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'There's a lot riding on this. There was a pub here before me. I want there to be one here after me too'

Pubs have been closed for six months. They’re hoping the 21st September date isn’t another false dawn.

ON TUESDAY, IT appeared a date was finally set in stone for when the so-called “wet” pubs could re-open. 

But a protest of publicans the very next day outside Leinster House demonstrated the degree to which the industry is still dissatisfied and how the problems it now faces won’t be solved simply by re-opening the doors on 21 September. 

As a group of men in distinctive green and gold Kerry jerseys carried a mock coffin bearing the message “RIP Irish pubs”, publicans were beginning to contemplate putting in stock orders, drawing up rosters and ensuring they have everything they need to welcome customers again next Monday week. 

coronavirus-wed-sep-9-2020 Bar owners from Co Kerry carry out a mock funeral outside Leinster House in Dublin, calling for government support for rural publicans Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

At a separate protest the day before, Tipperary publican TJ McInerney grew emotional as he talked to reporters, telling them “I didn’t sign up to go bankrupt”. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie yesterday, McInerney – who runs TJ Macs in Mullinahone – said he’d just put in his first orders for kegs to be ready to re-open on the 21st. 

“There’s a lot riding on this,” he said. “I’m a custodian of this pub. There was a pub here in Mullinahone before me. And there should be one after me too.”

McInerney and other publicans across Ireland have been given dates before, and 21 September is the fourth such date indicated by government for when pubs that don’t serve food can re-open. 

In that time, bills have been stacking up for costs like insurance and electricity. The cost of sustaining a family hasn’t gone away either during Covid-19, even as sources of income have dried up as pubs have remained closed.

McInerney said: “This is real. We’re real people. These bills are real and all these costs have to be met. 

I’ve to get my trade back too. My customers didn’t hide under the bed. They went to the gastropubs that re-opened three months ago. I need customers to come back in. 

This publican is among many in the industry calling for greater supports from the government. With a majority of other industries permitted to re-open much earlier, the vintners organisations say that a specific suite of supports is essential to save the pub industry. 

The government’s €16 million package to support pubs – equating to around €4,000 per pub – was deemed insufficient by the vintners.

Many have gotten into debt – the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) said almost half of publicans have accrued debts of €16,000 since the crisis started – and limits on numbers that can be in pubs will mean the level of business pre-Covid cannot simply return immediately. 

“It’s not just me though,” McInerney said. “The amount of young lads I’ve helped put through college with jobs here, for example.

“And when the rep from the wholesalers was here today and I ordered the stock, you should’ve seen the relief on the chap’s face. He has a wife and kids too he has to help look after. I think we both got a bit emotional.”

Restrictions

While it remains likely at this stage that pubs in most areas of the country will be able to open up on Monday week, a question mark still hangs over Dublin. 

Public health officials have described the recent surge in the capital as a “significant concern”. Licenced Vintners Association – the body that represents Dublin pubs – chief executive Donall O’Keeffe said it would be “heartbreaking” and a “body blow” if the opening date was put back again. 

The popular Grogans pub in the city centre is holding off to see what comes from Cabinet early next week before it can be fully confident of re-opening on the 21st.

2123 Pubs Closed Grogans on South William Street in Dublin Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Manager Daniel Smith told TheJournal.ie that while they were all delighted to be given the re-opening date, the caveat of having to see how cases of Covid-19 progressed in Dublin was a worry.

He said: “The timing was a bit strange, as they have to see how that goes. We completely understand the public health needs. All we want is clarity. It’s three times now we’ve had it put back.”

Smith said a lot of work had already been done in the bar on South William Street to enable it to safely welcome customers back.

“In fairness now, we’ve been working away since the first roadmap doing bits and pieces,” he said. “It’s the final hurdle now with ordering stock and organising rosters.”

Grogans already has a fairly clear idea of how it’ll operate when it re-opens. Each table will be designated a number, people will wait at the front of house before being seated, and they’ll have their contact details taken for tracing purposes, for example.

“We know we won’t be able to run the business as before,” he said. “But the public are aware of that. They know things can’t be the same. Needs must and we’re trying to figure it out as best we can. 

I can’t wait [to re-open]. I’ve been dying for it. I always said that a substantial €9 meal won’t keep you safe if a place is ignoring the guidelines. What’ll keep you safe is a responsible-run pub with responsible staff. That’s what we have here. 

New normal

For publicans like McInerney and Smith, they’ll have to adjust to a new normal where their business cannot operate as before. 

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They’re chomping at the bit for the chance to do so again. 

McInerney said: “I’ve done the courses online from the likes of the HSA. We’re awaiting the final guidance that can’t come soon enough. I want to be as knowledgeable as the next person on Covid-19. I’m heading to the hygiene suppliers later to have everything I need, hand sanitisers and paper towels and the like.”

Image from iOS (10) TJ McInerney runs the pub in rural Tipp.

The centrality of the rural pub, in particular, has been highlighted again and again and this Tipperary publican said locals will be delighted to return in just over a week’s time.

“There’s been some great times in here,” he said. “I remember [local Mullinahone man and top hurler] Eoin Kelly brought the Liam McCarthy cup into the pub the Tuesday after they’d won the All-Ireland. That was a great day. 

And then what an achievement for the parish. [Mullinahone] celebrated winning the Dan Breen Cup [Tipperary Hurling Championship] for the first and only time in 2002. Because of Covid, we’ve been reliving all these memories. We realise now the things you take for granted at the time. Hugging and celebrating. We can’t do that now, but these are still in the memory.
It’s all about a vaccine now, and staying positive and trying to eradicate the negativity. I’m 44 now and have been working in pubs since I was 15, 16. I’m 28 years at it now. I don’t know anything else. I’d find it hard to do anything else. I love this industry. We’re really going to give this our best shot. 

About the author:

Sean Murray

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