DIFFERENT TIMES Tomás Burke pictured with his late father, Ciarán, RIP, at the bar in Tí Bhúrca, Clonbur in 2016.
When gastropubs and restaurants reopened on June 29, things were never going to be the same as they were before they closed in mid-March.
As well as reducing their capacity, the hospitality industry would have to tread a fine line between following public health guidelines while trying to provide the world famous céad míle fáilte.
Owner of Tí Bhúrca in Clonbur, Tomás Burke says the atmosphere in his pub – which is renowned for its live traditional music sessions – has ‘totally’ changed since the arrival of Covid-19.
“[Reopening] wasn’t the same because we’d have music seven nights a week from the first of May to near the end of August,” says Tomás, whose pub has hosted renowned musicians such as The Saw Doctors, Liam Ó Maonlaí and the Keane family over the years.
“We’d have no live music now … On a Sunday evening the music would start at 6.30pm or 6.45pm. At that corner of the bar you could have maybe 40 or 50 people. Now there’s just three tables of four, four and two spaced apart.
“It was very family-orientated because the music was on so early. The kids sometimes might do a little dance. You’d have a mix of local families, visiting families, it was just a fabulous atmosphere.”
In normal times, live music sessions were one of many strings on the bow of the 98-year-old establishment, which is situated along the tourist trail in north-west Connemara.
As well as serving meals, Tí Bhúrca’s do a busy trade from the angling season due to their proximity to Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, nearly all of which was lost due to the lockdown.
“Our season would literally start on St Patrick’s weekend. We run fishing competitions here. We’d have 120 anglers that would be in the village literally from Monday until Thursday,” said Tomás.
“A lot of them would even arrive on the Sunday or the Monday, fish on the Tuesday and the Wednesday, and go home on Thursday. From that point a lot of local B&Bs, shops and self-catering houses would benefit from it.
“You’d have a lot of foreign visitors coming for Easter and then you’re into the mayfly for the fishing and you’d have anglers from all over the world. We’d have them coming after the first week of May up to the middle of May to fish Lough Corrib, after that you’d have the anglers that’d be fishing Lough Mask. After that you’d have anglers and holidaymakers for August and September.”
A spring and summer with a difference
Having hosted groups of 25-30 people only back in February, the pub closed its doors on March 14 before any official order came from the Government.
While they had initially reduced their seating capacity in early March, social distancing is now a staple of every pub lucky enough to be allowed to reopen. The usual rigmarole of regular sanitation, no sitting at the bar, and table service have also become part and parcel of operating a gastro pub nowadays.
Despite some initial hesitancy from patrons, Tomás says Tí Bhúrca’s went on to do a reasonable summer trade.
“During the summer time it was mostly people that had booked, but there was times when people would just walk in and if there wasn’t [a table] we had to put them out on the street again … which was terrible. The whole thing with the hospitality industry is to welcome people, but with the guidelines we were not allowed to do that.
“When we opened up first local people who, pre-Covid, would eat out two or three times a week, even elderly people … weren’t coming out because they were just too afraid.
“That was until they heard back from people who were in themselves and saw that everything was spaced out, they started coming back then. It took a few weeks for that to break.”
While Tomás insists that they are happy to simply be allowed to open, it brings many unseen but noble sacrifices. One recent example came when Tí Bhúrca’s announced that they would not be showing the All-Ireland semi-finals or finals in the pub due to concerns about crowd control.
“We didn’t show any of the live sport at the weekend just to keep everyone safe,” says Tomás, who is the fourth generation in his family to work in the pub.
“Normally the only time the telly is on is for sport. The handiest thing to do was not have the telly on, which was heart-breaking because sport is a huge thing in our country.”
Tomás reckons it could be ‘at least Easter’ before any sort of normality begins to return to the pub business. He also describes talks of a January lockdown as ‘very disheartening’ for pubs that are doing their best to operate safely under such difficult circumstances.
“Even before we opened, it was very disheartening to hear Stephen Donnelly say there’s going to be a lockdown in January, even before you’re open being told that you’re going to be shut down. It’s hard, especially for staff, the whole uncertainty of it.”