Irish pub closures: The slow death of the local bar

Ireland has 1,500 fewer pubs than in 2006. Nowhere has seen a steeper decline than Limerick

 The closed Shamrock bar on the Killarney road in Newcastle West, Limerick. Photograph Liam Burke/Press 22

The closed Shamrock bar on the Killarney road in Newcastle West, Limerick. Photograph Liam Burke/Press 22

 

“There were nine pubs in this street at one stage. Then it went down to one. Now it’s back up to four.”

Patrick O’Kelly is standing on the street outside the pub that has been in his family for 75 years, the Silver Dollar in Newcastle West, Co Limerick. He walks down Lower Maiden Street, pointing out the units that used to be home to a bicycle repair shop, a clothes shop, a book shop and a bread shop. Most of them are now empty. Then there are the former pubs.

“That was O’Gorman’s, that whole building over there.”

He points out the Forge Inn which reopened about four years ago. “It has been closed and reopened a few times.”

And then there’s a clothing boutique which used to be a pub, Greta Crimmins.

“And Ned Kelly’s up the street. That has reopened as well. This here was Ted Danaher’s.”

He stops and counts them up. In the end we count nine pubs on the street, including one on the corner. Four of them are still open or have reopened; the other five are closed.

Figures released recently by the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (Digi) revealed that the number of seven-day pub licences nationally decreased from 8,617 in 2005 to 7,072 in 2018, a decline of almost 18 per cent or 1,545 pubs. It’s not known how many of those licences were bought up by supermarkets for conversion to off-licences.

Pub closures in Dublin tend to make headlines, but this decline was almost exclusively a rural phenomenon. The number of pubs in Dublin was 786 in 2005, and it was 776 in 2018.

And while we’re drinking less than we were in 2005 – when our per capita alcohol consumption hovered at just over 13 litres of pure alcohol; in 2018 we put away 11 litres per person – we’re not spending less on drink.

The value of the alcohol market increased by 3.2 per cent to €7.5 billion in 2018 on the previous year – €2.6 billion of that figure is accounted for by excise and Vat. We’re just not spending as much in pubs. The off-licence volume share of alcohol consumption now accounts for some 61 per cent of alcohol consumption, while bar sales fell 1.3 per cent in 2018.

Amid the gloomy picture for rural publicans Limerick has experienced more closures than any other county. Nearly 28 per cent of its pubs shut their doors during that 13-year period. If you go back even further the drop starts to look more like a cliff.

“My mother will say when she was growing up here there were 56 pubs in Newcastle West. When I was growing up in the 1990s there was 27. Now there’s 11 pubs in town, which is back up from a few years ago,” says O’Kelly.

Surely less competition is good news for the publicans who survive?

Not really, he says. A buzz creates a buzz. “When we were the only pub on the street it was an awful long walk down to us from the square, and the square was where all the pubs were. We were a village on our own down here.”

Paddy Keogh runs the Central Bar on Bridge Street. I tell him I’m here to write about what’s happening in the pub business.

“You don’t want to ask me,” he says, but then he tells me anyway. “The long and the short of it: the pub trade is gone.”

He mentions two other pubs in town – fine premises, he says – that have closed up with a To Let sign outside. “Eight or 10 years ago they’d be closed a month and they’d be snapped up.”

Pubs have been hit by the smoking ban, comparatively high rates of excise on alcohol, rising insurance costs, cheap alcohol sales in supermarkets following the abolition of the Groceries Order in 2006 and a 2018 VAT increase.

However, Keogh says the “drink driving the following morning” was the final nail in the coffin. “When they brought that in they killed Sunday nights. You could close now at 10 o’clock Sunday night.”

He blames Dublin politicians. “They don’t realise the impact. Above in Dublin it’s grand – you’d just jump on a bus, jump in a taxi or on a tram or a Luas [to get home]. Down here you’re jumping on nothing. And if you’ve work the next morning nine times out of 10 you’re working outside of Newcastle West, you’re not working in Newcastle West.”

In that case, he says, people are terrified of finding themselves over the limit in the morning after a few drinks the night before.

Pub owner Gearoid Whelan. “I was very unsure what was going to happen for a while.” Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22
Pub owner Gearoid Whelan. “I was very unsure what was going to happen for a while.” Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

O’Kelly doesn’t even like to talk about the morning checkpoints. “The more is said, the more people are afraid. They might only breathalyse three people. But everyone will hear about it. Every Tom and Dick and Harry will say there’s a checkpoint up the road there.”

