Covid countdown brings heartbreak and hope for Irish pubs

When the country entered lockdown just before St Patrick’s day last year owners were hopeful they’d be back within months

The 2009 romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer has nothing to do with Irish pubs but could end up as an epitaph for some of them.

When Ireland entered lockdown just before St Patrick’s day in 2020 pub owners hoped to reopen after a few weeks, or at worst a few months.

A ticking clock on the website of the Licensed Vintners Association (LVA), which represents Dublin’s pubs, shows the number of days, hours, minutes and seconds that some of its members have been waiting to reopen.

On 16 July it showed 487 days. If all goes well they will be able to open by 26 July, day 497. By then the government has promised to let indoor hospitality resume for customers who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from infection.

It will mark the end of one of the longest such lockdowns in Europe and a step toward recovery for an industry that prides itself as a cultural and social institution.

For some pubs it will be too late. Dozens have shut and many more are expected to follow them into oblivion when banks, landlords and other creditors come knocking later in the year.

“It’s been absolutely devastating,” said Noel Anderson, chairman of the LVA. “The impact on the industry is as severe as it can get. The real test will be when government [financial] supports start dwindling off.”

In the box office hit film Summer is the name of a young woman who enchants – and breaks the heart of – a character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

For Irish pubs the season feels equally capricious. Those that serve food were allowed to open under strict conditions in June 2020, only for indoor hospitality to shut again in September after a fresh wave of infections.

Pubs were allowed to serve takeaway pints in winter and spring, and last month those with outdoor seating were permitted full outdoor service. About two thirds of pubs across Ireland operate under such limitations. Those with no outdoor options remain shuttered.

“I’ve a number of friends nearly closed for 500 days,” said Anderson. “For them it’s been tortuous to watch while other people trade well and you have to wait your turn.”

Those with outdoor service obsessively scan the skies and check weather apps because rain and wind – ever-present threats to an Irish summer – chase away customers. A downpour during last Sunday’s Euro 2020 final sabotaged hopes of a bonanza.

Joe Cahill, the manager of McLoughlin’s in Dun Laoghaire, south Dublin, is looking forward to opening his doors soon. “I’ll be just delighted to be getting back. I’ve missed meeting the customers, the bit of craic, the banter.”

Joe Cahill, manager of McLoughlin’s pub in Dun Laoghaire, south Dublin.
Joe Cahill, manager of McLoughlin’s pub in Dun Laoghaire, south Dublin. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Guardian

Ireland and the UK were the only European countries where alcohol consumption did not fall during the first covid wave, according to a study in the journal Addiction, suggesting a big shift to drinking at home.

Cahill knows two regulars who have installed bars in their homes but he is confident the pub’s health measures, including an air quality monitor and new air conditioning unit, will entice people back. “We offer a social service as much as anything else.”

Avril McKeever, the owner of McKeever’s Bar & Lounge, a 153-year-old pub 30 miles north of Dublin that has no outdoor service, is excited but wary about reopening.

She had to dump stock during the first lockdown and tried delivering beer by drone but ended up shuttered for more than a year. “How did I stay sane? A miracle. I’ve been painting, cleaning, gardening, done everything.”

She plans a cautious opening. “We’re going to buy the bare necessities and if we run out of stock, tough luck.” McKeever worries about looming bills, about the Delta variant triggering another lockdown, about customers not returning for fear of the virus. “I can’t see it ever being the same because there’ll be an awful lot of nervous people.”


Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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