The future of the post-pandemic pub: can Ireland save tradition and return to loving the local?

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Kevin Martin knows more than most about the allure of the Irish pub. He has written extensively about its long history and its constant evolution. Now he is longing for a post-Covid world where he can simply drop into his local, stroll up to the bar and get chatting to a stranger over a pint.

It’s not really alcohol that pubs are selling,” he says, “it’s the conviviality. That’s always been the case. You can buy drink anywhere, but that pub environment – well, it’s a key part of who we are.”

The Mayo writer has visited pubs all over the country, for both work and pleasure, but even before the coronavirus changed everything, he was hearing concerning stories about the viability of pubs – especially those in rural areas – as consumer habits change and per-capita alcohol consumption declines.

“One publican told me that he would probably be out of the business within five years,” says Martin, author of the definitive history of the Irish pub, Have Ye No Homes to Go To?, and the The Complete Guide to the Best Pubs in Dublin. “Others are struggling to make it work – and that was before the pandemic. For a lot of pubs in Ireland, there’s just one night where they do big business, and that’s Saturday. Sunday evenings – which used to be busy nights for pubs here in Mayo – have gone.”

Martin says developments such as tougher drink-drive legislation and the 2004 smoking ban have taken their toll on pubs, especially remote ones, as have changes in how people spend their free time – often at home, in front of Netflix and with a takeaway dinner on their laps.

He had those conversations with publicans at the beginning of the year. Then, in mid-March, the unthinkable happened: pubs everywhere were forced to shut and remain shut. For an industry that used to close just two days a year – Christmas Day and, until 2018, Good Friday – it was an unprecedented shock. And it raises numerous questions including the impact it will have long-term on pub culture.

From Monday, hundreds of pubs – offering a so-called substantial meal – will open under strict guidelines on social distancing and time constraints. On July 20, ‘wet pubs’, as they are known in the industry – essentially, those that serve only drink, not meals – will be permitted to open, although the rules for them have yet to be clarified.

Ronan Lynch, chairman of the Licensed Vintners Association and owner of the venerable Swan Bar in Dublin’s south-inner city, is broadly optimistic that pubs can weather this storm.

“Eighteen weeks closed [by the time he can reopen on July 20] is a very long time, but I think people really want to come back and support local businesses, including pubs,” he says. “We’ve been able to carry out renovations that probably needed to be done and I think a lot of pubs have taken the opportunity to do that.

“Pubs are part and parcel of Ireland. They’re unique and part of who we are and I think that as we’ve all had to stay apart for so long, people will want to come out and socialise again.”

The Swan Bar opened for business in 1661 and has been operating from the same listed Victorian premises since 1897. Lynch believes that the pubs that thrive 10 or 20 years from now will be the ones that put customer service first. “It’s all about the welcome,” he says. “It’s not something homogeneous like McDonald’s. Often, they are places that have been in the same family for years and you and your customers really get to know each other.”

For David Prendergast, professor of anthropology at Maynooth University, the pub occupies a special place in the hearts of Irish people. “It occupies a special place – between the private and the public,” he says.

“We often use the word ‘local’ when referring to a favourite pub. This reflects a sense of the personal and community importance with which it has long been held. It’s often a pillar of the community, and so many social events are held there. Many pubs have a function room – these are places we can go into and hold our events, where volunteer groups meet, where people organise fundraisers. Often, they can use the rooms cheaply, perhaps even just for the price of the drink.

“And these are places where there’s not just one transaction [as might be the case with other businesses] but where the owner and customer get to know each other over years. Pubs are places in which we celebrate various milestones of our life – and those sporting successes: think of the local GAA team that wins the cup. They’re places where everyone can come together – and the pub is a very important place of social engagement for many who feel isolated.”

Ignazio Cabras, an Italian economics expert who lectures at Northumbria University in Newcastle, has studied the impact of rural pubs. Visiting Ireland to research the importance of pubs in small towns and villages, he was struck by their central role in the lives of these small communities.

“I remember being in a pub in Killaloe/Ballina [neighbouring villages on either side of the Clare-Tipperary border] and people telling us that in the pub everyone is equal and nobody cares who you are, you don’t get judged. There’s no hierarchy. And that was something I found in the other places we went to.”

Cabras carried out his study in 2013 and even then he got the sense that some pubs were struggling to remain profitable. “There was already a shift. Because of more stringent restrictions around drinking and driving, a lot of farmers in remote places weren’t able to commute to the pubs – and the pubs were suffering due to a cut-back in trade. Some of them set up an informal taxi service to bring people to and from pubs.”

He believes the rural Irish pub, in particular, is an endangered species. “They were in danger well before Covid-19 – some were hit hard in the financial crisis of 2008/9 – but those that survive will be the ones that are well established in their communities and seen as that ‘third space’ for people, and they will support it because they know just how much they will lose if they go away. But some simply will not survive.”