Keogh agrees. “They could burn every breathalyser in the country now because they have the damage done. If they never again bagged someone here in the town it wouldn’t matter.”

I wonder if they ever thought about getting a minibus together. O’Kelly says he has personally offered to pick a gang of customers up in his car and drive them home after a night out. “But it didn’t work because one wanted to come in at 9.30pm and another fella didn’t want to leave until 10.”

Keogh says it won’t solve the problem now anyway unless you could drive them all to work the next morning too.

THE CLAMPDOWN ON morning-after driving is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to last Christmas. However, the struggles of the rural pub industry are not.

Unlike other rural towns and villages, the story of Newcastle West generally is not one of decline.

“The town itself isn’t doing too bad. There’s a lot of industry here: there’s Pallas Foods, there’s Ballygowan, there’s the Rettig Myson plumbing company,” O’Kelly says, from behind the bar of the Silver Dollar. There’s also Filtertek locally, and Limerick-based employers like Regeneron, which employs around 800 people.

So if there’s money around again why are the pubs in trouble?

“Older people aren’t coming in because they’re put off by the drink driving laws. The younger ones are drinking at home, and they might just go out on the odd weekend. And the middle-aged, they’ve babysitters and all that to worry about. So they can’t get out too much either,” says O’Kelly.

“We’ve a few in today. But there’s days when you might get no one. You’d be here scrubbing floors and whatever.”

Then, says O’Kelly, there’s the rising cost of doing business. He lists off some of these.

“You’ve Sky. It’s a massive cost. It’s costing me €920 a month. That’s based on my licence. Plus BT Sports is €500 a month. Now you’ve your Eir as well – that’s €150. Then rates are massive. I’m paying €3,600 a year. And you’ve ESB, which is €550 for about six weeks.”

But the biggest issue of all, he says, is the challenge of trying to compete with supermarkets which have been able to sell alcohol as a loss-leader since the Groceries Order went in 2006.

You can get a bottle of vodka for €19 in a supermarket, says O’Kelly. “Or Bailey’s for €14. Coming up for a bank holiday watch the ads in the papers. In all fairness, you could stock any pub from the prices they’re charging. We’d nearly go down and stock up ourselves only it would look very bad,” he laughs.

When was the last time he had a day off? O’Kelly has to think about this for a long moment. I suggest he must have been off the previous day when his daughter, Geri Mai, represented Limerick in the junior camogie finals.

Patrick O’Kelly of the Silver Dollar with his mother Margaret. “My mother will say when she was growing up here there was 56 pubs in Newcastle West.” Photograph Liam Burke/Press 22
Patrick O’Kelly of the Silver Dollar with his mother Margaret. “My mother will say when she was growing up here there was 56 pubs in Newcastle West.” Photograph Liam Burke/Press 22

“No, I turned up yesterday and pulled a few pints, and I was stocking shelves and that. Last day off? Full day off,” he scratches his head as he thinks about this.

“I went skiing in January for one week,” he says finally. “That’s the last full day off. But if it keeps going the way it is I’ll have plenty of time off.”

He is only half joking. “We’re okay. We’re alright. I work hard. My barman works hard. But there’s pubs in this town and you’d wonder how they keep going.”

BRIAN FOLEY OF THE Vintner’s Federation of Ireland (VFI) says “the heavy closures happened 10 years ago after the recession”. The VFI has not seen a decline in its membership over the last few years, which remains steady at around 4,000 members. However, he thinks more rural pubs could be reaching the end of the road.

“Logically more pubs will close over the next five years. There’s more competition for people’s discretionary spend. There are parts of the country that are still ‘overpubbed’. I’ve been in villages which have four or five pubs, and you could stand on a street corner and not see a car pass for hours.”

Some of those pubs will close as their owners retire. “There is a generation of publicans who are in their 70s, and who won’t pass the pub on to the next generation.”

So should we be mourning the decline of the rural pub or just looking on it as part of the natural order of things: a product of rural depopulation, the migration towards cities, changing consumer habits and the changing lifestyles of publicans themselves?

“There is a Dublin view of this, and a rural view on this,” Foley says. “It is a more nuanced issue than will sometimes come across in Dublin.”

