Pat Gilmore, owner of Martin’s Bar na dTaoisigh in Ballygar, Co Galway, speaks about how the pub trade has been affected by the pandemic and the impact closures will have on the future of rural Ireland.
Pat Gilmore has been running Martin’s Bar since 1985. Inherited from his aunt and passed down from generation to generation, the family pub has been an important part of the small town for over 200 years.
“Our clientele is mainly middle-aged to elderly people of a rural background,” says Pat.
“Our pub is very people-orientated, we rarely use the television because people come in to have a chat and a few drinks.”
When the initial lockdown began in March, Pat explains that it was a welcome break.
“It was grand. It was kind of like an extended holiday because, in the pub trade, you never have a holiday. We were happy to get a rest, but as it prolonged it just got difficult.”
He recalls that it was a long wait for reopening his pub.
“We’re one of these so-called wet pubs, but eventually our reopening date came on 21 September. We had all the painting and decorating done and we were just waiting to open again.”
Business had changed significantly: “We had to sign everyone in, take their details and tell them they were only allowed a certain time limit on our premises, but everyone was very compliant,” Pat explains.
“It was great to get people back in and it really passed the night.
“When we reopened, we were afraid that we might be overpowered, but that didn’t happen because people were conscious of being safe,” he says.
“People were just happy to come in and have a break from the monotony of being at home. They just wanted a chat and to get the news of the area,” he adds.
The Gilmore family had to make changes to their premises in line with regulations.
“We put in little pods and divided the bar into sections. We put seating at the tables and we didn’t use the counter.”
As expected, the atmosphere was different than usual. “A publican has various conversations with people along a bar, but that didn’t happen anymore because we served our drink at the tables. There was no more than four at every table and there were no big groups,” Pat explains.
Like many publicans around the country, the second lockdown came as a major blow for Pat and his business.
“These closures will have a serious impact on rural Ireland,” he says.
“It’ll be another nail in the coffin for rural Ireland because, in a lot of places, the pubs are the only social outlet, especially for the older generation.
“There’s people that I haven’t seen in nine months and even though we were open for those two weeks, people were afraid to come out of their homes.”
A different Christmas
Pat's pub will be closed for the festive season in line with restrictions and the pub trade will experience a very different Christmas this year, Pat says.
“Historically, Christmas was very busy because people were coming home for the holiday period. That was very much a big part of getting back to your roots and getting back to what is happening in your locality. However, there will be a lot less people coming home this year.
“Rural Ireland will recover, but we will need a lot of help. I’m lucky in one sense that I have a few acres of land so I can go out and look after the sheep, but for publicans who have nothing else, I don’t know how they pass their time."
Vintners' Federation of Ireland
Communications and public affairs manager at the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland Brian Foley explains the important role that pubs play in rural Ireland.
“Pubs provide a meeting place for local communities that few other establishments can offer,” he says.
“As many services disappear from rural Ireland, such as banks and post offices, the pub plays the vital role of a local community centre where people can connect in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
"As more of life moves online, pubs will play an even more important role in bringing communities together,” he adds.
“Traditional pubs have been closed since last March – with a two-week window where they reopened in September.
"There remains no roadmap about how they will be allowed open again. Local communities have lost something important, while people are more isolated than ever before.
“As we approach Christmas, most publicans will be feeling nothing but concern for the future."
Despite recent challenges, Pat Gilmore says that positivity is important at a time like this.
“We have to be hopeful, because if we don’t try to look on the bright side of life, I’m afraid we’re all doomed.
“Hopefully, we will resurrect and be bigger and better going forward. I’m optimistic, when we get our vaccine and when this blows over, we might get back to a reasonably normal life again.
"It will take a while and we’ll need help,” Pat concludes.