Special Report: Pub Crisis - Rural publicans fear reopening before vaccine is in place

Ireland's pubs have suffered significantly as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.
Special Report: Pub Crisis - Rural publicans fear reopening before vaccine is in place
Mike Parker behind the counter at Parker's Bar Kilflynn Co Kerry which opened its doors in 1923 stays closed due to the Coronavirus - the first time it has ever closed for this long. Photo: Domonick Walsh

Ireland's pubs have suffered significantly as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

In a special report, Sean O'Riordan speaks to some Cork and Kerry publicans about the effect the closures have had, and what re-opening the country's pubs might look like.

Rural publicans fear reopening before vaccine is in place

A number of rural publicans have said they are scared to reopen until a Covid-19 vaccine is developed, even if the Government does relax the lockdown before thenin the meantime.

John Horgan, head of the VFI in Munster, said many a lot of rural publicans are over 70 and would be worried about their own health and that of elderly customers.

Some of the pub owners say they are so concerned about the welfare of their customers who have been are left with no social outlet, that they would be willing to open up with strict adherence to social spacing. Many of those are barely making a profit and see themselves as a social service more than a business.

Mr Horgan said the Government should fast-track an ongoing overhaul of the rates evaluation system, whereby premises are charged on turnover rather than size, which would help keep many rural pubs alive.

Fears have been raised that if this is not done, many of these pubs will not reopen again.

“A lot of rural publicans are keeping their premises open as a hobby and offering a social hub to people. Many are barely making a profit. But I think that a lot of people won’t come out to them, even if there are small numbers inside, because they’ll be afraid and this will continue until a vaccine is found,” said Mr Horgan.

He understands why a number of rural publicans want to reopen, but the problem is the rule has to apply to everyone, including city pubs. “You can’t say one pub can open and not another,” he said.

One rural publican who is over 70, and who asked not to be named, said he could understand why people of that age group might not want to return to pubs until a vaccine is made available.

He said if he was a customer himself, he would be unlikely to walk into a half-full pub until people had been vaccinated. Until this happens, he added, he can’t see how publicans can organise events dances or 45 card drives in their premises because that would only aid in could aid the spread of the virus.

Some publicans have also suggested that a proportion of their regulars may not come back because they’ve got used to drinking at home during the lockdown.

Frank O’Flynn, chairman of the Fermoy Municipal District Council, said that many rural pubs in his area, such as those in Ballyhooly and Aghern, are now the only places where local people can meet, as many lots of villages have lost their petrol stations, shops, and post offices.

He said he knows many publicans who are very responsible people and would be more than capable of operating appropriate social spacing in their premises.

“This is a question of helping to keep people sane. For people living on their own, a weekly trip to the pub was their only chance to mix, to meet friends and catch up on all the local news. Many older people are telling me the loss of the pub is a huge blow to them,” he said.

Mr O’Flynn said he is also concerned that if the lockdown continues for pubs for several more months, many of their customers will not come back when they finally reopen.

“I’m worried this could lead to even more pubs closing and that would be a further blow to rural Ireland,” he said.

Third generation pub owner worries about regulars' wellbeing

Mike Parker, owner of Parker's Bar: "We’re just waiting for guidelines from the government. We need to plan for the future."   Photo: Domonick Walsh
Mike Parker, owner of Parker's Bar: "We’re just waiting for guidelines from the government. We need to plan for the future." Photo: Domonick Walsh

by Sean O'Riordan


Mike and Geraldine Parker run a pub in the Co Kerry village of Kilflynn. It is 1km off the main Tralee-Listowel road and therefore gets little passing trade meaning they have to rely on their locals, who number around 400.

Mike is the third generation of his family to run the pub which his grandfather bought in 1923.

Like many small villages they don’t have a post office, creamery or petrol station any more and the grocery shop has downsized.

"A lot of my customers wouldn’t be drinkers. They just come in for the chat. We drive some customers home on weekend night and weekends.

