Sunday 20 January 2019

Don't cry over your wine and your hummus dip when rural pubs vanish

'The big pubs in Dublin are a different form of the same business and good luck to them if they are making big profits. I know most of the owners and they are sound. Country pubs will survive but only a few will still be here in five years' time' (stock photo)
'The big pubs in Dublin are a different form of the same business and good luck to them if they are making big profits. I know most of the owners and they are sound. Country pubs will survive but only a few will still be here in five years' time' (stock photo)
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The new drink-driving bill is on the way in and many of my friends will lose their businesses as a result of the reduction in the drink-drive limits.

But the research shows eight people a year will be saved by the new laws and you can't argue with that.

I have been asked to go on several TV and radio programmes to explain the loss to us bar persons, but how can you argue against mothers and fathers whose kids have been killed by drunk drivers?

But then I wonder how many people will die from cancer and heart disease from the worry and stress of trying to save their businesses? Who will mourn for us? There is a proven link between business stress and premature death.

There will be very few country pubs or even town pubs left in Ireland. City pubs will survive because there are taxis and buses to work. And chimney pots. Our way of life is changing so fast.

I was given a famous pub by my parents who had to struggle to buy John B's more than 60 years ago. Dad went to England where he worked in the furnaces of Northampton. The work was dangerous and very tough. He missed home and my Mam. But he made some money.

My mother was a hairdresser and she saved up every penny so that when Dad came home from England, Mam had her few pounds ready for him. There was a big loan and even though Dad's plays did well, the young couple still struggled to keep the doors open. Mam and Dad worked day and night. We lived upstairs in what was really no more than a flat. The pub was our home. Us kids were sad at times when Mam and Dad had to go downstairs to go to work.

I feel a huge responsibility to keep the doors open. I owe it to my mother and father and to my home place. A good few tourists come to Listowel to visit our pub. There are times when I feel the terrible, non-stop pressure of paying the bills and it wrecks my head when people come up to me on a Saturday night, when we are busy, and say: "Sure you must be a millionaire?"

The big pubs in Dublin are a different form of the same business and good luck to them if they are making big profits. I know most of the owners and they are sound. Country pubs will survive but only a few will still be here in five years' time.

We are fighting back, though, and some of the pubs have organised the brilliant Revival music festival here in The Square in Listowel on August 12 next, with top bands such as The Undertones, Hermitage Green, and The Blizzards. It will be some night.

But does anyone in high places really care about us? Again, it's down to Saturday night syndrome. The till is singing. "Ha, ha," they say, "we must tax these millionaires," but as ever the big boys only see the small picture and the due bills stuffed into the drawer are well out of their winkered view. I haven't heard even one proposal for some measure of fiscal relief or grant aid for the country pubs. A village without a pub is a dead village.

Publicans work so many long shifts. There is a high rate of alcoholism. The drink is under our noses and the tiredness fools us into drinking too much, just to keep going.

Why not sell up? There was no Google or Apple in the villages or country towns the last time I checked. Work is still scarce in rural Ireland. And yes, many of us have become institutionalised. Very few of the publicans' kids will take up the bar game. The pubs, like the post offices, will die with the owners.

There will be more drinking because there will be no regulation. The owners, the bar staff and their customers often have the quiet word with people who drink too much, and they are minded. Home drink deaths cannot be quantified or controlled by random breath tests in people's living rooms. And the figure is many times more than eight a year and the supermarkets are still selling drink too cheap.

The main difficulty for us publicans is the morning breath testing. Alcohol stays in the system for hours and our customers will be afraid to come out to the pub for fear of being caught the next day.

And so the obvious solution is for the customers to come in to the pub an hour or two earlier. Recently a woman told me her husband's two best customers strolled in at 11.30pm, which is the start of drinking-up time, and they keep the poor man there until well after closing time. If he doesn't look after the two, well then he is closer to closing down. Kidnapped.

Most of the villages will be without a pub and the towns will have but a skeleton crew, or one or two super pubs. But maybe this is the kind of society we want, and if that is the case, well so be it. So don't cry over your glass of wine and your hummus dip when we are all gone.

A publican family told me when they closed down, the ones who gave out the most about losing the only pub in the village were the ones who never came in. So there's no point in blaming Shane Ross for all of our troubles.

I love the pub. I love the talk. I love the singing. I love talking about sport. Every man and woman gets to have their say. I love helping the ones in trouble. I love the couple of pints. I love the story-telling and above all the friendships made and maintained. I owe our customers so much for reclaiming me from the ranks of the lost and the damned. There's therapy in talk and back-up in the company of friends. My customers' pints paid the big bills owed to landlords in the university cities. But I'm very worried about our future and the loss of a uniquely Irish way of life.

As my dad used to say: "Let the last hour be the sorest."

Irish Independent

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