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Reopening Ireland: Grogan’s first pour in 15 months

Words: Emily Mullen
Photography: Faolan Carey

There have been a lot of dates bandied around over the last couple of weeks, some are circled on the calendar, reminders placed in phones and pulled into conversations, while others pass by without much fanfare. June 7th has to have been one of those red-letter days, the day pubs and restaurants reopened for outdoor drinking and dining.

Those who found themselves in town that morning would have found an eerily quiet city, with staff diligently preparing as best they could for one of the most unprecedented days in hospitality. Businesses that had traded on meal kits, and takeaways, stacked chairs for customers to sit on, pulled canopies out to shield them from the sun and drilled hoardings into positions to keep the queues at bay.

I kind of grew up here, I love the place. When you work here 40 hours a week, you get to know these people an awful lot, you become friends with them, you know about their life they know about yours. Then you don’t see them for so long you don’t know what is going on with them.

Daniel Smith, Marketing Manager of Grogan’s

The streets still betrayed the signs of the days before, even though bins had been emptied and glass swept, they had traction underfoot, a stickiness akin to nightclub floors, cultivated by endless alcoholic spills and stamping feet.

The Grogan’s team were out taking in the serene sight of an empty South William Street, standing around in their outdoor area that had been reinstated over the weekend. Tables and seats lined both sides of the pub, with a couple of new seats installed along the barrier on the Castle Market side, to account for the influx of people that would be coming to Grogan’s over the course of the day. Shielding their eyes against the quickly climbing June sun, the team looked to be taking in the last few minutes of calm before the invariable storm.

The appeal of Grogan’s is obvious, a family-run pub steeped in all the things that make Dublin pubs great: art, literature and political leans. It’s a place you chance your arm to get a seat on the weekend and once there you seriously consider giving up. Its ham and cheese toasties go down in Dublin infamy, while their Guinness is known to be one of the best, to say people have missed Grogan’s during its 15-month closure, would be an understatement.

The depth of this feeling was mined by Grogan’s social media, with pictures of kegs being stacked or photos of the pub in its heyday receiving extreme engagement, hundreds of shares and umpteen comments. Son of co-owner Donal Smith, marketing manager Daniel picked up the social media for his family pub around the time he finished college joked “I could put literally anything up and it would fly”. But Grogan’s social media became a voice for a lot of pubs throughout Ireland, articulating the frustrations felt by many in the industry. While social media has undoubtedly kept Grogan’s at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds, being “the mouthpiece for the pub industry” was a challenge sometimes “at times I have felt I’ve been giving out too much and have had to step away for a little while,” Daniel said.

As the clock ticked towards 10am, the team make a subtle retreat indoors, into the inner sanctum of the bar, which by contrast is dark, comforting and enclosed. Preparing to reopen a bar after 15 months of closure gave everyone in the hallowed wooden walls the same feeling, nervousness. Everyone prepared for the opening of the doors differently and as the clock ticking on to 10:20am, some were nervously laughing, others diligently setting their hands to work they hadn’t done in the guts of a year and a half. Locals popped their heads in through the far door, wishing the team luck or asking for an early pint, when word got around that the queue had started, the atmosphere inside Grogan’s had become as elastic as a band. Donal Smith the co-owner said, “I didn’t even look, I’m afraid to look.”

At one stage I said I’ll be dead before we open again.

Paddy Kennedy, Co-owner Grogan’s

The nerves are understandable, the confluence of the pub reopening after 15 months on one of the busiest days of the year, with staff that have been out of practice for so long, is not to be sniffed at. On a personal level, for the staff to switch between isolating for so long to serving as many customers as Grogan’s gets is a daunting one. “I’m anxious,” said Sarah, “It’s been a long time since we’ve had to deal with people, I’ve only been speaking to two people for a year and a half. It’s easy to speak to the two people you know for a year and the odd randomer that phones you,” said Sarah. Daniel steps in and assures her and himself that it will be “like a bike, we will get used to it again.” “They’ll just want pints and toasties, pints and toasties,” Sarah repeats, trying to convince herself that chitchat something we’ve all lost the ability to do will hopefully be minimal.