"If we didn’t drive our own people home we wouldn’t have some of them. We’d have a lot of elderly people coming in. Many would come in after Mass on a Sunday morning and they’d tell lots of stories and enjoy the banter. They mix well with the younger people as well," Mike said.

When he’s out walking, he meets many of these customers who ask him "is there any chance of opening soon".

"I’m worried about their wellbeing. These people have to get out. If I said we’d open next week or in a month they’d be delighted as the pub is a second home for a lot of them," he said.

Customers are missing the craic on Monday nights when they’d regularly come to do the local GAA club Lotto. They’re also missing the '31' card game on Fridays and the Saturday night darts tournaments. They like their darts in Kilfynn and the pub has hosted former greats of the sport like Eric Bristow and John Lowe.

Since he was forced to close they’ve revamped the beer garden and will put in a marquee to accommodate social spacing. The front bar and large function room will provide ample room for social distancing.

Spacing is not a problem on any given weekday night as the pub only hosts 15 - 20 people. Far more come in at the weekends, like most rural pubs.

"We’re just waiting for guidelines from the government. We need to plan for the future," Mike said.

His children Gavin and Hazel also help out in the bar and like their parents they miss the craic with their regulars.

"I hope all our customers come back to us safe and sound, however long this (lockdown) takes," Mike said.

Anyone leasing a pub won't be back in business after this'

Mike and Jeanette Barry who run the Big Tree, Aghern, near Conna, Co Cork.    Photo: Jim COughlan
Mike and Jeanette Barry who run the Big Tree, Aghern, near Conna, Co Cork. Photo: Jim COughlan

by Sean O'Riordan


Running the Big Tree pub in Aghern is more of a hobby than a going business concern for husband and wife team Mike and Jeanette Barry.

They bought it in the good times nearly 16 years ago. But Covid-19 has left them genuinely concerned about their local customers, who wouldn't number more than 10 on an average weekday night.

Some might have a few pints, others a coffee and a bag of crisps. What they have in common is they merely want to come in for a chat. Such pubs are now more than ever a social hub rather than a profitable watering hole.

Aghern is little more than a hamlet on the road between Rathcormac and Conna. Passing trade is virtually non-existent.

When they purchased the pub the couple opened all day. As the recession hit in 2008 they decided to scale that back to the late afternoon. Just before the lockdown opening was put back to 7pm.

“There would still be several times during the week when you might open at 7pm but not see a soul until 10pm,” Jeanette said.

“I'd often decide to lock up at 10pm or 10.30pm because we'd no customers,” Mick added.

One lifeline for people living among the scattered houses or farms in the area is the special bus link operated by Avondhu/Blackwater rural partnership.

“If you were a pensioner you could get it for free from (adjoining) areas like Britway, Castlelyons, Conna, Ballynoe and Glengoura. It would drop people here and take them home afterwards,” Mike said.

For a rural pub it is quite large. They have the main bar, a substantial dancefloor in another room, a snug and a pool room.

They would have no problem socially spacing customers on any night.

The couple say their regular weekday customers range in age from 40 to 70.

“We know most of them just want to come in for the chat and we enjoy the craic too. Some are living on their own and they just want to pass the time at nights,” Jeanette said.

“You couldn't make a living if you had children to rear. You'd need another job. It's now a hobby rather than a business, although you could say it's an expensive hobby,” she said.

“This lockdown will have a serious impact on rural pubs. Anyone leasing one won't be back (in business) after this,” Mick maintained.

Rural Pub is many people's only social outlet

Richard, Liz, Robert and Emily O’Connor outside their pub, The Roundy House Bar, in Ballyhooley, north Cork.   Photo: Dan Lineham
Richard, Liz, Robert and Emily O’Connor outside their pub, The Roundy House Bar, in Ballyhooley, north Cork. Photo: Dan Lineham

by Sean O'Riordan


The Roundy House, named because it corners around the main road passing through a North Cork village, has been in the ownership of the same family for four generations.

Liz O’Gorman runs the establishment with the help of husband, Richard, son Robert ,22, and daughter, Emily ,18.

