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‘It’s a dying trade’: Ireland’s rural pubs battle for survival as costs grow and habits change

‘To go for a drink is one thing. To be driven to it is another’

Shortly before St Valentine’s Day, Kitty Mac’s bar in the west Cork village of Ring had to deal with an awkward customer – lumbering, almost certainly underage, and, to be frank, absolutely legless.

“Ah, the seal puppy,” recalls publican Sean Doyle, in his broad Birmingham accent. “I’ve had a fox up to the pub, flooding routinely – but that was the first seal.”

The seal was safely shepherded back to the water and a post on the pub’s Facebook page declared “Never a dull moment”.

For Sean Doyle, it illustrated the community spirit that can have a pub at its centre. His own trade is ticking along in a coastal village that still has two bars, particularly in the summer months when he has a food truck in the back yard, but he is all-too-aware of the challenges.


“It is a dying trade, there is not too much left in it,” he says of Ireland’s country pubs. “It is harder and harder every year. But at same time if I am ever stuck, it is the people in a pub that makes it happen.”

The death of the Irish pub is a long-standing rumour which has never come to pass, but as the sector emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, it may be at a crossroads.

Publicans speak about changes in customer behaviour, the need to diversify their offering, the impact of nightclub closures, a shortage of taxis, and, of course, the price of the pint. A Government proposal to liberalise the pub market from 2026, contained in the Sale of Alcohol Bill, has been heavily criticised – for different reasons – by both vintners’ associations and Alcohol Action Ireland.

Sean Doyle, who grew up in inner city Birmingham where his father ran a pub, says the Government’s liberalisation plan “is completely detrimental and it doesn’t make any sense to me”.

He remembers the Irish bars in Birmingham and elsewhere providing “a sense of community” and “a sense of Irishness and who you were”. Since moving to Ireland 20 years ago as his parents returned home, he sees a similar “inclusivity” among pubs here – but you still have to pay the bills.

Peter Keohane knows all about it. A plumber by trade, he took up the lease on The Four Alls Bar 12 years ago. Located at Sam’s Cross near Clonakilty, it is the nearest pub to Michael Collins’s birthplace, the pub where he is said to have taken his last jar before that fateful journey just over a century ago. Peter is left to wonder what the Big Fella would have made of his recent electricity bill.

“They are all on the radio and TV about the record profits they make,” he says of the electricity firms. “My last ESB bill for two months was €2,100 – and that is just the ESB. I have coal, I have blocks as well to heat the place, and oil and whatnot.

“It is even preventing people from going to the pub,” Peter says of the rising cost of living. “Your shopping bill has probably doubled. Fuel, petrol and diesel and that has gone through the roof as well. People don’t have the money to go to the pub.”

One definition of the Four Alls is “The King rules for all, the Priest prays for all, the Soldier fights for all and the Ordinary Man pays for all”. For Peter, this also applies to the price of the pint. “I try to keep mine as low as possible,” he says. “Are they [the Government] putting it on the top shelf, out of reach of people? I don’t know what it is.”

For The Four Alls, the unique selling point is its proximity to a historical site and an ever-growing interest in Collins.

“I had tourists in yesterday – in early March that is fantastic,” Peter says. “I would say for the summer it is probably 80 per cent of my business.”

For other pubs, fresh thinking is required.

At The Keeper’s Arms in Bawnboy in Co Cavan, Sheila McKiernan is about to premiere the town’s new cinema.

“It is something different to give back to the community,” she says, putting the finishing touches to the 50-seat venue in a premises that also comprises a nine-room bed and breakfast premises and offers outdoor catering.

Sheila and husband, Bryan, took on the pub 32 years ago, The town’s other bar has since closed and the cinema, supported by the Government’s Pubs as Community Hubs scheme, is the latest initiative, a facility Sheila believes could also screen educational national films for the nearby secondary school, or heritage films for people with an interest in local history, or something on Saturday mornings for children.

“Oh God yeah, there is more thinking outside the box,” Sheila says of the current pub landscape. “We have a Ukrainian family staying with us. Every Saturday night we make pizzas and have them for customers, everything is home-made.

“Everything, the whole dynamic has changed, people going out. People tend to blame Covid – no, young families now are different than they were 30 years ago. People will come out for a function, birthday party or anniversary or fundraiser for the local football club, people will go out to that.

“People forget about the costs it takes to run a pub. They say it takes the first 10 years to get your feet in business and I would 100% agree with that.”

Back in Clonakilty, Thursday night is bingo night at Casey’s bar. Publican James Casey originally planned to hold a regular bingo evening back in 2019, having applied for a lottery licence to hold a charity fundraiser. At the time he was told a gaming licence was also required, with his application falling short in the District Court. But then the laws changed, and his numbers came up.

“Old women and people, they are in the house all week, bingo was their only outlet,” James says. “Then with lockdown, there was no bingo, they didn’t come out of the house at all. So the bingo was good for us and good for them.”

Casey’s originally opened in Clonakilty at the site of another bar on nearby Connolly St, but has since moved to its current, larger premises and is set for further expansion. This time it will be a separate building to the rear of the main pub, to be fitted out in 1920s style, including Michael Collins memorabilia. According to James Casey, some of the materials have come from a monastery.

“Seventy per cent of our business is food, we specialise in day twos of weddings,” he says. “I am after turning down 21 day twos of weddings this year just because we are fully booked already.

“That’s another reason we went ahead with this project of buying this house – so you could essentially have the whole bar for your function.”

The ninth generation of his family to be involved in the pub trade, James grew up in Kiskeam in the north of the county. Clonakilty many be “bucking the trend”, in his view, with a feeling that pubs elsewhere may be shelving plans for further development.

Caseys has recently scooped some awards and its owner believes the pub plays a role in the community beyond merely dishing out pints – even if the smaller village or rural pub may have to prove its staying power.

“I would like to think so, I would like to hope so,” he says of the continuation of the rural pub. “It is what we are known for really, abroad and around the world – it is going to be survival of the fittest.”

Back down the road, Peter Keohane is finalising preparations for the West Cork Rally, another annual event that draws in the punters. For him, any future liberalisation of the licensing laws will be “game over”.

“It is not that there isn’t pubs to go to – it’s that people can’t afford to go to the pubs that are there,” he continues. It sounds like a twist on a quote from Collins himself: “To go for a drink is one thing. To be driven to it is another.”