Pubs in Ireland stuck in a loop while Irish pubs abroad forge ahead

Agenda: Publicans abroad believe State authorities ‘over cautious’ with Covid-19 restrictions

Declan Crean who owns the Scholars Lounge in Rome. Photorgaph: Declan Crean

Declan Crean who owns the Scholars Lounge in Rome. Photorgaph: Declan Crean

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This week’s surprise segue by the Government to delay the planned reopening of indoor hospitality until a vaccine pass is developed leaves the Republic as the only state in the European Union without indoor dining.

For pubs, in particular, it has also caught the attention of their publican brethren abroad. Irish pubs are among the nation’s most widespread exports.

Here, we ask Irish pub owners from the US to Indonesia how pandemic restrictions played out where they are, and what they think of the strategy back home.

Liam Healy – Healy Mac’s (Malaysia, Indonesia and Spain)

The Mayo man owns 10 Irish pubs but just one is on home turf – O’Brien’s Bar in Churchtown in Cork. The other nine are part of the Healy Mac’s chain that operates seven outlets in Malaysia, one in Indonesia and one in the resort town of Estepona, in Spain.

Few other Irish publicans have such a diverse, global first-hand view of the devastating impact on the trade of the pandemic. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the owner of a pub on these shores, he is critical of the Government’s handling this week of the delayed reopening for indoor hospitality trade.

“I was supposed to go home this week to get the Cork pub reopened for July 5th,” says Healy, who is in Estepona although he usually spends most of the year in Malaysia.

“We were all ready to rock and roll. But now what’s the point in me travelling? I’m very disappointed the Government has let it go until the last minute. They seem to be afraid to make a decision on their own.”

Healy left Ireland as a teenager and worked in myriad jobs and industries, eventually ending up in the furniture business in Asia. In 2008, as hard times loomed, he opened his first Healy Mac’s pub in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. It expanded quickly across the region, before entering Spain in 2016. A year earlier, one of its Kuala Lumpur outlets won an Irish Times award for Best Irish Pub in the World.

Healy Mac’s may be a global endeavour but O’Brien’s is a local in every sense. It was in Healy’s wife’s family for generations before he bought it. It was the local pub of Oliver Reed, the hellraising actor who is buried under a tree in the cemetery 50 yards away. The keys to the graveyard are kept in the pub and whenever Reed’s relatives come over from England to visit his grave, they bring him over a large gin.

O’Brien’s, along with thousands of other rural “wet” pubs that don’t serve food, must remain closed for now while the Government tries to cook up a vaccine pass system to satisfy nervous public health officials. But while the general view from Ireland is that east Asian countries in general handled the virus pretty well, all of the Healy Mac’s outlets in Malaysia and Indonesia have also been closed for the last two months due to strict lockdowns after a huge surge in cases.

“It’s down to lots of things – they’re slow to get people vaccinated, there are lots of undocumented migrant workers coming in over borders, they’re not testing enough people,” says Healy. The Malaysian pubs, which employ 250, only shut for a total of four weeks in 2020. They reopened with one-metre social distancing outside and two metres indoors, although they had to shut at 12 midnight instead of 2am.

“None of my staff ever got Covid and none of my customers did either, as far as I’m aware,” he says.

In Spain, Healy says, the people “are a bit more chilled” about Covid-19 than they are in Ireland. Healy Mac’s in Estepona closed for a total of six weeks during the pandemic. It is back open now without restrictions. Healy says he had 200 customers in the bar, which is spacious, one night this week to watch a European Championship football game. “It felt safe.”

There is little prospect of being able to do that anytime soon in his Irish outlet.

“I left O’Brien’s closed because if people were drinking outside, they’d only want to come in and use the toilet. And with Irish weather, they’d end up congregating inside the door for shelter. What am I going to do – hunt them out the door?” says Healy.

