Ireland's pubs are yet to be given a date when they can reopen.
CNN  — 

Ireland. Close your eyes and picture what you think of when you envision the Emerald Isle. The green. The natural beauty. That distinctive accent. But above all, Ireland is forever associated with its famed hospitality – the warmth of its people and its pubs.

It’s a country that prides itself on the slogan “Céad Míle Fáilte,” literally meaning “a Hundred Thousand Welcomes.” Millions of visitors are welcomed into the country’s drinking establishments for a pint every year.

But in a time of a third wave of Covid and a prolonged Iockdown in the country, the pandemic has brought the Irish hospitality sector, and in particular, the pub industry, to its knees. Although each bar faces a different set of circumstances and challenges, one thing is very clear. Ireland’s iconic watering holes face a deeply uncertain future.

“There’s a quiet level of despair about our position today,” says Donall O’Keeffe, CEO of the Licensed Vintners Association, the prominent trade association that has represented pubs in Dublin for over two centuries. “It’s an appalling situation and one we couldn’t have envisaged on the 15th of March last year.”

It was nearly one year ago that Ireland’s pubs were first told to pull the shutters down. A directive was made by the Irish government and then-prime minister, or taoiseach as the office is known in Éire, Leo Varadkar, to close down all drinking establishments.

It was just two days before the country’s planned St. Patrick’s Day festivities – an unprecedented move.

A roadmap out

Publican Joe Sheridan poses for a photograph in his closed pub, Walsh's bar, in the rural village of Dunmore in the west of Ireland, on September 3, 2020.

Both the Licensed Vintners Association and the Vintners Federation of Ireland, the other major industry trade body for pubs, supported the initial closures last year. Cases were escalating and nobody had any clear idea of what would be necessary to put social distancing measures in place. The lockdown was only supposed to last three weeks.

But 12 months on, with Ireland in the midst of its third lockdown, the hospitality sector has been left devastated and there is currently no hint of when publicans can begin to trade again.

While current Taoiseach Micheál Martin has indicated to the Irish media that a phased reopening in the summer could be on the cards, nothing has been set in stone. Ireland’s coronavirus caseload remains high – particularly after the UK variant of the virus ravaged the country at the beginning of 2021.

Both the LVA and the VFI remain broadly supportive of the public health lockdown measures imposed but they say that pubs urgently need clarity on what a roadmap to reopening may look like so that they can plan and manage their finances.

“It’s really very stressful that eleven months later, we don’t have any sight on the conditions that must apply that will allow us to reopen,” O’Keeffe tells CNN Travel.

“Clearly we will follow the public health advice… we’re not looking for a date. Tell us what level of community transmission. Tell us what level of vaccine rollout needs to be reached to allow hospitality to reopen.”

Brian Foley, communications manager for the VFI, echoes that point. The financial situation “can’t be more dire than it is and there’s no roadmap for reopening,” he says. “We are strongly calling for an explanation as to how pubs can reopen.”

Second surge

An employee wearing a face visor waits to serve customers at the Palace Bar in Dublin in September, 2020, before pubs were locked down again.

Lockdown has left up to 150,000 hospitality workers out of work, according to the Restaurant Association of Ireland. In a country where hospitality’s economic contribution lies somewhere between 1.5% and 2.3% of total GDP, it’s something that has not been lost on the Irish government. Measures have been taken to keep the pub industry afloat.

Bar staff furloughed by the lockdowns can claim a Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. In the summer of 2020, as Ireland brought daily cases to their lowest point during the pandemic, restart grants were provided to financially assist publicans in an effort to reopen their business at a reduced capacity.

When a second surge of the virus forced many of Ireland’s pubs to lock their doors again in October, the government also began a scheme that would provide a weekly financial support to all those affected. The payment is equal to 10% of the average weekly turnover of the business made in the year 2019.

While many Irish publicans who spoke to CNN have welcomed the government’s measures as a much needed lifeline, their businesses still face large question marks over how they can remain financially stable.

