Ireland's publicans: 'I’m angry there is no dialogue with us ... it's mentally very draining'

Bar owners struggle to stay positive amid Covid’s economic and psychological challenges

On Sunday, March 15th, last year, O’Donoghue’s pub in Merrion Row in Dublin closed early.

At that stage, the Government had requested rather than ordered the closure of pubs in the State for two weeks until March 29th as a result of Covid-19.

The Barden family, who have owned it since 1988, took matters into their own hands, asking musicians and punters to finish up at 5pm. Two weeks turned into two months, two months turned into six months. A year on, O’Donoghue’s has not reopened.

It is one of Ireland’s most famous pubs. Guinness certainly thinks so. Last week, the company made a commercial there to use around the world on St Patrick’s Day. The message was hold on. Some day soon the great Irish pub will return.


But when? The pub is a reminder of all the landmarks missed over the last year – St Patrick's Day, the Six Nations games, soccer internationals, the Saturdays leading up to Christmas, New Year's Eve. On such occasions, it is invariably heaving, but few complained.

The corner next to the front window where generations of Irish musicians dropped in for the evening session is dark. This is where The Dubliners first met in the early 1960s, a world captured by Andy Irvine in his song O'Donoghue's.

“It was August 1962/When I first set foot in O’Donoghue’s/A world of music, friends and booze/Opened up before me/I never could’ve guessed as I walked through the door/Just what the future had in store/A crossroads for my life I saw/Lying there to taunt me.”

Owner Oliver Barden sums up the year in a word: “Desperate.”

Families and mortgages

Being a publican is a way of life, a vocation, he says. “I walk up and down the road for my 5km, that’s it. I miss the people. I don’t watch the television. It was always something to do and somewhere to go.”

His daughter, Carol Barden, says the family paid the pub's 19 staff for the six weeks from mid-March, hoping that a reopening could happen. Since then, they have been on the €350 pandemic unemployment payment.

“It was horrible. They are all with us a long time,” she says. “The majority of staff are full-time and have families and mortgages.

“It’s heartbreaking for them. This is their careers,” she adds. “It was all the mixed messaging that was coming out. They were looking for information from us, but we had no more information than anybody else.”

“Wet pubs”, those that only serve alcohol and not food, had a brief window of opening in rural Ireland during the summer. Twice, Carol says, they thought O’Donoghue’s might be able to reopen, but the Government held off as Covid-19 numbers in the capital remained stubbornly high.

O’Donoghue’s is among the 250 of Dublin’s 750 pubs which have not opened since March 15th last year. Among them have been Dublin’s nearest equivalent to a literary pub, Grogan’s, along with Ireland’s most famous gay bar, The George.

Given the pace of the supply problems hindering the vaccine rollout, it could be another six months before they open – this is the most severe lockdown that has affected any hospitality business in Europe, and this in the land of the pubs.

The distinction between “wet” pubs and those supplying food should never have been made, Carol Barden believes. Last summer, Doheny & Nesbitt and Toner’s, the other landmark pubs near O’Donoghue’s, were able to open because they could provide meals, while it had to stay shut. This was hard.

‘The banter’

Does she ever see Irish pubs returning to the crowded days of the past, filled with noise and excitement? “If there are still restrictions, they may not make financial sense for us. If there are 15 people outside, that might not be a runner financially.”

Come what may, though, O’Donoghue’s will not become a gastropub, or anything else. “I love watching the banter between the staff and the customers, but you are more than just a transaction. You know them, they know you. We miss them.”

In Swinford, Co Mayo, Marie Mellett, whose pub has been in her family for 224 years, says: “When it is in your blood, it is all you know.”

Other than family funerals, Christmas Days and Good Fridays, it has never closed, even during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918.

This time last year, Mallett was looking forward to taking over the licence from her father, the seventh generation to carry the baton. Having travelled the world after university, she came back to her “calling” – where she has worked weekends and holidays since the age of 15 – in 2011.

But despondency has set in, she admits. “You start to question are you ever going to be happy again. I started to wonder will every day of my life be like this now. Will there ever be a time that I have a clear head and I know where my future is going to lead me?”

She’s candid about the toll the past year has taken, especially on her mental health: “I wasn’t sleeping. I was used to working 60-80 hours a week. From that to having seven nights off, it was really difficult to fill my time.”

Just beginning a 28-year mortgage on her home, Mellett is surviving on the PUP payment. The Government’s Covid restrictions support scheme (CRSS) launched in November was “very slow coming” and just about covers the bills, she says.

‘Sitting in the dark’

A huge part of that goes on insurance “which is sickening when there is no one on the premises”, while the rest is swallowed up by the “never-ending bills” for security, pest control, light and heat.

Still struggling to sleep at night, worrying about losing the family pub “on my watch”, Mellett gets up at 5am most mornings. The street outside the bar is swept by 7.30am, before she makes an “eerie, empty” check on everything inside.

“I sit there in the dark sometimes and just look around, at all the photos on the wall, thinking of the happy memories of the pub and just hoping those days will come back again,” she say.

Mellett’s despair is not uncommon amongst publicans. Last November, Guinness created the “Raising the Bar” helpline for publicans. Since then, more than 100 publicans from 18 counties have sought emotional counselling or financial information support. The majority are in Dublin.

Father-of-one Paul Moynihan, in his 50s, who owns Moynihan's Bar in Donard, Co Wicklow, has been telling fellow publicans about the helpline on a publicans' WhatsApp group that was set up before Covid for gossip. Since then, it has morphed into a support group.

Born and reared in the bar, in his family since the 1940s, he used the first lockdown to renovate the public bar and make it more “Covid-friendly” with screens and changing table layouts. Once that was done, he went from working six nights a week to watching television seven nights a week.

By October, he felt like “there was no hope for us. It is hard to speak about it, it felt like there was no end in sight. A lot of people said to me there is nothing to look forward to, and that’s the way it was. There was nothing, it was just a dark hole, with no light at the end of it.

‘Hopes and dreams’

“Please God, we’ll never see anything like it again,” he says, adding that the uncertainty is “the thing” that keeps coming through in the WhatsApp messages with “a politician saying one thing and another saying something else”.

Berating the “mixed messages” from Ministers, he accuses them of “knocking people’s hopes and dreams . . . There is no joined-up thinking.”

Like Mellet, he is “keeping the wolf from the door” with the PUP and the CRSS payment.

“An awful lot of pubs will not survive,” he says. “Financially it’s been a bloody disaster as well as mentally very draining. Banks are screaming at you, but what can you do? I’m angry that there is no dialogue with us. It’s a year now, and there is still no hope of opening.”

Mother-of-three Mary Sharpe (56) who runs Brady's in the St John's Park suburb of Waterford city agrees. "We need a plan for when we are out the other side of this storm, and I am not seeing it. It has me not in a good place, I cannot work towards what I don't know," she says.

She has thought about quitting, she admits: “This is the biggest threat there has ever been to the future of the Irish pub. I feel the Government doesn’t want us to succeed. I really feel that. Anything they asked us to do, we did it.

“I feel my pub was a safe place to be, and people did what they were asked to do. I don’t see why we are seen as somehow a very dangerous place to be,” she says, adding that the last year has been like a time of grieving. “Some days are easier than others.”

Like other publicans, Sharpe wants clear messages from the Government: “Otherwise, I’m just waiting, waiting, waiting to run off the blocks and it’s a very tricky place psychologically to be in. If you keep getting false starts, then how do you get back on the blocks?

“That has me really angry. It’s not the way to do business. Where is the ‘is féidir linn?’ We need the Government to say when we get to X then Y can happen, because we are running on empty.”