Lifting the lockdown in Letterkenny: ‘I’ve missed the craic’

Excitement and a little nervousness as hairdressers, hotels, restaurants open their doors

Carmel Dunleavy checks her hair after having it styled in Haircraft Hair & Beauty salon on the High Rd in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne

Carmel Dunleavy checks her hair after having it styled in Haircraft Hair & Beauty salon on the High Rd in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne

 

At Haircraft Hair and Beauty in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, social distancing is being strictly enforced.

“I want to hug you,” one returning customer exclaims as she enters. “No hugs,” says owner Aileen McKinley. “We’re now an unhugged service.”

She and her daughter, Julie McGuigan, have been ready to reopen since early on Monday morning. They mark the moment with a selfie taken in front of the reception desk, which is now fitted with a Perspex screen. Both are wearing face visors, accessorised across the top with a pink glittery strip. “I did it myself,” explains McGuigan. “The pink jazzed it up a bit.”

Their first customer is retired teacher Carmel Dunleavy. She has had her appointment booked “since the 13th March”, she tells The Irish Times. “The day of lockdown, I said I want the first appointment on the first day back.”

She got it. By 8.30am she is already in the chair. She is so excited, it feels “like Santa Claus has been”, she says.

Aileen McKinley watches on as her daughter Julie McGuigan styles Christine Cullen’s hair in Haircraft salon in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne
Aileen McKinley watches on as her daughter Julie McGuigan styles Christine Cullen’s hair in Haircraft salon in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne

She is not the only customer to make the comparison. “I could hardly sleep last night,” says Christine Cullen. “It feels like Christmas morning.”

In the salon, comprehensive hygiene and social distancing measures are in place. McKinley has deliberately kept the number of appointments low this week, to give staff time to adjust.

Aileen McKinley styles Carmel Dunleavy’s hair in Haircraft Hair & Beauty salon. Photograph: Joe Dunne
Aileen McKinley styles Carmel Dunleavy’s hair in Haircraft Hair & Beauty salon. Photograph: Joe Dunne

All the customers are happy. “All the precautions have been taken,” says Cullen. “I wouldn’t have minded what I had to do, to get in. It is a bit hot under the mask, but that’s a small price to pay for gorgeous hair.”

Dunleavy agrees. Haircraft is “my second home, my social hub”, she says, adding that during lockdown she was “so lonely, with no people in the house. I was so socially removed from people. It was really tough.”

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I missed all my clients. I love being back. I’ve missed all the girls, and the craic

McKinley went shopping for her and other customers during lockdown and she is delighted to see her back in the salon. “I missed all my clients,” she explains. “I love being back. I’ve missed all the girls, and the craic.”

Gerry McKeever feels the same. “I’ve missed the conversation and the craic,” he says. The owner of Gerry’s Barbers on Letterkenny’s Main Street, his waiting area – divided by Perspex partitions – is full of men wearing face masks waiting to get their hair cut, while at another barber’s a few doors down, they are queuing in the street.

Gerry McKeever cuts Paul Hannigan’s hair in Gerry’s Barbers in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. Photograp: Joe Dunne
Gerry McKeever cuts Paul Hannigan’s hair in Gerry’s Barbers in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. Photograp: Joe Dunne

In the chair is Paddy Walsh. “I’m a new man,” he says as McKeever finishes his cut. “My wife kept telling me she’d do a wee bit, but I wouldn’t let her near my hair. So this was a priority.”

Gerry McKeever calls Paul Hannigan for a haircut as his brother Luke waits his turn in Gerry’s Barbers. Photograph: Joe Dunne
Gerry McKeever calls Paul Hannigan for a haircut as his brother Luke waits his turn in Gerry’s Barbers. Photograph: Joe Dunne

McKeever has been “flat out” all morning. “I was expecting it to be crazy for the first week or so,” he says. “It’s good to get back to normality.” He gestures towards his socially distanced waiting area, and pauses. “Well, this will become the norm after a while.”

Outside, Main Street is busy with shoppers; some, though not many, are wearing face masks. “There’s been a good buzz about the street,” says Joe McFadden, owner of family business McFadden’s Gift and Home.

Joe McFadden in McFadden’s Gift & Home in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne
Joe McFadden in McFadden’s Gift & Home in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne

“The amount of people who have come through the door to say, ‘we’re delighted to see you back’...it’s uplifting, it’s overwhelming, actually. It’s nice to know that local people are there to support us.”

Robert McElhinney, the general manager of Dillon’s Hotel. said: “There is an air of excitement in a way, but also an air of nervousness.” They also reopened on Monday, and were welcoming their first overnight guests that evening.

He is under no illusion about the challenges ahead. An industry colleague, he says, described the months of lockdown as “like having three winters in a row”.

The hotel suffered “massive financial loss” due to lockdown, and even next year “will probably lose money”. This is particularly devastating because 2020 had been forecast as the hotel’s best ever year. McElhinney’s hope is that it might regain 2019 levels by 2022.

The hotel has remained open “only with the help of our bank manager”, says McElhinney. “We wouldn’t have the cash reserves to stay open otherwise.”

Donegal, he says, “always feels like it’s left to its own devices anyway”. He points out that the impact of Brexit has meant “we’ve already had two to three summers that weren’t great”.

“I was very disappointed in the new Government that there’s not a standalone tourism minister. Instead it’s been put in together with how many other portfolios, so where are we going to come in the pecking order?”

Martin Anderson makes a similar point. The chef-owner of Sonder Cafe says social distancing has reduced his capacity from 58 to a maximum of 18 customers at any one time; he has had to cut his staff from eight to four.

Chef Martin Anderson in his restaurant, Sonder, in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne
Chef Martin Anderson in his restaurant, Sonder, in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne
I’ve never served so much food in cardboard boxes in my life. I can start putting my food back on plates, and start chatting to my customers again

“There has to be a serious commitment by the new Government to help the hospitality and tourism industry,” he says, “yet they didn’t even make a minister for tourism, they just put five ministers together, and nobody from Donegal.

“There has to be a financial package of assistance for the industry, a reduction in VAT rates and a rates freeze.”

He stayed open during the lockdown by turning to takeaway food. “I’ve never served so much food in cardboard boxes in my life,” he says. Now, he says, “I can start putting my food back on plates, and start chatting to my customers again.”

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