The anxiety is perhaps heightened by the events over the last couple of days when several arrests were made and Gardai were accused of using unnecessary force to disperse crowds in the area. The backdrop of all this was the violence that had burst through the street on which Grogan’s proudly stands, South William Street quickly became a touchstone for descriptions of what happened. A marked difference between the typically amicable creative street that usually playing host to shoppers and casual punters. The events are not something Daniel wishes to “focus on” but on a sunny June Bank Holiday, I’m sure it’s in the back of a lot of people’s minds.

With any nerves, it’s easier to focus on what you know, and for the team at Grogan’s, it’s the presence of their locals that steady them. But there’s unspoken anxiety about which locals will be sitting down for a pint and who won’t, given that 15-months of a deadly pandemic have passed. “I’m looking forward to seeing everyone,” said Daniel, “people you haven’t seen, there are so many people we had numbers for but there are other people who we haven’t heard sight nor sound of since March 2020. we only heard of two or three people who drink here that died, we would hear of anyone who drank here a lot if they passed on, but amazingly only two or three have died.” “Quite a lot” of the customers did keep in touch during the lockdown Daniel said. “I was raised here, my da has worked here 30 years, my granda owned it before he did. So I kind of grew up here, I love the place. When you work here 40 hours a week, you get to know these people an awful lot, you become friends with them, you know about their life they know about yours. Then you don’t see them for so long you don’t know what is going on with them,” he added.

We are some of the lucky ones, there are places that are so stretched they will never open back up.

Paddy Kennedy, Co-owner Grogan’s

Grogan’s team are tight and are a real mix of personalities, many of them have worked in the bar and together for decades. It’s amazing how they’ve slipped back into familiar conversations and the throwing of old jokes at one another, after being apart for so long. The team kept in touch over the phone, Paddy Kennedy the bar’s co-owner said. Proudly standing straight-backed behind the bar Paddy, looks like he’s never left even though he didn’t think he’d get back, “at one stage I said I’ll be dead before we open again,” he says, his hand absent-mindedly resting on a tap.

Despite being past retirement Paddy still aims to come into the pub and pull a few pints. Before Covid he was in Grogan’s for a couple of hours each week, while he is well able to pull pints he admits that it was mostly to “keep in touch with everyone”. “I miss speaking to people, and I miss the register ticking over as well,” Paddy says gesturing at the machine behind the bar. During the lockdown he was constantly thinking about when they could reopen, although he admits that “we are some of the lucky ones, there are places that are so stretched they will never open back up”.

Paddy and his friend the late Tommy Smith (who died in February 2020) bought Joe Grogan’s public house in 1972 together. The pair had previously run a pub in Parnell Street called Kennedy and Smith, the business partnership came about because “we worked together so we bought together,” Paddy said. Where Grogan’s differed from their previous pub, Paddy said, “we thought it would be a good start, they would rather drink than eat, when it comes to drinking or eating, drink wins out.”

There’s no clock in the place but phones were being checked constantly, there was nearly an inbuilt timer for when 10:30am was hitting. A couple of minutes beforehand, we all gathered around for the first pint being poured in the place. Paddy did the honours with a fluidity of skill honed from pouring hundreds of thousands of them over the years. An air of reverence fell as Paddy slowly pulled the tap down, as one we watched as the first pint pulled in 15 months settled before us. Then after a while with great diligence Paddy filled it once more, placed it gently down on the counter with the words, “perfection”. As we all looked lovingly at the pint, Karl came bustling in, fresh from seating the first dozen or so customers in the queue and called for 13 more Guinness. And with that, the nerves vanished, the maudlin was over, Grogan’s was back in business and the memory of the 15 months of closure were being drained as quickly as the pints were being sunk.

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