“It’s a problem if you put 100 people in a small bar but you can control it in a larger pub with the right amount of ventilation and fresh air. It’s also crazy that they want publicans to ask people if they’re vaccinated. How do you supervise that? Ask people to show their shoulder where the needle went in? The vaccination card is easy to copy. The Government is passing the buck. They’re totally over cautious.”

Fergus (Fergie) Carey, owner of Fergie’s pub in Philadelphia. Photograph: Ryan Donnell
Fergus (Fergie) Carey, owner of Fergie’s pub in Philadelphia. Photograph: Ryan Donnell

Fergus Carey – Fergie’s Pub, The Goat, and Grace Tavern (Philadelphia)

The Dubliner is well known as an avuncular character on the US city’s bar scene. Since his arrival more than 30 years ago, he has cut a dash with his striking resemblance of Brendan Gleeson’s character in the film Braveheart. Everybody in Philly, where he’s often feted as the “unofficial mayor”, knows of “Fergie”.

He usually makes it home to Ireland at least three times per year but he hasn’t been here since 2019. Carey says he misses Dublin pubs but he’s glad to have avoided the kind of trading restrictions that the sector here has been weighed under for the last 15 months.

“I always used to tell people over in the US that I was in the right business, but in the wrong country,” he says. “But I don’t say that anymore.”

Carey has been involved in many bars in the city over the years but the eponymous Fergie’s Pub has always been a mainstay. Grace Tavern, in which he has a one-third share, is more of a rustic Philly neighbourbood bar than an Irish pub. The third bar in Carey’s current stable, The Goat, had no luck of the Irish – it only opened in January 2020.

“We had to shut it five weeks later with the pandemic. We tried to reopen it again in the summer for outdoor trade but it had very little sidewalk space so we closed it again in October and it has stayed that way. We do plan to reopen it and we’re hoping for July 15th but staffing is the big problem because some people are able to get a good bit of money on unemployment benefits,” says Carey, echoing a common complaint in the hospitality trade back home.

Fergie’s shut last March a few days before St Patrick’s Day, when it would normally have served as a kind of unofficial Irish consulate for the celebrations in the city. After it reopened, Carey says mask wearing soon “eased off”.

“What really hurt us was that it had to shut at 11pm and nobody was allowed stand at the bar,” says Carey. It has since reopened fully with no restrictions on indoor trade. Fergie’s is a popular music bar but, with the exception of traditional Irish performers, bands currently do not play inside the pub due coronavirus risks.

Carey has, however, booked a performer for outside on the street this Sunday – Johnny Showcase, who appeared on the NBC show, America’s Got Talent. To encourage outdoor trade, city authorities shut the streets in the area each Wednesday to Friday from 2pm until 11pm, and from 11 until 11 on weekends.

“People are coming back although I’d be able to do more business if I had more staff. But after what happened in 2020, now I’ve got growth again. It feels amazing. A year ago, I was worried about going bankrupt, about it would look for my family, how I’d protect the kids.

Carey is currently planning further expansion in partnership with the owner of a local sushi restaurant. Ireland isn’t on his radar for investment, however. He believes the Irish pub industry changed as a business proposition after the smoking ban in 2004.

“Looking at it from here, it is definitely struggling now. You’ve got to give those pubs as much support as possible. I don’t think I’d invest in a pub in Ireland now. I’d rather make my money over here.”

Declan Crean – Scholars Lounge Irish Pub (Rome, Munich)

The Enniscorthy, Wexford native has owned one of Rome’s largest Irish bars for 16 years. He expanded with an outlet in the Bavarian capital in 2019. Members of his extended family, meanwhile, own Creans pub in Vicarstown in Co Laois.

“My cousin’s pub in Ireland has only been open for two weekends since the whole pandemic started. It must be absolutely soul destroying for them,” he said.

Despite the looming threat of the Delta variant of the virus, Italy’s restrictions have been wound down and its case numbers are, for now, among the lowest in Europe. This has been a timely boon for the original Scholars Lounge near the central hub of Piazza Venezia. With the Italian team one of the favourites to win the Euros, Scholars has been full of football fans watching the matches on television.

