How Covid has changed Cork's nightlife

With Cork’s nightlife built on a tradition of packed pubs and plenty of pints, Roisin Burke caught up with some of the city’s publicans to see how they were faring and adapting to the new normal
How Covid has changed Cork's nightlife

Paul Montgomery, proprietor and Annemarie Swaine at the roof top restaurant at Clancy’s on Princes Street. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

OUT early, home early, drinking with food and drinking outdoors are the new normal on the pub scene as a result to the ongoing pandemic.

Paul Montgomery, who runs Clancy’s on Princes Street as well as new venue, Conway’s Yard on Oliver Plunkett Street, believes these new trends are here to stay.

“The re-emerging pub vision is predominantly outdoors,” the established publican said.

“People tend to want to be outdoors, It is a trend that looks here to stay.”

Mr Montgomery took on Conway’s Yard as a Covid project six months ago. The bar, which is predominantly open to the elements, is described by the owner as a “high energy venue” with a mid 20’s profile.

“Conway’s Yard is working out very well,” Mr Montgomery said. “It is busy seven nights a week, everyone is booking online.

“People feel freer, it’s very European, people feel like they are on their holidays.”

The venue is not currently doing food, something the publican said would be looked at in time.

“At the moment it is a place to enjoy a few drinks.”

Mr Montgomery isn’t the only one getting creative during the pandemic, Soho’s team have opened a rooftop venue that is booked out for weeks in advance.

Owned by 1990 All Ireland hurling winner Sean McCarthy and his childhood friends from Ballinhassig, Jon Cronin and Derry O’Regan, Soho opened Perch this year with resounding success.

“During the pandemic and the lockdowns, we looked at what we could offer, good cocktails, just one-offs and takeaway pints, then the requests were coming in so we started making cocktails in bulk and offering food out the front, like street food,” Mr McCarthy said.

“Our head chef Alfonso Giugliano is Italian, from Naples, he has been with us 18 months and we tasted pizza native to his part of Italy and it blew us away so we started offering pizza.

“Then we had a rooftop space upstairs that we used for corporate and private parties, and since they weren’t a thing anymore we were trying to think how could we make the best use of the space. So we set up Perch.

“We put in a pizza oven and made it a nice, cool, vibrant, sexy space and Perch was born during lockdown.

“It was a natural progression, just trying to keep people in work and trying to be unique and stay ahead of the curve.”

Mr McCarthy said Perch was a good investment but it would not be possible without the government supports.

“Perch has blown us away, there are 30 seats and constant demand for them, we are always booked out,” he said.

“We had an architect in, our General Manager Padraig O’Donoghue did a lot of work, he really had a vision and has a huge interest in the industry, and business.

“He did a lot of research on what was working in Dublin and across Europe, looking at trends and styles and food offerings.” The All Ireland winning former hurler said it was a bit like a jigsaw, putting the new venue together.

“You had all these elements that we were bringing together and it evolved from there. We knew it was important to cater for as many people as possible, offering vegan and vegetarian options.”


In terms of investment, Mr McCarthy emphasised the importance of the longevity of the new project.

“It is pointless to spend money on anything with a short life, the concept needs at least 5 - 7 years and invest accordingly. We did our research and we are getting positive feedback. It is way better than originally thought. The demand and feedback has been exceptional.”

The Soho co-owner said the pizzas being made by head chef Alfonso are a key ingredient in the success of the venue.

“His pizzas are great, there is no comparison to the standard Irish pizza. It is soft flat base pizza and there is a twist on the ingredients, its not your standard Margherita. We have kept the menu simple, its quality over quantity and we offer a range of cocktails.”

Mr McCarthy said the people want the full package these days.

“Wine, cocktails, food, they have been locked away long enough.”

Sean, Jon and Derry own other venues in the city, including Paddy The Farmer’s, on Old Blackrock Road, and Tequila Jacks on Lapps Quay.

Mr McCarthy said while Derry is involved in the day to day running of the Cork Ballinhassig run empire, Jon, who is based Stateside, is more an ideas man.

“Jon is not silent, but less involved, he comes over from Boston four times a year roughly, he is the ideas man,” Mr McCarthy said. “Jon has 10 -12 spots in Boston, sports bars and Mexican restaurants,

“For Tequila Jacks, we sent chefs to train with Jon’s Mexican chain restaurants and brought over chefs at the start also. It was growing lovely until Covid.”

The former Cork hurler highlighted the resilience and adaptation of Tequila Jacks, citing the extremely popular glass domes that were installed in September last year .

“Again, unique to us. People love dining out in them, they are something different, they are always booked out every weekend. Very popular.”

Another business taking steps to survive the pandemic is The Rearden’s Group which includes Preachers on Washington Street, Rearden’s, often referred to as the ‘Copperface Jacks of Cork’ and Chambers, as well as The Oliver Plunkett on Oliver Plunkett Street.


Owned by Margaret Keneally and run by General Manager John Styles, the company took the decision to covid test all staff at all four venues before every shift for the month of August.

Speaking to The Echo, Mr Styles explained the format.

“We are testing all staff members, every day, across all four venues. We have a testing centre on Washington Street. Staff paid for an extra 30 minutes before they are due to start work to go and get tested. It is a spit test and results are gathered in 10 minutes.”

The General Manager said the testing had caught half a dozen positive cases since they started the scheme in August and these were vaccinated people with no symptoms.