Take the drink driving legislation, he says. Increased checkpoints, especially in the early morning, were “a Dublin solution that won’t affect Dublin people”.

“We had guys phoning us saying they had 17 checkpoints in one calendar month in their area. In Dublin we had one super checkpoint on the M50. The limit is the limit, and you can’t be over the limit, but are the checkpoints a proportionate response to the problem?”

Foley lives in Dublin and “it didn’t have any impact on my life because if I want to go out I’ve got the Dart, the Luas, the bus service, taxis. But if you live in west Cork it will have had a huge impact.”

Dublin people always mention the Healy-Raes when this comes up, says Foley, and “country people always mention Shane Ross”. It’s the culture clash between the capital and the rest of Ireland at its most apparent.

He says there is too much focus on pubs as places of alcohol consumption. In rural Ireland “the pub is a meeting place”.

“In rural areas, where other services are in full scale retreat – post offices, banks, any institution that you care to name – the pub is the last man standing.”

Patricia Callan of Drinks Ireland, which is a member of Digi, says that “pubs have been a significant part of rural society, so it’s not simply about going out for a drink, it’s about somewhere to meet and socialise as a community. People would have group meetings in the pub.”

The biggest difficulty facing pubs, she says, is rural depopulation. “It’s about the big draw away from villages to urban centres, and Dublin in particular. Where you don’t have a critical mass it’s very hard to keep up with costs.”

She says insurance is a massive issue. “Energy costs; even if you have the radio on you have to pay licences to all sorts of groups. In terms of selling the product, the fact that we have the second highest excise in the EU [behind Finland] is very problematic.”

But how many villages in Ireland had seven or eight pubs at one time and only one shop? Surely that was always going to change?

“You may say it’s the natural order of things, but we’re seeing too many good pubs go under because the cost base is beyond their control.”

ACROSS THE ROAD from the Silver Dollar is Whelans. It was opened five years ago by Gearoid Whelan, whose father ran a pub on Church Street in the town for over 70 years. Church Street had seven pubs in its heyday. These days there are no pubs on the street.

He opted to sell up and move to the Lower Maiden Street premises in order to accommodate a large covered beer garden where he has live music three nights a week. In the bar to the front the last stragglers from a 60th birthday party are wrapping up their long weekend with a few coffees before they head back to the UK.

“Newcastle West is on the up. Now if you walk through the town you’ll probably see a few derelict buildings, but compared to a few years ago it’s doing well,” Whelan says.

The drink driving clampdown and early morning checkpoints had a major impact in January and February. “We were nearly at crisis point. I was very unsure what was going to happen for a while.” However, since then things have been looking up, and he is relatively optimistic.

“I think we’ve rode the storm. I have actually heard of nobody who was bagged and over the limit in the morning. But the fear of it is huge. The guards are getting the message out, and they have to do their job. But Shane Ross won’t be getting a Christmas card from me.”

The closed Bridge House pub in Newcastle West. Photograph Liam Burke/Press 22
The closed Bridge House pub in Newcastle West. Photograph Liam Burke/Press 22

Then again “the Healy-Raes did nobody any favours on drink driving. For them to say a fella should be able to have three or four pints with his dinner and drive home in this day and age, that’s madness.”

How does he account for the high level of pub closures in Limerick over the past 15 years?

“When I started to take an interest in the business when I was 16 or 17 there was 26 pubs in Newcastle West. That was madness really. Every second building was a pub. Now we’ve around 11 in a town with a catchment area of 8,500 to 9,000 people. And that’s about right.

“Has it been a struggle the last 10 years since the crash? Yes, but it has levelled out. Things are good.”

However, you need to offer people something different. “If you’d told my father 10 years ago you’d have a live band three nights a week he’d say ‘you’ll clear out [the customers] we have; they don’t want any music.’

“You have to speculate to accumulate. So we put Molton Brown [upmarket soap and hand lotion] into the ladies...We don’t have the Molton Brown in the men’s. There would be no point. They’d only try drinking it.”

LIMERICK CITYS NARRATIVE has been one of economic recovery in recent years. Yet it has also been hit by a large number of pub closures.

On Mulgrave Street, publican Jerry O’Dea – a Fianna Fáil councillor and a VFI delegate for Limerick – says some of it is down to natural erosion.