“People over here don’t have the same fears as they seem to have in Ireland. We have no outdoors screens so you have to go inside to watch the matches, but we have been full for most of them,” says Crean.

Like Dublin, Rome has opened and shut its bars repeatedly during the pandemic in response to surges. Scholars originally closed on March 10th last year, before reopening in early May after Italians emerged, blinking into the sunlight after what was then one of Europe’s toughest lockdowns. Scholars closed again between September and January, before closing again in March and reopening once more in May.

“We’re fully reopened for indoor trade now and we are now back to original opening hours – until 4am, seven nights per week. It is a really large space so it is easy to manage people in here, but customers are also very obliging and they stick to all the hygiene regulations.”

In Munich, Crean says, it has been “a bit stricter” all round. The pub there shut for two months in the initial lockdown, reopening in May. Local bars were shut by the authorities again around Halloween and stayed closed until May, with the first three weeks of reopening outside only, before indoors returned in recent weeks. Bavaria has at times been close to Ireland in the severity with which it has restricted the hospitality trade. “Business is not good in general,” says Crean.

But as strict as it has been in conservative Bavaria, Crean still shudders when he thinks of the restrictions back home: “With case the numbers the way they have been for a while now, I don’t know any country that has continued to be so strict. It is so disheartening.”

Dane Gray, owner of Kildare’s Irish Pub in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Photograph: supplied by Dane Gray
Dane Gray, owner of Kildare’s Irish Pub in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Photograph: supplied by Dane Gray

Dane Gray – Kildare’s Irish Pub, and James Mullally – Split Rail Tavern (both West Chester, Pennsylvania)

Gray is Australian but has close links to Ireland. He worked for many years at the Morrison hotel in Dublin until a US customer asked him on New Year’s Eve 2003 to come over to work in his pub group, which happened a few months later. Six years ago, Gray bought out the group’s flagship bar.

His friend and fellow publican Mullally, an Athlone native, has been in the US for 16 years.

“Mine isn’t really an Irish bar,” says Mullally. “I used to live in New York but I tried to stay away from all the Paddyness.” So he married an American and moved to West Chester, a college town to the west of Philadelphia.

The last 15 months has been “bonkers”, Mullally says. He suggests the political upheaval in the US has been as impactful as the pandemic. Issues such as wearing face masks have become politicised and dragged into left-right culture wars.

“Right now, the business is wide open, 100 per cent. Last year, we went to about 25 per cent capacity indoors, then 50 per cent, and it went back to 100 per cent about one month ago,” says Mullally.

He notes that pubs in Ireland may soon have to check vaccination status to allow customers entry and sees it as a progressive safety measure, as long as customers are on board with the idea. He recently had to show his vaccination status while bringing his daughter to a Foo Fighters gig in New York.

“You couldn’t do that around here.”

Gray’s bar, Kildare’s, caters towards a younger crowd, such as local students. When the pandemic hit, he had just stocked up heavily for St Patrick’s Day.

“The cellar was full of inventory and I had just $6,000 left in the business account. Needless to say, I was terrified for the next few weeks.”

During closure periods, Gray hustled to bring in revenue from wherever he could. He found a “guy in Maine who couldn’t shift his lobster” so he started selling that at weekends.

When Kildare’s reopened but customers had to stay seated, Gray says Kildare’s turned into “an Irish dinner house instead of an Irish pub”. His wife, Stephanie, is the chef.

A friend of his in Carlow has already lost a pub that he had newly acquired before the pandemic, he says. Gray looks at the zero-Covid policy in Australia and wonders how his compatriots will ever be able to wind that policy up.

“You can’t eliminate the virus. It will always be there.”

Both publicans look at Ireland and fear the damage being caused by skittish reopening policies.

“The worst thing in Ireland is they keep changing their mind on how they want to proceed. Pennsylvania was very slow to move forward at times. But they never really moved backwards,” says Gray.

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