Alison O'Connor: Even a pandemic can't diminish the Irish obsession with the pub

It is surely not too much to hope that a number of us will be vaccinated by St Patrick's Day.
Alison O'Connor: Even a pandemic can't diminish the Irish obsession with the pub

Our public conversations are dominated by things like whether enough pubs have proper kitchens. File image

Remember that episode of Father Ted where Mrs Doyle is given a demo of a top-of-the-range tea-maker? The enthusiastic salesman tells her that this marvel takes the misery out of making tea.

The priests' housekeeper looks him in the eye and says: "Maybe I like the misery."

That phrase is coming to mind, as we wring every last drop of potential misery out of what we may not be allowed to do this Christmas. It's a combined form of Covid-19/Yuletide torture that is enough to push anyone over the edge, especially with the year we have just put down.

Anyone from outside of Ireland listening to this 'national conversation' would imagine we are fully deserving of our 'drunken Irish' reputation, given the utter obsession with whether or not pubs will be allowed to reopen. 

To be clear: Pub owners deserve immense sympathy for what they have suffered since the start of this pandemic. It has been horrendous for them and their businesses. 

But should everyone else's mental health suffer because a virtual hole is being drilled in our brains as to the importance of the pub in an Irish Christmas?

The weeping and the gnashing of teeth by the combined lobby of vintners — always an incredibly strong force in putting their views forward — and certain politicians who have fallen in with them seems never-ending.

My own profession,  journalism, has kept the subject painfully in lights — there is hardly an hour in the day when it is not discussed on some programme or mentioned in a news bulletin, or that you won't find the word 'pub' on the front page of the newspapers.

Next week, with a move to Level-3 restrictions, it is expected that up to 90,000 people will be back in their jobs (a significant number of those in retail) and off the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP). Hairdressers, hotels, gyms, and museums are also due to open. 

We know the easing of restrictions in higher-risk settings where people congregate, such as the hospitality sector and at sports events, will take place later in the month. Most important of all, we know we will be given the go-ahead, in some restricted form, to spend time with family over the Christmas period.

Everyone is worn out from the fear and stress of dealing with Covid-19; for a significant number of people, the prospect of an isolated Christmas is a horror too far after all they have already endured. But for so many of the rest of us, whatever deprivations we may have to endure during this one festive period are hugely offset by the news that a Covid-19 vaccine is just around the corner.

You'd have whooped for joy back in April, or even in September, or even a month ago, to be told that by now we would have three vaccines, each with 90% efficacy. The vaccines haven't passed all regulatory hurdles, not yet, but the soundings could not be more positive. 

The good news about three vaccine candidates having 90% efficacy should be cause for cheer whether or not we celebrate Christmas.
The good news about three vaccine candidates having 90% efficacy should be cause for cheer whether or not we celebrate Christmas.

Even so, we on the Emerald Isle are frozen in this same-old, same-old debate.

The news emanating from Pfizer, Moderna, and Oxford/Astra Zeneca about their vaccine candidates is simply phenomenal. It justifies being shouted from the rooftops. 

Instead, our public conversations are dominated by things like whether enough pubs have proper kitchens. Then, there is the utterly nonsense argument that we should have stayed at Level 3 and not gone to Level 5.

This despite the fact that we face into Christmas, as a result of all our efforts, in extremely good shape, Covid-19-wise, compared to many of our European neighbours.

One minister said that the pandemic has shown that it is never easy for politicians to sell to the public what it is they have managed to avoid or prevent, such as by implementing a Level 5 shutdown. 

However, speaking to EU colleagues, this minister has been hearing how much pressure those European countries are now under because of their virus infection numbers, especially in relation to limited ICU beds and frontline staff falling ill with Covid-19. 

There is a fine line between getting carried away on optimism and infection levels going crazy over the short term, before a proper vaccine rollout. Cliona O’Farrelly, a professor of comparative immunology at Trinity College Dublin, was on RTÉ Radio One's Claire Byrne programme on Wednesday to talk about the Covid-19 vaccines. 

Prof. O'Farrelly spoke of how "unbelievably exciting" developments have been. She had not thought it possible in such a short frame of time. Acknowledging there are still questions to be answered by the scientists and companies involved, Prof. O'Farrelly said there is "lots of evidence indicating that these vaccines are safe". 

"If it was to be offered (for instance) on January 12, I'd be there," she said.

On the same day, the executive director of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), Emer Cooke, said that developments were "very positive". Ms Cooke said that 90% efficacy was very, very good for a vaccine. 

The EMA needs to know Covid-19 vaccines are "safe, of high quality, and effective" before granting approval, but Ms Cooke said she was hopeful a positive opinion would be delivered before Christmas.

When Paschal Donohoe, the finance minister, and Michael McGrath, the minister for public expenditure and reform, were preparing for the budget in October, they were fervently hoping the economy would not have to contend with another lockdown. 

But Level 5 rolled on fairly quickly and the financial pain has been excruciating. 352,000 people are on the PUP, up 145,000 since the start of October, and 103,000 of those work in accommodation and food.

Again, though, the vaccine news moves everything into a far more positive fiscal light. The two ministers would have been in a far more upbeat frame of mind putting together their budget had they known such good news was just around the corner. 

A Cabinet member said:

If you'd offered me this vaccine scenario in April, I would have bitten both your hands off.

The other point of tedium in all of this, apart from the pub, is the ongoing aggro between Nphet and politicians. Hopefully, they, too, will take a shot of this positive vaccine news, because the situation has been getting rather boring. 

In many ways, it is perfectly acceptable for them to be offering differing views on how to control a virus and keep the economy going. Both sides have their perspectives. That is understandable. 

But the narrative of macho posturing has worn thin, or, as one political (male) insider described it this week: "A lot of testosterone-fuelled elbowing between middle-aged men."

That well-placed source speculated that "by St Patrick's Day, we will be a different country again". Maybe that is a tad optimistic, but even if we temper it a little, it is surely not too much to hope that a number of us will be vaccinated by then. 

That's the real Christmas spirit this year.

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