Limerick publican Gearoid Whelan opened up his “wet house” at 10:50am this morning despite the government requiring publicans not serving food to delay pulling pints until at least August 10.
Two hours later, on the stroke of 1pm, Gardaí entered Whelan’s Bar on Maiden Street, Newcastle West, and requested Mr Whelan close.
Mr Whelan said he was advised by two Gardaí to cease trading before they handed him a copy of the Health Act 1947, Section 31A, which cites “Temporary Restrictions (COVID-19) (No.3) (Amendment) Regulations 2020”.
“We opened our doors at ten to eleven this morning and we opened as a wet house, the same as we closed (last March). At one o’clock the Gardaí entered the premises and advised me to close under the Health Act 1947, so I’m complying with their advice and I’ve closed my doors,” Mr Whelan, 42, explained.
“I don’t agree with it, I still don’t see why. We are doing nothing wrong, there’s nothing illegal going on.”
“I’ve massive respect for the Gardaí and we wouldn’t have a business without them, so, for the moment, I’m going to close my doors,” he added.
Asked if Gardaí had advised him he could possibly face legal penalties if he continued to remain open, he replied: “Let’s just say, I was advised to close, yes, long term it might not be the best for me to stay open.”
“I’m disappointed, gutted, but all I wanted to show was that we can do this. Everyone that was here this morning saw we can offer a COVID-safe, socially distanced, enjoyable atmosphere, for a couple of pints — without your €9 pizza that’s going to keep you free from COVID,” Mr Whelan said.
During this morning’s three-hour opening, the pub served around 50 customers who supped pints without food.
“They’re circling, they’re circling,” shouted one concerned punter, as a Garda patrol car passed by the pub.
Mr Whelan said he spent “ten thousand Euros” transforming the pub into social-distancing friendly premises.
Pat Reddy, from Ardagh, was one of the first in the door “to support Gearoid”.
Sitting by the bar, reading a newspaper in his socially distanced chair, the 62-year old said the request for wet houses to close was “an injustice”.
“I think this is fully above board. I think it is great the Whelan’s took the stance on this. A big mistake has been made by the government, and I hope they look at this and move on from it,” Reidy added.
Michael Devine, Newcastle West, and his four-legged friend “Patrick” were also enjoying refreshments inside.
Devine said: “I live in a cottage in a little village, so, rural areas have been decimated, and the only outing we had (pre-coronavirus) was mass and a couple of pints in the local bar.”
“Farming communities have been reduced to waving at each other as we pass cars going in opposite directions — that’s what rural life has become since last March – I understand the premise for it, Covid-19, but it’s just unbelievable,” Devine continued.
Smiling for the camera, with a beer in hand, he declared: “I’m tasting my beautiful first pint of Heineken since the Sunday before St Patrick’s day, and man it’s a good one.”
Jamie Mullane, 19, from the town, said he agreed with Whelan opening up.
Sipping a pint in the pub’s beer garden, he said: “We came in to support Gearoid, he’s sticking his neck out on the line, opening up the pub when no one else would.”
“We share a similar opinion to him – how can thousands come in through the airports and a couple of locals can’t come down to the pub. There isn’t much difference in us having a meal here, and how is that going to spread the virus more than just having a pint?”.
Daniel Norwood, 19, was also fully behind Whelan’s opening.
“We were supposed to be over in Spain on our Leaving Cert holiday, so we said we’d just come down here this morning for one,” Norwood quipped.
“It doesn’t make sense that people from America can come around and go wherever they want, from town to town in Ireland, but its a big deal for locals to come in here,” he added.
Gearoid’s mother Pauline, who works as a nurse in a local nursing home, said in her view, the pub was safe for customers.
Mrs Whelan, 69, greeted customers at the front entrance, directed them to wash their hands in sanitizer gel, collected their names for contact tracing, and took their temperatures before they entered.
“They’re all very delighted and very supportive of us to be able to open our door after four and half months, they are all been tested on the way in,” Mrs Whelan said.
With tears welling up in her eyes, she said it was an emotional day, after being closed for more than four months.
“We run a very good house, never any trouble, and we have very good clientele, there’s no messing tolerated in this premises,” she added.
Gearoid’s father Pat, 72, who has pulled pints in the town for 55 years, was also fully behind his son opening up: “I think he’s done the right thing, he’s not breaking any law. The pubs have been unfairly treated.”
Meanwhile, the proprietor’s message to the government was clear: “Just give us a chance, let us prove that we can do this, that’s all we ask, just a fair level playing field.”