SAVEOURPUBS - RATHLIN STRUGGLES PARALLEL PLIGHT OF RURAL PUBS PROVINCEWIDE
10 September 2020
For many years, McCuaig’s Bar on Rathlin has stood close to the small island’s harbour walls.
Easily identified by the large painted sign on the traditional pub’s roof, it has long served not only the local population of approximately 150 full time residents, but the large influx of daytrippers, tourists and visitors that make the journey from Ballycastle during the Summer months to experience the wildlife and beautiful scenery of the island.
Orlagh Cecil of McCuaig's Bar, Rathlin Island
It is the true definition of a hidden gem. You are guaranteed a warm welcome and fierce craic from the staff and locals, and if you’re lucky you’ll encounter Catriona.
Catriona Blaney is the warm and friendly face, and current licensee, of McCuaig’s. She can often be found behind the bar holding court of an afternoon, and if you know what to ask for, her ‘secret’ drinks list will guarantee that you remember your visit.
The struggles she and her energetic young team have faced since lockdown was imposed on the industry in mid-March reflect the issues being faced by traditional rural pubs across Northern Ireland.
“I took the decision to close the pub on March 16th until July 8th. We went into complete lockdown on March 24th until the end of June. Nobody could leave the island except for urgent medical attention, or indeed access it except for much the same reasons.”
“When things were starting to ease out of lockdown, the Department of Infrastructure decided the daily ferries could resume the tourism aspect of spending time on Rathlin, albeit with a reduced number of visitors.”
“However, very few of the island businesses have reopened this season due to COVID-19.”
“Currently, there is no place of shelter at all on Rathlin.”
Faced with a dilemma, Catriona fought to offer something for the local community, and in turn, save her business.
“Initially we began operating outdoors with no food as per the regulations, as I couldn’t afford extra staff to work in the kitchen. But then the weather changed.”
“As per the rules, I have had to start to serve food to bring people inside. I don’t want tourists to have a completely negative experience of the island.”
“Therefore I am spending money on extra staff that I can’t afford.”
“And then with regard to my locals, I’m going to lose them all when I resume a wet bar as it will be far too cold for them to sit outside.”
McCuaig's Bar, Rathlin Island
“We have extensive mitigations in place with social distancing, a visitor book for track and trace, a one way system.”
“I’m heartbroken if I’m going to have no alternative but to close again.”
The plight of McCuaig’s is one being experienced in rural communities all over Northern Ireland, as traditional pub owners want to put safety first, but in a way where they can take care of their local community whilst remaining in business.
Following Hospitality Ulster’s meeting with Junior NI Exec Ministers to sort out the reopening of traditional pubs, HU CEO Colin Neill said:
“We have put forward what we believe are enforceable measures to ensure the protection of public health and staff in the sector and believe progress can be made to reopen our traditional non-food pubs.”
“This is about ensuring we provide a Covid secure environment for everyone, whilst providing a consumer offering that will attract people back to all our pubs, restaurants and hotels and save the thousands of jobs and businesses in our industry that depend on them.”