Midlands lockdown: ‘Why shut down Offaly and leave Dublin open?’

Business owners in Tullamore are worried, and some are angry about ‘anti-rural bias’

Cathy Anne and Paul Bell outside The Brewery Tap, Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon

Cathy Anne and Paul Bell outside The Brewery Tap, Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon

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As rumours swirl around much of the midlands on Friday regarding Covid-19 lockdowns, Brian Cloonan takes delivery of nine pallets of Christmas decorations for his hardware shops on William Street in Tullamore.

“We have to keep the lights on,” says Cloonan, whose family has run the shop for 70 years, “We have to get the balance right, to do it safely, to the best of our ability,” he says.

Customers have been careful since the first lockdown was eased: “Businesses are careful too, [but] we can’t go into eternal lockdown for years to come,” Cloonan says.

Nearby, on Kilbride Street, Ken Grennan of Grennan’s Butchers predicts a few bleak months lie ahead for business and for the town. “One way or the other, it’s going to be hard. The Government can’t continue the supports indefinitely.”

During the height of the pandemic, Grennan sold more fresh meat cuts to people who were, unusually, cooking at home all the time, but the butcher’s ready-meal business was “completely wiped out”.

“I’m trying hard to find a silver lining, but the silver is pretty thin,” he says. “I can see a lot of unemployment in the months ahead. A lot of jobs are going to have to go because demand isn’t there.”

In The Brewery Tap pub on O’Connor Square, Paul Bell and his wife, Cathy-Anne, nervously wait for news. “Locally, the feeling is that the biggest numbers are in Dublin and Kildare, ” says Paul. “Why shut down Offaly now and leave Dublin open?”

The couple have had strict rules in place since they reopened. Besides taking temperatures and names, customers are asked to place their own mask in a provided envelope during meals so it does not contaminate the table.

Brian Cloonan of Cloonan’s Hardware, Tullamore. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon
Brian Cloonan of Cloonan’s Hardware, Tullamore. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon

“I think they should go back to the 5km restriction. I’m not anti-Dubs, but last weekend Tullamore was full of Dublin people in the hotels. There’s cases all over Ireland, I think there’s other ways of containment rather than shutting us down again,” he says.

A second lockdown will hit Offaly hard. “We’ve been working so hard to do things right. If there is a lockdown, I hope it will be short term. In fairness there is a great sense of community spirit in the town.”

Community spirit

Abdul Hafiz, proprietor and chef at Cafe India, worries that new restrictions would damage confidence at a time when “people are barely gaining their confidence about sitting in a restaurant”.

“We were lucky that we remained open all through the lockdown, unlike some of our friends who did not have a takeaway trade. The transition from restaurant to takeaway was harder for them.”

However, Hafiz is hopeful that the town’s community spirit will remain intact. “It’s a small town so every body knows everybody and we support each other.”

On High Street, Anthony Kearns of Guy Clothing complains of an anti-rural bias. “There are serious issues in Laois, Offaly and Kildare, but no more than there was in Dublin six weeks ago. Nobody has locked down Dublin or Cork or Limerick. ”

If everyone practises safe hygiene and keeps their distance, the virus can be contained, says Kearns, who owns three shops, employing 26 people: “It’s not as if it’s all over Tullamore or Edenderry or Birr, ” he says.

John Ryan of Midland Books, the sole local supplier for school books, says people have got used to living with masks, social distancing and hand sanitisers. “We felt we were on top of it,” he says. “So, it would be a big blow to us now if any restrictions were to come in. We don’t feel we are high-risk, we feel we are able to keep our customers and ourselves safe. We’re crossing our fingers.”

Margaret Edgill, who runs Mount Briscoe Organic Farm between Tullamore and Edenderry, lost glamping and farm house accommodation bookings immediately after news spread of a Covid-19 outbreak at Carroll Meats.

“I had people who were booked into our accommodation cancel. The situation was not helped by Oliver Callan’s negative comments [on 2FM’s Ryan Tubridy Show] about the damp midlands.

“I am a responsible businessperson. I turned down one woman who wanted to book for 11 days, but she was coming from Switzerland and her partner was coming from the USA,” she says.

Offaly people need to talk up their county, she argues. “We feel that people consider us a place to pass through, but we have a lot to offer. We don’t need the message to go out that we’re not open for business.”

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