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30 Apr, 2020 07:11

Time to sup that last pint of stout. It’s closing time for many of Ireland’s pubs amid the Covid-19 catastrophe

Time to sup that last pint of stout. It’s closing time for many of Ireland’s pubs amid the Covid-19 catastrophe

Ireland’s recovery from the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy was ticking along OK prior to coronavirus, but the country’s now facing its worst crisis since the Great Famine – with many of its 7,000 pubs being first to go.

The Nobel Prize winner for literature William Butler Yates once mused, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” It’s a little over 100 years since he penned those lines, but they could’ve easily been written today considering that the country’s romantic image – which is just as much due to its thriving pub culture as its postcard-perfect scenery – is in danger of imploding in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

This small island on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean has successfully sold itself abroad as a major tourist attraction with old-world charms – despite its vanishing rural idyll. And it’s mainly thanks to its pub culture, with images of fiddle players and Irish dancers – or “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads,” as former Irish president Eamon de Valera is often misquoted as saying.

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Many Americans – who made up the bulk of visitors to the West of Ireland, with 38 percent of all tourists there in 2019 – have been sold on Ireland as a key tourist destination ever since Ronald Reagan was filmed sipping a pint of Smithwicks red ale in the tiny village of Ballyporeen during a presidential visit in 1984. It’s neither here nor there that Reagan was so repulsed by the taste that he spat it out once the cameras stopped rolling.

Tourists flock to the Auld Sod in their droves to knock back pints of various beers, ales and stouts, and soak up the atmosphere – or the Irish phrase “craic,” as the locals like to say – as much as they do to get a selfie in picturesque Connemara, or to kiss the Blarney Stone. In fact, the most popular tourist destination spot last year was, of all places, the Guinness factory in Dublin. The mind boggles at that.

But the party is well and truly over for many of the small to mid-size publicans, with the Irish government now warning that they might not be allowed to reopen until a virus cure is found – which could easily be 2021 or 18 months away, according to some experts.

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Health Minister Simon Harris – who his many critics cruelly like to call Simple Simon – has said: "I can't see how people can be in packed pubs again as long as this virus is still with us and we don't have a vaccine or an effective treatment."

You don’t need to be Nostradamus to predict that this is going to be the death knell for a large chunk of the Irish pub industry as we know it today. It’s hard to see tourists keen on visiting there in 2021 when new social distancing practices will mean there’s probably more atmosphere on the Moon than in an Irish pub, if revelers aren’t going to be allowed to mingle and enjoy the craic.

Besides all that, the charm of visiting rural villages and towns – thanks to their streets filled with bars for tourists to go on pub crawls – is going to be a thing of the past if too many shut down for good. It could turn some of them into ghost towns.

There’s an astonishing 7,000 pubs in Ireland, many of which are small family-run businesses, all closed at the moment – and it’s too difficult to calculate how many will go bust. But bust they will be. It’s hard to see many of them reopening, even after a vaccine is discovered. It’s similar to when a newspaper ceases printing: they don’t re-open.

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Without the steady influx of tourists, many of these pubs, even if they do manage to stagger on, won’t be able to survive on only their small amounts of regular customers alone. They were already facing an uphill battle with the so-called snowflake generation staying at home to do most of their drinking before having only “one for the road” in the actual pub. 

It’s estimated that 50,000 bar staff have been laid off because of the Covid-19 lockdown. Keeping the pubs closed until 2021 has been described as a nightmare scenario by the Licensed Vintners Association (LVA), the trade association and representative body for the publicans of Dublin.

The LVA supports the current lockdown measures but warns, “If closing pubs until 2021 is going to be necessary, then it is essential that a pub-specific support scheme is introduced. Otherwise, there won’t be a pub industry in this country by the time a vaccine is found."

But the Irish government – particularly seeing as it’s just getting over the traumatic experience of bailing out the banks – won’t be keen to keep the Irish pub industry afloat. As one government source told me last night, “The pubs will be at the bottom of the list. They need to understand there’s not going to be an appetite to bail them out  any extra money is being pumped into the social welfare system.”

He was referring to the fact that those unemployed as a result of the pandemic – if they’re under pensionable age – are entitled to a special payment of €350 (about $380) per week from the state, which is almost an additional €150 above the standard social welfare payment.

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The only problem is Ireland now has its highest unemployment rate, with a staggering 22.2 percent out of work, which even the Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe acknowledged is a “horrific” figure.

These larger payments are unsustainable in the long-term and it’s already quickly eating up most of the few billion the Irish finance minister had only recently put aside for a rainy day. Ireland will sooner rather than later need to borrow and will require significant financial aid from the EU. As these things stand, the Irish state will require €25 billion (just over $27 billion) to tackle the impact of the novel coronavirus, according to KBC chief economist Austin Hughes.

And perhaps that figure will increase, because Ireland is apparently not doing as well in its battle against the virus as it wants the world to believe. It might “only” have suffered 1,159 confirmed deaths, but as the prominent retired Irish broadcaster and newspaper editor Vincent Browne tweeted last night, “Someone should ask soon: how is it that our death rate per million of the population from coronavirus is so much higher that (sic) the vast majority of countries in the world?”

Ireland is now facing its worst economic crisis since the 2008 financial crisis – or perhaps even the Great Famine, that left upwards of a million dead in the mid-1880s, if things get any worse.

The longer it drags on, the more grim it will be for the publicans. There will always be some kind of pub culture – after all, this is Ireland we’re talking about. It might slowly re-emerge once a vaccine is found, but it’s going to be at a reduced scale, with huge job losses. And it’s all going to leave a bad taste in the mouth, one that’ll be worse than Ronnie Reagan’s pint of ale. The craic’s well and truly over.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.