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There's a bond between us & our customers - Some people live alone... This is their home away from home

'Wet pubs' outside capital ready to open doors after six months

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Liam Ryan  of the Corner House, Athlacca in Co. Limerick

Liam Ryan of the Corner House, Athlacca in Co. Limerick

Happy: Deirdre O’Connor of Croke Park Bar in Croagh in Co. Limerick

Happy: Deirdre O’Connor of Croke Park Bar in Croagh in Co. Limerick

Billy Keane of John B Keane’s in Listowel, Co. Kerry adapting his premises

Billy Keane of John B Keane’s in Listowel, Co. Kerry adapting his premises

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Liam Ryan of the Corner House, Athlacca in Co. Limerick

Six months since time was called on the nation's pubs, rural publicans are making last-minute preparations this weekend to start pulling pints and pulling back in the punters.

In the case of one of Ireland's most traditional of traditional bars - John B Keane's in Listowel, Co. Kerry - it took a pandemic to put a halt to the custom of one long-standing patron.

Donie Hickey was just a child when he was present at the bar on the first day it opened its doors in 1955.

"The longest customer is a man called Donie Hickey, he was a young fella," said Billy Keane, the publican son of the famous playwright.

"He was only drinking a bottle of orange but he was here the night we opened 65 years ago.

"He still comes in, he's in his eighties Donie, he would be the longest."

It's these special customers who are perhaps closest to the heart of Billy Keane, who took over the running of the pub 28 years ago with his late mother Mary.

"There's a bond between us and our customers. Some people live alone, and this is a home away from home.

"A problem shared is a problem solved, they say, especially for men.

"Men find it hard to talk at the best of times but in the pub the couple of pints kind of relaxes you and you talk a bit more.

"I know when customers walk into the pub that something is wrong just by their faces."

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Happy: Deirdre O’Connor of Croke Park Bar in Croagh in Co. Limerick

Happy: Deirdre O’Connor of Croke Park Bar in Croagh in Co. Limerick

Happy: Deirdre O’Connor of Croke Park Bar in Croagh in Co. Limerick

It's no surprise he speaks eloquently about the role of traditional pubs in the fabric of rural Ireland given his literary lineage.

He didn't consider introducing food into the bar to open his doors earlier despite the disappointment of a summer with closed doors.

"It's all I can do to cook my own dinner," he joked.

But he added: "It was really tough. July 20 was the big one for us because I thought we'd get the best part of the summer out of it and it was really heart-breaking.

"It really affects your mental health, I would have suffered a fair bit over it, you miss the company and the fun but you miss the money as well."

The reopening coincides with the Listowel races which is not necessarily ideal - but the publican is confident it will run smoothly.

"Most of us would have preferred a week or two of a lead-in to get used to it but the rules are simple.

"We've had meetings with the guards, everyone has to be out at 11.30 and the guards will take care of the street.

"There is so much goodwill towards us, people don't want to mess us up. I'm pretty certain there won't be a problem."

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Billy Keane of John B Keane’s in Listowel, Co. Kerry adapting his premises

Billy Keane of John B Keane’s in Listowel, Co. Kerry adapting his premises

Billy Keane of John B Keane’s in Listowel, Co. Kerry adapting his premises

While 'wet pubs' in Dublin remain shut, elsewhere across the country Guinness lines are being checked, last-minute finishing touches are being put to beer gardens and signs are being painted and hung as part of a nationwide pub industry facelift.

"It reminded me of my cousin Liam Portal, who always said 'if things are going bad, put on our best suit,'" says Billy Keane, who has been working on several new snugs and partitions in his old-style premises.

"A lot of publicans have spent literally their life savings in trying to get the place ready."

A whole new raft of pub policing is being installed from hand sanitising stations to newly constructed pods of all shapes and sizes and marked out floor spaces.

In one of Ireland's oldest bars, the quaint Corner House in the picturesque village of Athlacca in Co. Limerick, proprietor Liam Ryan notes that publicans are well versed in the art of keeping order in public houses. "I wouldn't allow anyone into the bar that I wouldn't let into my own living room. It will be great to see all the friends and neighbours back in here and have an aul bit of a laugh," he said.

For publican Liam and his son Tiernan, the pandemic shuttered the doors of a pub which had been serving up pints for centuries.

"It was built in 1603. It was a wake house originally and the woman selling whiskey and tobacco there got a licence. It was around 1790.

"It's probably one of the oldest pubs in Ireland."

An entirely new tree-lined beer garden filled with tables ingeniously carved from wooden cable spools and laid on artificial grass and floodlit sleepers has been months in the making.

A pair of newly installed Guinness gates complete the smart new courtyard. It was a case of all hands on deck.

"We invested a good few quid," said the Limerick publican although he notes the investment has been just some of the non-returnable income poured into pubs.

"The stock came in today and it's our second time restocking, they're all perishable goods.

"Some of the brewers have been very good and have taken back the goods but there's other bottles that go out of date and you just have to throw it down the drain."

In the Croke Park bar in village Croagh in west Co. Limerick, Deirdre O'Connor agrees on the hidden running costs even when the doors are shut - she has been footing huge monthly electricity bills to keep her cooling system running.

"You think you're opening every week, my last (electricity) two-monthly bill cost me €1,390. I've an understanding landlord but six months' rent has to be paid back, insurance is crazy."

Sitting in the snug by a freshly lit fire in the most traditional of pubs, the proprietor notes it is the first time it has been lit in six months.

"This is what this pub is about, the fire," says Deirdre, pointing to the crackling hearth.

She has mixed feelings on opening her doors in her airy country pub crammed with snaps of regulars, signs with catchy slogans and cosy armchairs.

"I'm nervous, happy, glad to be back," she says, but added, "it's the unknown."

It's the human contact she has missed the most. "I just want to meet everyone."

Safety is at the top of Billy Keane's mind especially for those customers who have been sitting at the bar decade after decade.

"There is a lovely word, to mind someone, and we try to mind the customers and they mind me," said Billy.

"I'll say a few prayers to my Mam and Dad on Monday morning up at the grave to keep us safe.

"At about half eleven on Monday night, I'll enjoy my first pint and it will go down in the blink of an eye."