Since the lockdown there have been two funerals in the village. Wakes in pubs are a tradition in rural Ireland for as long as anybody can remember.

“It’s so hard on families, they can’t go into pubs afterwards and celebrate the lives of their loved ones and reminisce about them after the funerals,” Liz said.

Liz and Richard said on weekend nights they could have 60 - 70 customers, especially if there was a birthday party or some other event on.

Wednesday night was card night, which traditionally draws a lot of people, but the average week night would be far quieter.

However, she said with the number of different rooms she has in the pub she could definitely socially space up to 20 customers at a time without any problem.

“We would have had a few bachelors coming in during the week. There will be customers who will be depressed because of this. It was their only social outlet. I’m sure I was the only person they saw from one day to another. They’d come in for the company more than anything,” Liz said. “I’m concerned about the people who are isolating.”

She added that several of her customers pass by on foot or in cars and ask her "when is it all going to end?"

“Nobody knows. I always enjoyed the laugh and chat with people. I’ve been here for 50 years and it’s a fierce change. The pub is silent and eerie. I just want people to stay safe and after this is open there will be one big party,” she said.

“I’m missing the buzz as well,”  said her son, Robert. “There were a good few who just came in here for the chat. You don’t see anybody from one day to another. It can’t be good for them (some customers). The younger people go into town (Fermoy) to get beer from the off-licence,” he added.

“I miss meeting different people,” added his sister, Emily.

While they wait to re-open, whenever that might be, Liz says she has been decorating inside the pub and painting the stools just to keep herself busy.

Ban on live music among possible steps for pubs to re-open

The Vintners' Federation of Ireland (VFI) and the Licensed Vintners' Association (LVA) have compiled a document of potential safety measures ahead of a planned meeting with the government in the coming week.
The Vintners' Federation of Ireland (VFI) and the Licensed Vintners' Association (LVA) have compiled a document of potential safety measures ahead of a planned meeting with the government in the coming week.

by Kevin O'Neill

Live music could be banned in Irish pubs as the sector aims for a radical transformation to comply with social distancing.

Under proposals tabled by the Licensed Vintners' Association (LVA) and the Vintners' Federation of Ireland (VFI), punters would no longer be able to sit, order, or drink at a bar, with table service a requirement for opening.

Bars would also be subject to strict capacity limits, and live music and DJs would be prohibited.

VFI and LVA have compiled the document ahead of a planned meeting with the government in the coming week. They are pressing for pubs to be reopened at the same time as cafes and restaurants in June, subject to the following measures:

  • There will be no sitting, standing, ordering, payment or drinking at the bar.
  • Table service will be a requirement.
  • Capacity would be limited to no more than four per every ten square metres.
  • A maximum of six people at any one table.
  • Customers will be required to use hand sanitiser upon entry.
  • All customers must remain seated.
  • Staff will be asked to maintain a safe distance from customers when taking orders and to wash their hands thoroughly every 30 minutes.
  • Outdoor spaces will be used to enhance social distancing.
  • Procedures implemented to ensure safe use of toilet facilities, which may include limits on the numbers using toilets at any one time.
  • No live music or DJs.
  • Gardaí / HSE will have the power to close any business which is not complying.

Donall O'Keeffe, chief executive of the LVA, said trading under these restrictions would be "extremely difficult" but may be necessary in order to reopen.

"There is no doubt that the pub experience as we know it will have to change dramatically.

"Many pubs may choose not to reopen as it simply won’t be financially viable under these conditions. However, for those who want to trade, these measures will have the essential impact of protecting the health and wellbeing of staff and customers alike,” Mr. O’Keeffe said.

Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the VFI, added the entire hospitality sector faces "a real challenge" in implementing social distancing, including pubs, restaurants, cafes and hotels.

"Addressing those public health requirements will be necessary for all hospitality businesses whenever they reopen. Pubs across Ireland are up to that challenge and will do what is required for maintaining a safe and healthy place of business,” Mr Cribben said.

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