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Testing times for Aghamore publican


'IT WILL BE A SLOW PROCESS'  Donal Byrne, owner of Eileens Bar in Aghamore, feels it will be some months yet before normality returns to the pub trade. Pic: Paul Mealey

Mike Finnerty

EVERYONE has their own traditions and rituals for St Patrick’s Day, and Donal Byrne is no different.
In recent times he would enjoy the day in Kiltimagh with friends and family. And when he opened Eileen’s Bar in his native Aghamore 15 months ago, he had great plans for all the big dates in the Irish calendar, including March 17.
However, tomorrow (Wednesday) will be the second St Patrick’s Day that his pub will be shut. Like all the other publicans around the country, Donal Byrne will be wondering what might have been.
He’s had to make other plans. The ‘Aghamore Alive’ group was set up during Covid-19 to promote mental well-being and support people in the area. Now the members are determined to put on a St Patrick’s Day parade for all the local households.
The parade has been organised in line with Covid-19 restrictions. Nobody will be travelling outside their 5k limit, and there will be no congregating or mixing outside individual family circles. There’ll be plenty of distance between each float too.
“My wife, our two kids, and myself will put a trailer on the jeep and drive around the village with some other locals,” explained Donal. “People can stand outside their own houses and watch the floats go by. There will be no congregating of people and lots of distance between each float. It’s a matter of every household doing their bit and having a bit of craic.
“It’s just something we wanted to do to raise the spirits of people around the area. It won’t be anything like it would be in normal times, but we just wanted to do something for the kids and the families in the area.”
A self-employed businessman, Donal Byrne also runs the ‘Big Red Barn’ company. He made national headlines back in December by testing customers for Covid-19 outside Eileen’s Bar using rapid antigen tests, and allowing a limited number entry once they had tested negative for the virus. But the fact he was open for business, and not serving ‘a substantial meal’, meant that he was duly arrested for his troubles.
Donal still stands by his belief that rapid testing remains one of the best ways that Ireland can start to ease the current lockdown restrictions, and insists his system ‘ran like clockwork’ on the day of last year’s All-Ireland Football Final.
“At the start of the pandemic we totally understood and actually closed before we were supposed to last March. We knew it was serious so we had no hesitation in closing the bar,” he explained.
“The guidelines and the rules kept changing as the months went by, but we did whatever we were asked to do.
“We had started doing antigen testing at work [at the Big Red Barn office], so we said we’d introduce antigen testing in Eileen’s Bar in December as we knew it was coming down the track anyway in certain settings.
“But the Gardaí came out to us and said they needed us to do food as well if we were open. So we did that because we were left with no option.
“We had 25 people in for the All-Ireland Final, we tested everyone on their way in, they were all fine. And then we closed the doors. It ran like clockwork. But, of course, pubs were closed again less than two weeks later. And we’re still closed.”
A self-confessed ‘massive advocate for positive mental health’, Donal is very proactive when it comes to helping his staff to deal with the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
From his own perspective, he finds regular exercise and a decision to ‘stop listening to the news’ helps him to stay on top of his own mental health. But it’s not easy, and he fears that there is a long, hard road ahead for all of us.
“I’m a positive person, but it’s been probably the most difficult period I’ve ever gone through. I’ve never had so many people around me in difficulty, and that’s a lot to be carrying.
“I run three times a week with a few lads from Aghamore, and I have a wonderful family, a wife and two kids, at home.
“But I’m a realist. My prediction for the bar is that we will start off having to serve food again with 15 people allowed in the bar. It will be a very slow process until everyone is vaccinated.”