“Locals missed the pub, and I missed the pub, it was lonesome,” said Mary O’Donovan, who was forced to close her eponymous rural pub for the first time in 45 years when the pandemic struck.
“It’s been like a morgue in the community without it open. No pub was open in the village, it was a big loss. We used to have great old evenings here.”
But the “great old evenings” may return soon.
Tomorrow, she can reopen her doors in the small village of Ballinadee, Co Cork, and welcome back friends and neighbours with the lively banter and late night sing songs that made her pub special.
Coronavirus extinguished the roaring open fire which drew people close on chilly nights, replacing it with the astringent smell of bleach and fresh paint as Mrs O’Donovan, now 74, made the most of the enforced break by deep cleaning and redecorating her premises.
“On busy weekends before, when I was working here alone, I’d think, ‘wouldn’t a week’s holidays be great?’. I didn’t ever think I’d have to take six months of holidays,” she said.
Mrs O’Donovan, whose husband died 20 years ago, often runs the pub on her own, but with the new Covid-19 regulations — like table service — her sister-in-law and granddaughter will join her to help.
“It would be desperate if the pubs close again during the winter. As the long evenings creep in it gets very lonely without the local pub," she said.
In another pocket of the county, Maureen O’Sullivan was busy gathering the last few bits in eager anticipation of reopening The Strand pub.
“I’m really looking forward to reopening on Monday,” she said.
“I’m getting all organised. The last few deliveries are arriving and I was up all last night doing last-minute cleaning and checking everything for social distancing.”
Ms O'Sullivan opened the country pub outside Blarney in 2015 after a career in fashion and quickly built up a loyal customer base. The Strand was voted Cork's Local Pub Of The Year in 2019.
The publican has been getting “constant” messages asking when she’ll reopen.
“Having the pub closed for six months left a huge hole in the local community,” she said.
“The Strand was a real hub for people. They’d mark all their big life events here, when there was a wedding in the church they’d come here for tea and nibbles, we’d host Christmas parties, birthdays, funerals.
“That was all gone. The local Blarney Hotel and Golf Resort closed suddenly early this year too so everything disappeared almost overnight.”
During the “long summer” she kept herself busy, laying flowerbeds and building a pagoda in the beer garden. Her son, a chef, is designing a menu for a new food business in a self-contained kitchen outside the pub to serve takeaways.
And she’s been scouting other businesses, looking to learn from their mistakes and successes.
“Some places are operating under a military regime,” she said.
“They treat you like a bold child, stuffing a menu in your face and telling you not to move from the table."
Ms O’Sullivan said that a moratorium on payments for the pub has helped her survive along with a Cork County Council restart grant and freezing business pay rates.
But it has still been “a tough time”.
“No-one has money now,” she said.
“I employed two local people but I can only afford to take one back now. We can only have 50 in the bar now — not 150 like before. And all the parties at the weekend that helped to pay our way are gone for now.
“We had a lovely quirky pub with cool cushions and interesting decorations but that all had to go into storage with Covid. But we still have the pictures on the walls.
“And we’re optimistic about the future.”