‘We are all the time evolving’: Clonakilty businesses amid Covid-19 have embraced change and challenge

Businesses in Clonakilty have been hard hit by the restrictions but are nothing if not resilient, writes Neil Michael

Hotelier Dena O'Donovan runs Clonakilty’s iconic O’Donovan’s Hotel which has survived countless recessions, the Spanish Flu, the War of Independence, Civil War, and foot and mouth.
Hotelier Dena O'Donovan runs Clonakilty’s iconic O’Donovan’s Hotel which has survived countless recessions, the Spanish Flu, the War of Independence, Civil War, and foot and mouth.

Dena O'Donovan and her family know about surviving in a crisis.

The hotelier is, after all, the sixth generation to run Clonakilty’s iconic O’Donovan’s Hotel, which started as a humble boarding house in the Famine.

It has survived countless recessions, the Spanish Flu, the War of Independence, Civil War, and foot and mouth. And although the business suffered, it just about survived the 2008 financial meltdown.

But like every business in Clonakilty, the family is facing its biggest challenge yet: Covid-19.

“Famines, floods, and pestilence — our family have seen it all down through the years,” Dena laughs, looking back. “I do remember foot and mouth, and all those pans of disinfectant at the door, which didn’t do the carpets any good.

“There wasn’t an embargo on travel during foot and mouth but people weren’t moving about because it was too much hassle.

“They weren’t allowed to cross people’s land, or go hill walking, and people couldn’t move animals around.

“It upset the economy and impacted business by about 40% for about a year then it gradually got better.

After pulling themselves back from the brink after the crash in 2008, they, like every other business in the town, were then badly hit by 2012 floods.

The streets of Clonakilty then had to be ripped up to install deeper drains as part of Cork County Council flood defences.

It saw business slump yet again, but this time by between 50% and 80% over two years, as the building work continued around O’Donovan’s.

At one stage, the 21-bed hotel had just one man come in for lunch in the hotel’s 65-seater cafe restaurant instead of the usual 150.

The last crisis the business had to weather was the decision by its insurance company to stop insuring the O’Donovan’s Hotel nightclub, The Venue. The family had no choice but to close it down, and lost thousands in much-needed weekly income in the process.

That was last December.

Apart from the O’Donovans’ ability to get through just about any type of crisis, Clonakilty’s enduring appeal to domestic tourists could prove to be a big factor in its recovery from the initial Covid-19 outbreak.

According to Fáilte Ireland, the West Cork area is the country’s most popular destination for domestic visitors while at the same time being the second-most popular destination for foreign tourists.

Indeed, most surveys point to a high domestic tourism income in Cork.

Of the 2.4m overseas tourists who spent €968m in Cork and Kerry in 2017, for example, 1.6m of them spent €631m in Cork.

And of the 2.1m Irish residents trips to the two counties, 1.1m of them came to Cork, and spent €202m of the €419m spent.

And to help them spend their money in the weeks and months ahead, Clonakilty Chamber of Commerce has bolstered its successful Clonakilty Vouchers scheme with €40,000 ‘rainy day’ funding.

They are using the money to give — while the rainy day pot lasts — shoppers an extra €10 or €20 for every €50 or €100 Clonakilty Voucher they purchase.

That said, nobody in the town can afford to take anything for granted.

Clonakilty did not rank well in the recent three regional assemblies’ Covid-19 Regional Economic Analysis report.

Of the 27 Cork towns featured in the report, Clonakilty was ranked the ninth most likely to be seriously affected, with an exposure ratio of 48%.

Clonakilty’s exposure ratio is a little less than towns like Kinsale, Blarney, and Bantry.

There is, nonetheless, a feeling in Clonakilty that it is doing a lot better than towns in the surrounding area.

And businesses tend to help one another.

“It is one of those places where if I run out of Guinness, I can borrow Guinness from my neighbour,” says Dena O’Donovan. “Clon is very together and very innovative, and much faster to pick itself up.”

Other businesses in the town suddenly saw all their bookings collapse as well.

West Cork Bouncy Castles, which provides inflatables and marquees for parties, saw an immediate end to all the events for which it had been booked.

