

Every measure possible has been taken. The last fortnight has been a blitz. As soon as we knew where we stood – so many hours have gone into making sure it’s safe. Regulars will notice the lengths we’ve gone to… but I’m happy out. It’s great to be back, see people you haven’t seen for over 100 days. 

Walking through the bar, you see again there are no stools at the bar itself. At around 2pm today, the Hairy Lemon had a steady trade with the pub’s original spacing allowing it to have customers far enough apart as they tuck into pints and some food. 

There was a general buzz and chatter of people enjoying a social outing. 

IMG-1378 Distancing guidelines clear for all to see in the Hairy Lemon. Source: Sean Murray/TheJournal.ie

However, capacity has been heavily limited to what it was before. A typical after-work pub, the Hairy Lemon would often have people standing anywhere they could and queues for the bar at peak times. 

There’s none of that now.  People go in in small groups. They book in advance. They’re assigned their seats. There are signs everywhere reminding people of social distancing and designated routes to the toilet and in and out of the pub.

A colleague remarked that the taped floor makes it look a Dublin pub-themed Disney ride – and he’s not far off.

“We want to make it comfortable for customers until we get to the next phase,” Cooper said.

“It’s in everyone’s best interests to take it slow. If we get to a stage where it’s safe and the authorities say we can, then we’ll increase capacity.”

And as for the 105 minutes maximum that people can spend in a pub? Cooper doesn’t think it’ll be a major issue. 

“People are happy to be back now, back having a pint,” he said.

“I think everyone will play ball till everything’s safe. You’ll have a few people having their four or five pints and chancing their arm. But it’s in nobody’s interest to break that rule.”

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The music pub

Having wrestled with the temptation to have a pint and a bit of food, we carry on. 

Walking through Dame Lane, it’s another reminder that things haven’t quite returned to normal yet. The still-closed pubs of the Long Hall on George Street and the Norseman and Temple Bar pub are another reminder. 

Located at the end of Temple Bar on Fishamble Street is Darkey Kelley’s. 

With hotels on either side of the pub, and groups performing most evenings, it usually attracts tourists in their droves as well as musicians and those who love a bit of live music. 

Behind the bar – as some traditional Irish music plays on the sound system – is Nathy Towey.

The main bar itself is behind a screen as you walk in, with screens separating some tables to allow people to sit and still maintain distancing.

Again, the design of the pub means some tables can be separated anyway and there’s no more stools at the bar. And, again, there’ll be a much reduced capacity. 

Towey told TheJournal.ie: “We’ve set the bar up so that 50 people could sit in the place comfortably. Most of them will seat four, some are spaced out just for two. It’s booking for the first few weeks, and people can book online, text us or Facebook us.”

When you enter Darkey Kelley’s, you’ll be greeted as you walk in. You’ll be brought to your seat and have the process explained to you. The toilets are one in, one out. People are discouraged from smoking outside, and they’ve set up a beer garden that will allow people to distance.

Every 20 minutes, the toilets will be cleaned and staff will be on the floor attending to customers particularly on Fridays and Saturdays which is when they have the most bookings.

IMG-1406 Hand sanitiser next to the door to the beer garden and by a table in Darkey Kelley's. Source: Sean Murray/TheJournal.ie

“There’ll be one person behind the bar serving the drinks, because there won’t be any customers coming up the bar,” Towey said.

“Most of the work now is on the floor to the extent that you kind of overstaff it. Normally, with a capacity of 50 people, two good barmen behind the bar could handle it.”

He said the wage subsidy scheme had been a huge help in ensuring they could have all the staff they needed to go back to work. 

Unlike before, there’ll be no live bands playing. On a Sunday, it wouldn’t have been unusual to have a dozen musicians all playing on site. There’s also fewer tourists around town, a key market for the pub. 

“We’d have been well known for our music,” he said. “Four piece bands. Ceilís of a Sunday. Those days for now are gone. We’ll have one guy on a guitar tonight playing.”

As we get up to finish, a few customers walk in having booked in advance. They’re brought to their seats and have the process explained.

Towey is aware that business will be severely reduced for the coming weeks, but he’s feeling hopeful looking forward. 

“Those days will come again,” he said. “Dublin is a fantastic place to come visit. It has an awful lot going for it. It’s a long road. You’re up for that challenge. It’s where everybody is.

“It’s a challenging time for everybody… There will be good days again.”

All of that is dependent on the number of cases staying low, and the virus not getting a foothold in the community again. Everyone has their fingers crossed over the next few weeks.

I passed on the opportunity to have a pint and a burger on assignment today. But I’ll be back.

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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