It is a sentiment shared by Lesley Kane, a musician who has been gigging in pubs throughout Ireland for almost 40 years. “There are always changes, but when there’s a really good atmosphere in a pub, there’s nothing like it,” she says.

“There are lots of things that people can do with their spare time and spare cash, but I’d hope that after lockdown, they value what’s on their doorstep and support local pubs.”

She believes that even before the pandemic hit, there was a growing ‘drink local’ mentality. “If they don’t get the custom, they won’t survive,” she says.

John Geraghty, founder of the Publin online guide to Dublin pubs, says location will be key in the post-Covid world, partly because of the tourist footfall, but he believes the pubs that evolve will be best-placed to deal with changing habits.

“Even before the pandemic, you’d see certain pubs being innovative and rethinking their offering,” he says. “There’s a lot of choice out there when it comes to what people do with their spare time.”

Finding a niche

He says there are several newer Dublin bars that are offering a completely new version of what an Irish pub can be, including Token in Smithfield – a self-styled ‘pinball arcade’ where retro arcade games are just as desirable as pints. “It’s about trying to find your niche in the market,” he says. “Not many can afford to sit still.”

Publicans have had to move with the times ever since the 1870s, when it became obligatory for the owner to have his name over the door, but over the past two decades they have faced new challenges. Per-capita alcohol consumption peaked in 2001 but has been in a steady decline ever since. Studies have shown that ‘Generation Z’ drinkers – today’s youngest adults – drink far less than those who came before.

There has been a sharp decline in the number of pubs in the past half-century, with many of our towns now boasting half the number of establishments that were there in 1970 – even as the population of Ireland has almost doubled since then.

There have been many obituaries written for the Irish bar trade, but despite the warnings of the doomsayers, there are still bars that thrive – some by adapting smartly to our changing social habits, while others pull in business by remaining steadfastly the same.

Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street, which has traded since 1854, belongs firmly in the latter category, and is the quintessential no-frills Dublin city centre boozer. “What you see is what you get,” says co-owner Gary Cusack, whose family have been linked to the pub since the 1940s. “What people want is a good pint of Guinness. They don’t want seafood chowder.” As the pubs’ offering of crisps, nuts and bacon fries do not qualify as a “substantial meal”, it is not reopening until July 20.

Relying on customers who just want to meet up and talk, without music, blaring televisions or other distraction, Cusack says business has been buoyant over the past three years. “Trade was picking up since the end of the recession and the last couple of years have been very good. We have a little bubble in the city centre. When things are good in the city centre, trade is good.

“We are lucky in that we have a good mix of everyone, people from offices nearby, the Dart station, the Luas and Trinity College. Tourists are just a bonus.”

Mulligan’s is unlikely to be attracted by the latest passing fad, and the barmen have been noted in the past for their occasionally waspish approach to customer service. One enthusiastic customer reportedly asked a barman: “When does happy hour begin?” To which the barman replied: “Whenever you leave.”

Another equally renowned family-owned pub, Johnnie Fox’s in Glencullen, on the edge of the Dublin Mountains, has also thrived by going in a different direction. Stricter drink-driving rules meant that the establishment – billed as the highest pub in Ireland – could no longer just rely on pint drinkers making the trip to the edge of the suburbs.

Kitted out with a remarkable array of knick-knacks – the ashes of a Mr Gaffney from New York are interred in the wall – the bar earns most of its revenue from food nowadays and in a normal year attracts a steady stream of tourists. Although they have not yet returned, the pub is reopening on Wednesday at 60pc capacity.

“Our main business is now as a restaurant, and we see ourselves as a family pub,” says business manager Kaitlin McMahon. “To survive all of this, we have to be flexible and creative in the way that we relaunch our business.” Johnnie Fox’s now serves brunches and during the lockdown it has had a takeaway service.

Kevin Moran, meanwhile, is more excited about July 20 than the pints-with-food offering from Monday. “The pubs I love are the ones that tend not to do food,” he says. “The dynamic is completely different when there’s food involved. I’m just hoping that some sense of normality can come back.”

But while he is confident that the pub will always be a feature of Irish life, he is unequivocal about one issue. “There will be fewer pubs in the future,” he says, “especially in rural areas. Granted, that’s coming from a place where there has been an oversupply of pubs, but it will mean that some will be lost.”

Lynch’s Swan Bar is likely to be among the most durable and he cannot wait to open the doors once more. “Pubs were something we all took for granted,” he says. “Hopefully, this time away will help us to appreciate just how special they can be.”

