Businesses we said goodbye to for good in 2021

Chapters and Rowan Tree cafe will be missed, while the Cobblestone won a reprieve

Another year of Covid and another year of closures. Since the start of 2021, businesses of all shapes and sizes have shut up shop or announced their intention to leave the market both because of the pandemic and in circumstances entirely unrelated to the upheaval caused by a public health crisis that sometimes seems endless.

Most – if not all – of those businesses that have disappeared or are set to disappear in the weeks and months ahead will be mourned.

While we can only highlight a tiny number of these businesses, we know that behind every shuttered shop, vacant office and To Let sign is a story of jobs lost, lives turned upside down and dreams dashed.

There is also, sometimes, a stark message about globalism and greed with bean counters and international shareholders caring little about the communities they are leaving behind.

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Ulster Bank and KBC: To lose one bank looks like misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness and it became clear this year that the owners of two Irish banks couldn't care less about Ireland any more.

The first of the State's big banks to announce its intention to up sticks was Ulster Bank, with its parent company NatWest announcing that it was starting an orderly wind-down. The news came as a blow to its almost 3,000 employees here and it means tens of thousands of customers had to consider where they would bank in the future. It is also likely to lead to the closure of as many as 88 branches around the country, further impacting towns already struggling with the pandemic and retail's move online. Weeks later KBC Ireland announced it was exiting the market too.

While Bank of Ireland is going nowhere, it did close more than 100 branches around the country over the course of 2021, which further added to the doom and gloom.

JWT: The fortunes of the travel sector made anything happening in the banking sector seem like a picnic on a sunny summer's day. It was a miracle so few travel businesses went under this year but there was to be no miraculous intervention for Joe Walsh Tours. The pilgrimage specialists ceased trading after 60 years blaming Ireland's Covid-related travel protocols which it said were "the most restrictive in Europe".

JWT opened in 1961 and was one of the oldest tour operators in Ireland and one which was in the hands of the Walsh family until the very end. It operated the first computerised booking system in Ireland or the UK and offered sports travel, along with cruising holidays and military and heritage tours. At its peak it employed more than 100 people, although that number had fallen closer to 25 by the time it closed.

"We all loved working for Joe Walsh Tours. It was a special place and a special time to work in a business that dealt in dreams and sunshine," wrote former employee Barbara Scully in this newspaper shortly after the news broke.

Joyce's: The Galway supermarket chain is still standing but probably not for much longer. As the year came to a close, it was announced that Tesco Ireland is to take over its 10 branches in the west and rebrand them next year, subject to approval from the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.

Joyce's celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2021 and is currently run by Pat Joyce, the son of the man of the same name who grew the mini empire from a small shop in Headford, Co Galway. "We have carefully considered the opportunity and are very pleased to pass our business on to an established brand in Tesco," Joyce said when the deal was done.

Charlie Byrne's music shop: The oldest family-owned musical instruments shop in Ireland closed its doors in October after more than 150 years in business. Owner Maria Byrne (89) had run the shop on Stephen Street in Dublin, alongside her husband, Charlie (90), for almost 60 years.

“I have lots of fond memories. We have met such a range of different people from all over the world. They became friends more than customers,” she told this newspaper as she prepared to close the doors for the last time. They decided to close due to the ill health of her husband. “We have to mind him so we put family first. We can’t do both.”

Rowan Tree, Ennis: The hospitality sector has had a horrendous two years with lockdown and restrictions bringing it to its knees. In October the popular Ennis cafe and hostel said it had taken the "difficult decision" to close because of "increasing and unsustainable operational costs". The cafe hailed all the customers who had supported the business and its "fantastic employees, many of whom have been with us since the beginning, for their loyalty and dedicated hard work".

Chapters: The nomadic Dublin city centre bookshop announced plans to close its doors in early 2022, bringing the curtain down on almost 40 years of value reading. It operated from various locations around the city over the years including, Wicklow Street, St Stephen's Green and Abbey Street, before moving to its final home on Parnell Street in 2006. When owner William Kinsella said he felt it was time to go, the outpouring on social media was instant and heartfelt. "My heart is broken to hear of this closure," said actor and author Pauline McLynn. "Dublin [and in particular the northside] will be far the lesser place without Chapters," she said.

Facebook: Well, it hasn't really gone anywhere and is hardly likely to in the near future, but it did change its name. The parent company that owns the not always so social network, as well as WhatsApp, Instagram and more besides announced that from now on it wanted to be known as Meta. And why Meta? Well it is all about the metaverse now, something it describes as "the next evolution of social connection". And what is that? Well you can expect to see "3D spaces in the metaverse [which] will let you socialise, learn, collaborate and play in ways that go beyond what we can imagine".

The name change has nothing whatsoever to do with the leaks from the company chiefly from former employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen, who shared a trove of documents which did not paint Facebook in the most positive light.

Harlequin: The Dublin vintage shop in Castle Market, Dublin 2, was a physical presence in the city centre for about 30 years, but it did not reopen its doors after the lockdown earlier this year. Owner Fiona Smyth said on social media that she would "miss the beautiful Castle Market" and commended the business community in the area in the way it came together and supported each other. She said: "We will miss seeing you and having great chats, this business has always been less about money and more about passion for fashion and vintage." It hasn't gone away mind you, with a thriving online presence.

There were other stories too, stories of businesses on the brink that won reprieves.  

The Cobblestone: Things did not look good for Dublin's famous trad pub when a planning application was lodged which would have seen it – and some of its neighbours on North King St in Dublin 7 – demolished and replaced by a nine-storey hotel. The plan did not go down entirely well with the public. In fact almost 700 objections were lodged with the council; an online petition with the self explanatory title Save the Cobblestone quickly collected 35,000 signatures while rallies in support of the pub took place. Dublin City Council ultimately refused permission.

Thomas Mulligan, who has operated the pub for more than 30 years, said he was "feeling very grateful. I am just very humbled by the support we have received in recent weeks I thought it was dead in the water but then all of these people came out of nowhere and they really helped. I'm eternally grateful to them."

The Science Gallery: In November Trinity told staff it planned to close its innovative Science Gallery blaming mounting losses. However, in a subsequent tweet Trinity provost Linda Doyle – from a science background herself – said talks would take place with the Government on the future of the space. The talks are ongoing and its position remains in the balance.