In a public house in the western suburbs of a city in the west of the country there was, before the pandemic, one consummate barman.
He was never to be caught gawping at the television or gabbing with cronies, gaming on his phone or giving unsolicited advice. No, like a gun-fighter in a classic western, he was constantly scanning the saloon - not unfriendly but laconic, a strong, silent type. The door would open, his eyes would meet those of an incoming customer, and with an exchange of nods and gestures befitting a veteran auction-goer, he would pull the appropriate pint.
He was truly superb, the master and commander of all he surveyed.
I'd name that barman here, but a rival publican might swoop with a transfer deal and soon he'd be wearing the shirt of some superpub in the city centre, a place psychologically beyond walking distance on a wet winter's evening.
There, when the lockdown lifts, the man's talents would be wasted on holidaymakers and hen parties, stag parties, students and shoppers; but out here, in the suburbs, he is appreciated - his worth is known.
Back before the pandemic, and it seems so long ago, a friend and I would occasionally meet in that establishment, by accident or arrangement, for a quiet pint on a Friday evening. Or, perhaps, on a weekend afternoon in the summer, we might slip in there to watch a game.
Lately, since lockdown regulations were relaxed, we met once for a couple of cans of beer at the front of his house, while maintaining the appropriate physical distance. It was not the same.
That day I mentioned that, when grocery shopping, I had a chance encounter with the barman. It brought a flurry of concerned questions. "How did he look?" "How's he doing?" As if not having seen him meant he must be ill.
My friend is a stalwart of the GAA, and a connoisseur of all sports. But talk of sport ended long ago. The deckchair rearranging that passes as formation of a government leaves many people nonplussed. And so after sharing pleasantries about work, strategies for home-schooling, and critical appraisals of Joe Exotic, Normal People and The Last Dance, our conversation turned to the reopening of pubs. And then my friend fell silent for a few minutes, before making some rueful remark about how the world has changed. And it has changed.
The reopening of pubs is a serious business. Pubs are major employers, with a role to play in economic recovery. They are important social and cultural centres, too. And their reopening, like that of barbers and hairdressers, will involve an element of risk.
Covid-19 has killed more than 2,157 people in Ireland, North and South, in little over two months. So it is important to move with an abundance of caution, and to only reopen bars when the chief medical officer deems it prudent.
Prudence should not give cover to the puritanical among us, however. One hears much talk of the "impossibility" of physical distancing in bars. Hidden there is a notion that chaos reigns anywhere people decorate mahogany, that bars are dark and dangerous places.
In truth, the "public house" is a tightly controlled environment, defined by legislation enacted since the 1600s, when government first took responsibility for licensing the taprooms that proliferated in "private" houses in Irish towns and cities.
A fear that drinking shops might be nests of rebellion was the initial spur to government involvement in licensing. Laws sought to limit their number and keep a check of their location and the loyalty of their proprietors; people selling alcohol had to pay a licence fee and put up a signboard.
Then, the taxman cometh. From the mid-1700s, when there was a surge in whiskey drinking, "gaugers" - revenue-men, who "gauged" the volume of spirits - more vigorously enforced the laws, to ensure that only "parliament" whiskey, on which tax had been paid, not poitin, was being consumed; there was a major drive against shebeens.
It was then that public houses, that is "licensed premises", started to really come into their own in urban centres; however, in was the mid-1800s, before our rulers effectively eliminated shebeens in the countryside.
By then, laws were being enacted to control drinkers' behaviour: prostitution, gambling, dancing, fighting or opening outside regulated hours might cause a publican to lose his licence.
In short, the evolution of the public house marked a move away from drinking in "private houses" and, indeed, drinking out-of-doors, and a shift, too, from doing what you liked when you were drinking to doing what you were allowed to do.
Paradoxically, while tightly regulated, public houses were associated with "freedom". Deliberately "fitted up" for people to meet and drink and talk, they were particularly welcoming at night when darkness - little islands of light from a fire and candles scarcely lit an average-sized room - hid the markers of social class so important during the day, things like dress, hair-style and gesture. And so, in the darkness of the pub, there was a "levelling" of drinkers as alcohol freed their tongues and verbal dexterity came into its own; and alcohol itself, of course, is a great leveller.
But for all that, pubs were places where you did what you were told. Historian Elizabeth Malcolm, who has written extensively on Irish public houses, expressed it pithily: "The drinker could drink only at certain times; what he drank and what he paid for it were regulated; drunkenness and fighting could lead to his ejection from the pub; the types of games which he could play were limited, while even singing and dancing might be barred; and both the people and organisations that he could meet with in the pub were controlled."
And so it is hard now to accept that, in average-size establishments, publicans, who since 2004 have enforced the smoking ban, will not be able to enforce physical distancing - when the time is right. Indeed, they are helped by the provision which they have made for smokers; many bars now have outdoor seating. For sure, I cannot understand why public houses will remain closed when restaurants open.
Also, we should not exaggerate the lower risk of infection in the great outdoors. The good weather has caused large numbers of people to head to beaches and public parks, where physical distancing often collapses. By contrast, a public house, is supervised. Publicans would have an obligation to enforce distancing, to "manage" risk, to control behaviour - and it is, after all, what they have always done.
As for myself, I am happy to wait until the medical experts decide it is safe to return to the pub. Meantime, let me offer a suggestion that might help them plan an end to the lockout - phased opening, with different decennial cohorts admitted one month after each other.
Obviously, 50-somethings should be the first cohort to be admitted: they are young enough not to have to cocoon and old enough not to act the maggot. "What of the 60-somethings?" you ask. "They don't have to cocoon." True. They can be next.