Take Mark Grainger, who has been in the industry for more than 60 years. He has been able to keep his business open through each lockdown by delivering takeaway food and delivery pints. While he says his pub “will survive” the pandemic, keeping his doors open hasn’t made him any profit.

Even with government support, Grainger is still relying on his savings. “We’re down probably about 80% of our turnover,” he says. “We’re getting some subsidies from the government but any savings you’ve got, you’re putting into it to keep it going.”

Many pubs across Ireland are inter-generational and family-owned, meaning that some businesses are in the fortunate position of owning their property and do not have rental costs. It’s meant that the government schemes in place have been able to prop up businesses like The Goose Tavern on Dublin’s northside.

“Since getting the [government] grant, we’re just covering the cost of the cold room, the electricity, the overheads really,” says Darren Newman, whose family has owned The Goose Tavern for four decades. “The grant is really covering costs, it’s really just getting you by.”

Yet even so, debts can still accrue. The Swan Bar in Dublin’s city center has been around since the Middle Ages and in Ronan Lynch’s family since 1937. While he owns his property, he says that the current government support is not enough to sustain his business.

“We still have outstanding mortgages. We would still be leveraged,” Lynch tells CNN Travel.

“We’re not taking any money in… but we’re still incurring the capital costs of being closed. I’m still paying my mortgage on the basis of being closed. So it’s drawing money out of us all the time.”

Essential pit stop

Owner of Dublin's Goose Tavern, Niall Newman, left, poses with his family and staff.

Periodically, some bars have had brief windows where they have been able to reopen and bring in revenue over the past year. But in the stop and start chaos of opening and closing as cases declined and then rose again, some of the guidelines that the government have imposed have been deemed arbitrary and unfair by many of those in the pub trade.

Upon initially reopening the industry last summer, the government made a distinction between gastro pubs which serve food and what they call “wet pubs” – traditional Irish pubs which exclusively serve alcohol.

Customers were permitted to visit gastro pubs and drink indoors so long as they also purchased a “substantial meal.” Drink-only pubs, however, were simply not allowed to open.

Though it was initially promised in the government’s Covid economic roadmap that there would be a phased reopening for traditional pubs, those promises never came to fruition as Ireland tried to manage its virus caseload.

For Grogans pub in Dublin, the backtracking from the government has been incredibly damaging. Before the pandemic, Grogans was part of the furniture for locals and tourists alike in Ireland’s capital, an essential pit stop for anyone on a night out in the city. But as a “wet pub,” Grogans has not traded whatsoever since March 14 last year.

“When we were preparing to open, we made short-term changes that will last as long as necessary with Covid,” says Daniel Smith, the son of one of the pub’s co-owners.

“We put in screens and had hand sanitizer. We ticked all of the boxes that were asked of us by the government but then were never given the chance to put them into action.”

The loss of revenue from being closed was amplified by the financial cost of putting distancing measures in place. Grogans bore the economic weight of putting in the necessary precautions but never reaped any of the benefits.

“We spent thousands preparing the premises,” Smith says. “Staff had to go through training. It’s just unfortunate and it’s unfair that we never got a chance.”

Irish officials and public health experts have said that there are higher risks of spreading the virus associated with premises that just serve alcohol and that there is a balance that must be struck when it comes to easing restrictions in the pub industry. CNN has reached out to the office of the Taoiseach and other officials for this article but no one was available for comment at the time of writing.

VFI spokesman Brian Foley says his organization is calling for a change of approach when pubs are given the green light to welcome customers inside again and urged the state not to “create winners and losers in the hospitality trade.”

“It is ridiculous that traditional pubs would be separated out from food establishments… they are both indoors.”

Long-term implications

Rory O'Neill, left, owner of the Pantibar, with bar manager Shane Harte.

It’s not just the lockdown that leaves Ireland’s historic pubs under threat. For publican Shane Carthy, the pandemic will fundamentally change consumer behavior and leave the bar industry worse off even when normality resumes.

“There’s going to be a certain percentage who won’t come back, whether it’s an older clientele or people who have gotten more health-conscious and haven’t gone to the pub since they’ve gotten out of the habit,” says Carthy.

