Last orders for publicans?
Drink bosses predict that 2,000 pubs will shut in the next decade. Joe O'Shea reports
Limerick will be a shimmering, alcoholic oasis in the wilderness for rugby fans on Good Friday. But as the rest of the nation's publicans shut up shop for 24 hours, many will be asking themselves if it's even worth opening up again once the stations are done.
These are hard times for the pub trade as legislation, changing trends, falling tourism and the recession bite hard.
The traditional pub, an iconic part of our physical and psychic landscape, is an endangered species.
Some 1,500 pubs have closed their doors for good over the past five years, and the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI) estimated this week that a further 2,000 will go dry over the coming decade.
We are drinking less and when we do, we tend to tipple at home with off-licence booze bought in the Republic or over the Border (the recent 20pc cut in excise levels has helped off-licence sales in the Republic but many are still making the booze-cruise north).
Some publicans are also having to deal with the "naggin-isation" of pub culture, where customers who prefer spirits are bringing in small bottles of gin, vodka or brandy to their local and surreptitiously pouring measures into their mixers under the table.
"It used to be just the students bringing in their own drink," says one Cork publican. "But we had Little Women's Christmas here at the start of January, it's always a big night in Cork and I'd say half the ladies we had in had naggins or Lucozade bottles full of gin in their handbags. They buy one vodka and lemonade and then it's just splashes and ice for the rest of the night".
Another factor, particularly amongst twenty-somethings struggling to pay the bills, is "pre-loading" for the pub.
Groups of friends get together at home with some cheap supermarket drink on a Friday night and then hit the local bar or club for the last hour or two of serving.
The changing trends are good news for the off-licence trade -- its total share in the drinks market now stands at 50pc and is growing.
But the real winners are the big supermarket chains who can afford to discount drink to drag in customers who will also do the weekly shopping.
"The chains are marketing cheap drink knowing that they will make up the margin on milk and bread," says Cathal McHugh of the National Off-Licence Association (NoffLA) which represents independent off-licences.
NoffLA has accused the Government of fudging the issue over controls of below-cost drink sales in supermarket chains after giving in to pressure from lobbyists.
But while the corner off-licence may be under pressure it's the traditional Irish pub (and many rural ones in particular have been "defying economic logic for years" according to DIGI) that is now dying on its feet.
Dick Dunne is 55 and has been running his pub in Stradbally, Co Laois (in the family since 1912) since he took over from his father in 1980.
"Business is terrible, really shocking," says Mr Dunne.
"Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, it could be myself behind the bar and one or two customers for the night."
Mr Dunne blames the smoking ban, tougher drink driving laws, the recession and fast-rising costs for the dramatic fall off in trade which has seen half of Stradbally's pubs close in recent years. The Co Laois publican recognises that sympathy may be short amongst some for the plight of his trade but points to the economic cost of leaving our pubs die off.
"I used to employ two full-time and two part-time staff, now it's two part-time. We've had thousands put out of work over the past couple of years and if it was any other industry, there would a lot more being done," he says.
Gerry Mellet owns the only pub in Ardattin, Co Carlow, and says many of his fellow rural publicans are now operating on the breadline.
"The figures show us that 27pc of rural pubs have a turnover of €60,000 or less per annum," says Mr Mellet.
"So you are paying the bills, paying yourself and maybe your wife some kind of wage. You are basically living hand to mouth; it's not a viable business anymore.
"You have hundreds of publicans out there and they are qualified for social welfare and income support."
The real fear for the pub trade now is that this current generation is falling out of the old habits, learning to entertain at home, drinking less or just not buying in to traditional pub culture.
Consultants to the drinks trade have been urging publicans to change their game, introduce gourmet coffee machines, entertainment and better food and try to win back customers who may be looking for a cafe experience. However, with the recession still ongoing and the big supermarkets offering cheap drink by the crate -- it may take more than skinny lattes, karaoke and foccacia to save the Irish pub.