Deserted St Patrick's Day streets highlight Irish hospitality woes

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Publican David Chawke should have been frantically pulling pints on Tuesday in the middle of his busiest day of the year as the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade passed his central Dublin bar, The Bank.

Instead, one of the biggest bars on the route was as empty as the streets outside after Ireland’s famous pubs followed universities and schools in shutting their doors to slow the coronavirus spread.

St. Patrick’s Day parades in towns and villages big and small were canceled a week ago. The flagship gathering in Dublin typically draws some 500,000 revelers each year including many from abroad, kicking off the tourist season.

“It’s our busiest day of the year and the whole week would probably be our busiest week of the year,” said Chawke, whose extended family run nine pubs around the country.

“The problem is we just don’t know when things will get back to normal.”

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar estimated 100,000 people or more – almost 5% of the workforce – could lose jobs in the next two weeks as he warned the country that coronavirus cases could soar to 15,000 from 223 over that period.

Hospitality groups predict far greater job losses in an economy that was the fastest growing in the European Union before the virus outbreak.

Around 10% of Ireland’s workforce are employed in tourism-related sectors, behind only Iceland and Spain among OECD members.

The Chawke-owned pubs are so far retaining all 400 staff and do not envisage letting anybody go as they try to ride the crisis out.

“Everyone is just going to do what they can,” said Chawke.


Some Dublin families who usually throng the city’s streets each March 17 have came up with their own, virus-appropriate celebrations.

On Sandford Avenue, on the edge of Dublin’s historic Liberties district, families gathered at their front gates to solemnly play ‘Oro, Se Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile’, a traditional Irish song, on fiddles, recorders and guitars.

The neighborhood ‘session’, as a gathering of traditional Irish musicians is known, was organized on the street’s WhatsApp messaging group with Lia Byrne, a musician and teacher at a local secondary school, sending around sheet music, lyrics and an audio tutorial.

    “The kids were disappointed that there was no party this year,” said the mother of two school-aged children. “Usually, after the parade, we’d end up socializing with the other families on the street.”

    “It’s important to still come together as a community to celebrate.”

The government’s guidelines on “social distancing” are, however, causing difficulties for restaurants. Though told they should stay open, many have already shut their doors.

In Ireland’s fourth largest city of Galway, Michelin starred chef JP McMahon put 45 staff on temporary leave across his three restaurants on Sunday, including his sister and other family members.

“It was horrible. Our staff is like a family, you want to mind them but you don’t have anything to mind with,” he said.

Pottering around his empty restaurant, McMahon says the government must do far more than set aside 3 billion euros, mainly to cover sick pay and healthcare costs.

Having heeded the advice of Ireland’s main retail lobby to halt major payments and with enough cash to keep going for a month, McMahon is just keeping the lights on to stop the food in fridges and freezers rotting.

“It’s heartbreaking, all you’ve been doing for 12 years to build this up and it all just ends in a night,” said McMahon, who was supposed to be in Disneyland Paris with his young family this week.

“If this goes on longer than four weeks, then we’re at rock bottom.”

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