“Some people would argue that we were over-licensed. So a lot of businesses have had to kind of change. And any pub that had to do a fairly big change had to make a decision whether or not there was a business model there.”

In a lot of cases where the pub was being run as “a lifestyle pub, with the mum and dad running it and living upstairs and the mortgage paid off” the decision was made that it was not worth it.

In the city a lot of these traditional family-run establishments have ended up being turned into coffee shops or office buildings. “But in the rural areas that’s not an option. There is no other use needed so they just close up. And then if you take the bachelor farmer who lives five miles from town, he has no reason to go into town anymore because nothing’s there.”

O’Dea dates the onset of the decline to the smoking ban in 2004. After that “our business would have dropped by about 40 per cent in the space of two years. Then the recession happened, and it bottomed out, and stayed there for a few years.”

By the time the recovery happened “the cheap alcohol in supermarkets had come in, making it much easier for people to stay at home”.

Completing this picture is what he says is called the “lost generation”, the “18- to 25-year-olds who really don’t understand what it is about going to a pub. Now you have the whole ‘prinking’ thing.”

Prinking – or pre-drinking – is the phenomenon of [mostly] young people buying [mostly] cheap supermarket alcohol to drink at home before going out to a nightclub. “That can’t be right,” he says.

Paddy Keogh in Newcastle West agrees, bemoaning the fact that because everybody is drinking at home, “nobody knows what a measure is anymore”.

All of it, O’Dea says, is fuelling the decline in pubs outside of Dublin. “And my worry is that in the next generation many of them will just be gone. They’ll be turned into coffee shops or whatever.”

Jerry O’Dea’s pub has been in the O’Dea family since 1836. Though business is better than it was, he expects to be the last member of his family to stand behind the bar. “I’d be slow enough to recommend my own kids to get into the trade. Even if it was thriving and booming, it is a very tough lifestyle.”

One Limerick pub that is bucking the trend and staying in the family is Jerry Flannery’s on Catherine Street, now owned by the former Ireland and Munster rugby playe, but still overseen by his father, also called Jerry.

“Jerry is the boss,” says Jerry Flannery senior, who opened the pub in the 1960s. “He says I’m his eyes.”

A few years ago Flannery invested in a former garage next door, and developed it into a more modern space, with black walls, a tiled floor and lush green planting. These days it attracts a crowd in their late 20s and older. It has breathed new life into the business.

“I didn’t appreciate it at the beginning when it was being done,” says Flannery senior. “But it’s very nice. Business is very good. You have to make changes. And not just in the bar, but in your attitude behind the counter and the way business is done. You have to work harder to entice them in, invite them in, shove them in,” he laughs.

Dermot McGovern, a businessman in Limerick, points to another street nearby, Edward Street, where 13 pubs have closed in the last 17 years.

“It was a working man’s street. And the factories nearby all closed down. But I think it’s a natural progression.”

Limerick publican Jerry O’Dea. “I’d be slow enough to recommend my own kids to get into the trade. Even if it was thriving and booming, it is a very tough lifestyle.” Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22
Limerick publican Jerry O’Dea. “I’d be slow enough to recommend my own kids to get into the trade. Even if it was thriving and booming, it is a very tough lifestyle.” Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

Pubs are not passing on to the next generation. The pubs that will do well are the ones that “do food to cater to families; or appeal to students; or focus on music or on sport”.

“It’s a trade that has changed totally,” agrees Flannery. “I thought you’d never see a pub quiet. But you can walk in here, and you might only see two or three people until 5pm or 6pm in the evening.”

However, both men feel the decline has stabilised. “Whatever amount of pubs are left in Limerick now, they will stay. There’s one or two that are maybe just on the edge. But the number we have now is the right number for the city.”

THE VFI BELIEVES one obvious way to help the industry and improve public health would be to prevent below-cost selling of alcohol in supermarkets. The Government has said it will do this by the middle of next year under minimum pricing legislation introduced last October.

“The days of going into supermarkets and getting points on your card when you buy alcohol are over. The days of being able to buy six bottles of wine for the price of four, that will change,” Foley says.

But it may not come soon enough, or go far enough, to reverse the decline in rural pubs.

Back in Newcastle West, O’Kelly gets serious as he considers the future.

“My real opinion? We’re fecked.”

Will any of your children come into the business?

“I doubt it.I’ll keep it going as long as I can. But will there be fourth generation? I hope not.”

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