John Styles general manager of Reardens Group pictured with staff members, Rori Walsh, Clodagh Molloy, Eoin O’Sullivan and Brian Heffernan at their outdoor dining area on Little Cross Street.	Picture: Dan Linehan
John Styles general manager of Reardens Group pictured with staff members, Rori Walsh, Clodagh Molloy, Eoin O’Sullivan and Brian Heffernan at their outdoor dining area on Little Cross Street. Picture: Dan Linehan

“Margaret Kenneally, the owner of The Rearden’s Group, brought in antigen testing for the health and safety of the customers and staff of the business,” Mr Styles said. “It ensures that the staff are covid free starting work. Everyone wears a coloured wristband, a different colour every day that signifies they have been tested that day.”

The testing is costing €1500 a day and it is running till September when most people will be vaccinated.

“We are covering all bases,” Mr Styles said, “We have signs up so people know and are aware of the scheme.”

Mr Styles also said that the group is working hard on their service.

“We, pretty much, have a bar academy running in the background. There is a lot of work being done with staff before they are behind the bar and on the floor Loads of people carrying trays of water around the place behind the scenes! We have a lot of good enthusiastic young people working for us and its a good team.“

The bar academy is very structured, there is a programme and outline, from the orientation of the building to serving pints and carrying trays, staff spend three to five days before being out on the floor or on the bar.

“There is a lot of work to do on the ordering system also, on the iPads, tills and the paperwork, etc. The maitre de role is 3 or 4 people now and it’s a big responsibility.”

In terms of ‘going out’ in 2021, Mr Style acknowledged it’s a different experience now.

“It’s about having food and drink, ‘going on the piss’ has been diluted, you can’t wander off chatting to strangers and buy a round of shots. But people are getting out that is the main thing.”

The Reardens Group General Manager said Rearden’s has reintroduced music outdoors, from DJ’s, bands and had a saxophone player and pianist in the outdoor area last weekend.

“We have got to bring something else to the table, it is very hard bringing people into a big venue with nothing happening.”

In the Secret Garden, the venue has been hosting what Mr Styles described as a “seated disco.”

“The Secret Garden is a venue which can hold 450 people. We have 120 people in for food and drinks. It’s 8pm - 11pm instead of 11pm - 2pm.

“There is a greater intensity there, It’s basically a seated disco, nobody can leave the table and it’s gas, they are all sitting down waving phones at each other from their different tables. Like, it’s unreal.”

Mr Styles describes it as a bit of craic.

“People enjoy it, and it’s another string to the bow. People are very familiar with Secret Garden, it’s a rooftop garden so you can smoke and drink and eat and chat. Overall people are happy to come in.”

The Rearden’s Group General Manager, who took up the role 18 months ago, said he didn’t think he would enjoy managing a superpub in the current circumstances but said he was.

“I really enjoy it, I didn’t think I would. This is all I know, it’s what I’m good at.”

While Cork’s publicans are keen to highlight the innovations they are putting in place, there is no underestimating the challenges facing the industry.

Mr McCarthy said he feared for the service sector in the New Year.

Soho, which is a 16,000sq foot, four-storey building, with a pre-pandemic capacity of 800 people, currently seats 250. He said he and his staff are “working very hard to break even, even with the Government supports.”

“With the restrictions, there is just no way we can let 800 people into the bar,” he said. “We used to be open seven days a week, all hours to make money.

“With restrictions and staffing, we are open Wednesday to Sunday, from 4pm and everyone is off Monday and Tuesday when we are closed, but that will change in time.” The two-day closure is to ensure all staff get two days off.

Mr McCarthy said, looking at the Covid situation, it would seem that the restrictions are here from the next few months.

“In the long term, the challenges are in the New Year when they relax the supports. I fear for the industry. Great imagination is needed to set places apart in the New Year.”

In the short term, Mr McCarthy said getting chefs was a huge problem.

“At the moment we are taking it month by month. I feel the first quarter of next year will be tough. These are difficult and tough trading times. Until the return of concerts, tourists, parties, corporate and private, that is what we survive on.”

Mr Montgomery also said the Government subsidies were a key factor in maintaining his business and cited the increased staffing requirements needed to gather paperwork and facilitate table service as an issue.

“Staffing has doubled, due to the level of service needed and that is going to be a challenge in time. To match the level of staff needed with reduced numbers and income after supports are reduced, it’s all part of the battle.”

Paul Montgomery, proprietor and Annemarie Swaine at the roof top restaurant at Clancy’s on Princes Street.	 Picture: Eddie O’Hare
Paul Montgomery, proprietor and Annemarie Swaine at the roof top restaurant at Clancy’s on Princes Street. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

Currently, Clancy’s has 150 staff on their books. Mr Styles also said there was a lot more work for the staff and highlighted the dramatic reduction in capacity that was impacting on income.

“The capacity of Rearden’s is about 2,500 people, on the ground floor, which normally holds 500 people, we have 40 tables of four, which is 160 people and outdoors we can have 140 people.

Mr Styles outlined the tenuous nature of their outdoor seating which can further impact revenue.

“Outdoors, we have umbrellas, canopies but if there is heavy rain it is not the most amazing experience. For us, it is about survival.”

That said, Mr Styles sees the more traditional pub experience returning in time.

“I think the culture will be back with a bang once normality returns,” he said. “It’s funny the abnormal became normal and the unacceptable became acceptable very quickly.

“Given the chance I’m sure traditional pub trends will come back.”

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