The tourist favourite: ‘You’re missing out if you don’t make these changes’

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Hugh Farren outside Farren's Bar in Donegal. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Hugh Farren outside Farren's Bar in Donegal. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Hugh Farren outside Farren’s Bar in Donegal. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

�Lorcan Doherty/Presseye

Hugh Farren outside Farren’s Bar in Donegal. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

The sign outside tells the visitor that Farren’s Bar at Malin Head has been pouring Ireland’s most northerly pint since 1825. Inside, Hugh Farren hopes that, as the sixth generation of his family to be serving drinks, he won’t be the last.

He has spent lockdown painting fences, cleaning stores and doing odd jobs to keep things ticking over at his pub in the townland of Slievebawn.

While its location is remote, the bar has achieved a cult status among Donegal hostelries. The painted Yoda on the gable wall is testament to the arrival of Star Wars in 2016. Parts of The Last Jedi were filmed at Malin Head, when a replica Millennium Falcon drew hordes of visitors to the extreme north. A photo of Farren with Luke Skywalker himself, the actor Mark Hamill, has pride of place on a wall inside.

Just as important as Star Wars in the life of Farren’s Bar has been the Wild Atlantic Way, which has brought in more tourists.

Farren took over the pub from his parents, Teresa and Emmet, 16 years ago. He was 27 and working at Intel when he decided to move home in 2004. His own family – wife Melissa and children Cara (5), Seán (3) and nine-month-old Ronan – live in the family quarters above the pub, just as he did as a child.

Above all else, Farren says he wants the bar to continue to be a place where people talk. He says he is never happier than when standing behind the bar and everyone at the counter is engaged in one single conversation.

His normal staff of five swells to 15 in the summer months when tourists head to the northernmost part of the island. He knows that to keep them coming, he will have to adapt. He plans to start doing evening meals on top of the lunches he was doing pre-lockdown. He also plans to convert old barns at the rear of the building into B&B-type accommodation.

“If you got stale and didn’t make changes or you’re not adapting, you’re missing out,” he says.

The alcohol-free alternative: Social distancing ‘will be easier in an alcohol-free bar’

Ireland’s newest non-alcoholic pub, The Virgin Mary, had not even been open a year when it had to shut down as a result of the pandemic.

Last year, Vaughan Yates, who already worked in the drinks industry, saw an opening for such a bar when he spotted the interest in the non-alcoholic products that have come on the market in recent years.

“What people have in common is that they don’t want to drink alcohol on a particular night,” he says. “Some actually do drink alcohol at other times, but when they come to us, they choose not to. We offer an opportunity to be more mindful about what they consume.”

The bar on Capel Street boomed in January, as Dubliners went off alcohol for the month, and it had also become popular among tourists.

“You can come and experience things that you don’t get anywhere else,” says Yates. Cocktails range in price from €7 to €8, with beers and wines costing €4.50 to €5.50. The most popular cocktail is the Tiki Street, made from red non-alcoholic wine, hibiscus, pomegranate molasses, vanilla, lime and grated black cardamom.

Yates is adopting a wait-and-see approach on reopening.

He says social distancing will be easier in an alcohol-free bar, because customers are not inebriated.

However, if he had to stick to two-metre social distancing, it would pose difficulties, because the maximum capacity would be cut from 28 to 16.

When the lockdown came, Yates adapted quickly. He was already developing an online shop selling alcohol-free drinks, and when it launched it proved popular. “The online shop has worked really well for us and it has taken the pressure off us when it comes to reopening,” he says.

The traditional boozer: ‘We don’t want to rush anything that will upset staff or customers’

In the days before health and safety became a preoccupation in the workplace, gravediggers in the adjoining Glasnevin cemetery used to knock on the wall of John Kavanagh’s pub when they wanted a pint.

The barman dutifully took these encoded orders and carried out trays of refreshments, passing them through the railings.

Nowadays, the pub is commonly known as the Gravediggers and has passed to the seventh generation of the family.

As well as gravediggers and local regulars, the bar now run by Ciaran Kavanagh and other members of his family could always rely on a steady stream of mourners at funerals.

Kavanagh remains philosophical about the present closure and hopes to reopen towards the end of July.

“We went through the last pandemic [in 1918], as well as the Easter Rising, the Civil War and all sorts of downturns and economic unrest, but one thing stays the same: John Kavanagh, the Gravediggers,” he says.

“We don’t want to rush anything that will upset staff or customers, because we are very much a locally based pub.”

Although he has brought a high standard of food to the premises as a trained chef, the essential atmosphere remains the same as during his father’s time. The pub famously has no TV, no music and no Wi-Fi.

Kavanagh recalls how after the funeral of Luke Kelly, the leading figures of Irish music – including The Dubliners, The Chieftains and U2 – converged on the bar.

They were preparing to sing when his father, Eugene, told them: “Not in here you’re not. If I let you sing here today, I’ll have to let that shower in the corner sing every night, and they’re hopeless.”

“That’s the beauty of this pub,” says Kavanagh. “Everybody is treated the same way. Our main selling point is that you can come in and have a conversation.”

Source: Irish News