Covid reopening: Cork pub welcomes back customers and toasts 200 years in business

It's believed The Hut bar in Watergrasshill, Co Cork, has never closed for any period of time apart from the Covid-19 pandemic
Covid reopening: Cork pub welcomes back customers and toasts 200 years in business

Publican John O'Neill opens the doors at The Hut, Watergrasshill, Co Cork yesterday as the pub  prepares to reopen today. The license has been in the family for 200 years. John and Betty O'Neill have been running the bar for 52 years. Picture: Larry Cummins

The owners of one of the country's oldest family-run pubs are celebrating today for two reasons — they're back serving punters and they're also 200 years in business.

It's believed The Hut bar in Watergrasshill, Co Cork, has never closed for any period of time apart from the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Even when it was being rebuilt, the current owner purchased a workman's canteen to carry on serving in his carpark while construction was underway.

John O'Neill, 79, and his wife, Betty, have run The Hut since 1971 when they returned from the US to take over the family business.

It was once known as 'Maggie McHugh's' and the family can trace ownership back 200 years when it was run by another relative, Hannah Sweeney.

While the current bar was being built, John traded in a 19m x 6m blue timber hut which was originally a workmen's canteen at the Whiddy Island oil refinery in Bantry, Co Cork.

 Publicans Betty and John O'Neill and family raised a glass at The Hut, Watergrasshill, Co Cork on Sunday as the public house prepares to reopen on Monday. The license has been in the family for 200 years. 
Publicans Betty and John O'Neill and family raised a glass at The Hut, Watergrasshill, Co Cork on Sunday as the public house prepares to reopen on Monday. The license has been in the family for 200 years. 

He got the idea of using it from a local who had worked on the island. John purchased it for £300 and transported it back to Watergrasshill.

John, who is also celebrating 50 years in business this year, decided to rename the pub 'The Hut' as a result.

“I made good money in it. There were a lot of major businesses starting in the area at the time,” he said.

To put it into context, when the pub came into the family 200 years ago, the same year potato crops failed — an ominous warning of what was to hit Ireland with the Great Famine in the decades to come. 

Then horsedrawn coaches were the only real means of transport from Dublin to Cork, via the village.

The main road connecting the two cities also ran through Watergrasshill until 2003 when the motorway (M8) arrived and curtailed The Hut's passing trade.

Since the pandemic started in March last year, John only opened for two weeks last September. He was rightly concerned it would go pear shaped.

An old photo from an unknown year of the Cork bar. 
An old photo from an unknown year of the Cork bar. 

“At that time we ordered in a lot of stuff. Luckily enough, the breweries took the kegs back, but we were stuck with a lot of bottles. I'm hoping it goes right this time, but I'm actually surprised they're allowing us back [trading] because there are still a high number of [Covid-19] cases,” John said. 

“I suppose the Government is thinking that there will be a lot more people vaccinated in the next few weeks.” 

A number of his clientele are older people and he's particularly looking forward to welcoming back the oldest, Jim Keenan, 90, who lives nearby.

“I was worried about people not having a social outlet when we were closed. I also missed the social interaction myself. To be honest, it was pretty depressing,” John said.

He admits he could have opened for outdoor service, using the front of the pub or the rear carpark. 

However, he discounted that because he didn't want to be running in and out with pints.

John and Betty have credited the pub's longevity to having very reliable help in the early years and then the support of their six children who have also lent a hand.

Pubs can fully reopen today, with customers needing vaccine certs to access indoor dining and drinking.

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