Carthy thinks that there are other damaging implications that the industry isn’t even aware of yet. Pubs simply will not be able to swiftly return to pre-pandemic returns. “The chances are even in a year or two years’ time, we won’t go back to the numbers we had before. So now you’re looking at negative growth.”

Rory O’Neill who owns Pantibar, a renowned gay bar in Dublin, is concerned that the public will remain very reticent to go into crowds and restrictions will remain in place long after vaccinations are rolled out and the economy reopens.

It’s a concern that leaves O’Neill anxious over the long-term viability of his whole business model. “We’re a city center bar, we’re a gay bar and our business model depends on us being packed on Friday and Saturday night,” he says.

“We need to be packed on Friday and Saturday night, the dance floor full. My fear is that when the restrictions are relaxed, for a long time there is going to be social distancing. That’s going to be a real struggle for us because our business model can’t work with social distancing.”

Cultural loss

The closed Thomas Byrne bar is pictured in Dunmore on September 3, 2020.

While the true impact of a prolonged lockdown won’t become known until after the industry reopens, the loss of pubs to Irish society cannot be overstated. They are woven into the country’s cultural fabric.

Annemarie Piquet says pubs in Irish suburbs are the beating heart of their communities – especially for their regulars. She has seen the social importance first-hand at her Dublin pub, McGraths. “One or two customers, they would live on their own and they would come down to us for an hour or two and have one or two pints, and then they would go off home. That is their only outlet.”

For Ronan Lynch, there is an emotional attachment to his clients at The Swan Bar, another Dublin watering hole, some of whom he has known since he began working in his family’s pub at the age of 12. The pain at having to close again after reopening was very real for some of his customers.

“When I closed my pub here again in September, I had people crying outside my pub because I was closed,” Lynch says. “These guys, maybe they’re not married, maybe they’ve lost loved ones, this is their social outlet.”

Ray Aughey, owner of The Squealing Pig in County Monaghan, thinks rural pubs are of even greater importance. Those establishments are by the locals, of the locals and for the locals in their community – a meeting place in an area where there might be very few other public spaces.

“All the pubs around here would be for the community. They would all have their regulars from their locality,” Aughey says. “Monaghan is not a tourist place. You’re depending on your locals all the time. We’re seven miles from the [Northern Ireland] border. Our population in Monaghan town is 7,800. We have 13 pubs.”

Dark nights

Customers were crying outside Dublin's Swan Bar when it closed, says owner Ronan Lynch.

But the loss goes beyond that of just the customer. The psychological effect of not being able to do the job that he has done for his entire life was incredibly difficult for Paul Moynihan who owns a pub at the foot of Ireland’s scenic Wicklow mountains.

Despite knowing that he would be operating at a loss, Moynihan reopened his pub for a brief three-week period when he was permitted as there was “joy in work… when we were open, from a mental health point of view, it was brilliant. I found it very hard when we closed down in the middle of October again. It was coming into the wintertime, it was coming into dark nights again. It was a very hard time.”

Perhaps the most devastating impact to Ireland’s hospitality industry will be in international tourism where the island is unlikely to see any consequential numbers in visitors from abroad before the last quarter of this year.

Paul Keeley, director of regional development for Ireland’s tourism board Fáilte Ireland, acknowledges that the outlook is bleak for those businesses in the city that depend on foot traffic.

He has however taken some encouragement from the domestic tourism season he anticipates for some of Ireland’s countryside locations.

“If you are in rural areas, coastal areas, the advanced bookings for July and August are looking good,” says Keeley.

While there will be some strong domestic tourism figures for pubs in Ireland’s more beautiful countryside destinations once lockdown ends, Keeley says it will be trickier for the saturated market in Dublin – a city that author James Joyce once wrote would be a “good puzzle” to try and cross without seeing a pub.

Ultimately, Keeley says the major hope “for everybody is that once we open this time, we stay open.”

And even with the massive uncertainty the industry faces, he has a final message for those who hope to visit the Emerald Isle once it is safe to do so: Return to the pubs which need the business now more than ever.

“The Irish welcome is at the heart of what we offer. You’ll find a better welcome than ever.”