Meanwhile, chef Caitlin Ruth had set 2020 as the launch year of her outdoor catering business from her catering truck.

She had been the head chef at Deasy’s Restaurant in Ring, 5km away from Clonakilty, before it closed in January after 16 years.

It was one of a number of restaurants to close in the area recent months. They include Richy’s Restaurant and Arundels by the Pier in nearby Ahakista.

Caitlin explains: “The business was doing well, but it was time for a change — mostly work-life balance. We talked about it and myself and the owner agreed, ‘let’s end while we are on a high’.

“My plan was to launch a mobile catering company and I was pretty much booked out for the entire year.

This was mostly small weddings, gigs, and things like that. And I had a month-long residency in Levis’ Cornerhouse bar in Ballydehob in July. But everything has now been cancelled.

Caitlin is now having to adapt to the new challenges she faces of trying to make a living in the pandemic that has shut most of the country down. “I’ll probably open the food truck as a food truck on a beach, and that wasn’t something I was going to do before,” she says.

“Now I think I will. I am having to adapt, but then so is everybody else, so I don’t feel particularly hard done by.”

She has also started a cooking club online, and got involved with Neighbourfood.ie — the virtual farmers market that started in 2018 in Cork. It has become very popular since Covid-19 because people order and pay for what they want online and simply collect it at any one of a number of pick-up points.

Holly Cairns: Essential we return to 9% Vat rate.
Holly Cairns: Essential we return to 9% Vat rate.

There are about 13 in Co Cork alone, one of which is just outside Clonakilty, where the number of customers has more than tripled since lockdown.

The week the town effectively closed down, Dena O’Donovan and her brother Tom suddenly couldn’t get any of the timber, metal parts, or paint they needed for their new Alley Garden Bistro Bar.

“So we chopped up a couple of beds and a couple of wardrobes in an old apartment and we made a bar counter out of that.”

IT is one of many examples of innovation and improvisation that businesses need to survive what looks like their biggest challenge yet.

Examples of how O’Donovan’s evolved include opening a nightclub 16 years ago because there was a demand for one. Then the family turned their hotel dining room into a cafe restaurant because they could see a demand for a less formal dining set-up.

“We are all the time evolving, evolving,” says Dena. “We are always trying to keep ahead of the times. Every year we have a project on hand.

“The second-last project we did was turn the back of our off-licence into a wine bar, so we now have Molly’s Cafe and Wine Bar. Now the nightclub has closed, so we were turning that into the Alley Garden Bistro Bar.”

Even that plan has had to be modified because if she calls it a ‘bistro bar’, as she had planned, she won’t be able to open until August 10. If she just calls it a ‘bistro’, it can open on June 29.

This is when, according to the Government’s roadmap for easing Covid-19 restrictions, cafes and restaurants providing on-premises food and beverages can reopen.

Not everybody is happy with the way things are going as far as opening the country is concerned.

Sinead O’Crowley, who runs An Súgán Restaurant, Seafood Bar, and Guesthouse, echoes sentiments of other businesses in Clonakilty that didn’t want to go on the record. She feels a degree of frustration at the Government and its stance on physical distancing.

Sinead O’Crowley says two-metre social distancing guidelines are not sustainable.
Sinead O’Crowley says two-metre social distancing guidelines are not sustainable.

“Two-metre distancing is unsustainable for us in any of our businesses,” she says.

“And what I don’t understand is if we closed down because of WHO guidelines, why aren’t we opening up according to their guidelines? I think that has to be a degree of responsibility on individuals.

“We are all adults. We don’t need to be nanny stated about this. Everyone has to take a degree of personal responsibility

Newly elected Cork South West TD Holly Cairns, of the Social Democrats, says: “Businesses in West Cork, especially in Clonakilty, have been through a recession and shown resilience to get through them and you see them come back time and time again.

“Places like Clon are a glowing example of amazing, community-spirited determination, but if they knew what they were dealing with, that would help.

“Just reducing rates isn’t going to go far enough but it is essential that we return to the 9% of the Vat at the very least in the immediate future.”

On a positive note, Sinead adds: “We are a very family orientated resort tourist town, so we are very lucky in that respect. As well as everything else, we have got wonderful beaches.”

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