BELFAST — Bittles, a destination whiskey bar in the center of Belfast, was firebombed during the decades of sectarian violence known as the Troubles.
Proprietor John Bittles recalls being warned by police that he should get a weapon to protect himself, that militants might show up ready for a shooting.
The coronavirus era, he said, has been worse.
“This stuff with COVID has actually had a bigger detrimental effect than all that there,” said Bittles, 59. “Maybe it’s because I was younger and it went over my head, but this here is completely unprecedented times.”
The roughly 1,200 pubs of Northern Ireland were forced Friday to close, again, to beat back the coronavirus. They will remain shuttered for at least a month, part of a “circuit breaker” to limit social contact and slow transmission. Schools will be closed for an extended half-term break, as well.
The 7,000 pubs in the Republic of Ireland could follow, as health officials there recommended on Friday the country move to Level 5 measures, the most strict.
The new restrictions are a heavy blow to establishments already bruised by a spring lockdown and the social distancing measures they’ve had to incorporate since. But as pub-goers in Belfast nursed their last drinks this past week, the conversation was less about finances than about the loss of a central part of cultural life.
“The pub to me is home, really,” said flame-haired and tattoo-emblazoned Ollie Woodhouse, 24, sitting in the Sunflower, a pub popular with the arts and media crowd, the LGBT community, tradespeople, hipsters, hospitality workers — with everyone, really.
Suzanne Magee, 32, a manager at the Sunflower, said she is “devastated” by the closure.
Pubs in Northern Ireland aren’t mere boozers, but way stations. For many living alone, including the elderly, the establishments can be a point of social contact, as vital as a daily stop at the rural post office or the church. It’s where people share life stories, bond, sing ballads and “have relief,” Magee said.
“It’s not all about getting [drunk],” Magee said, “It’s about people.”
Her pub, which always has a full jar of dog treats for four-legged friends, hosts Spanish language classes and a mental health group for heavy metal fans.
Dean Quinn, 21, goes to the Sunflower for a cup of coffee after weekly therapy sessions because “it feels safe for queer people, like a friendly home environment to unwind and take a breath, so closing feels like I have lost somewhere I can be myself.”
The pub is “the third space,” said Colin Neill, chief executive of Ulster Hospitality, a lobby group. “It’s neither home nor work; it is where you go to escape.”
Neill said that in the Irish bar: “There are no barriers. The lord of the land or the bin man in the pub, everyone is equal.”
Pedro Donald owns the Sunflower and the American, a pub across town that dates to the 1860s.
When asked about the significance of pubs, he started with the word “lifeline,” but then edited himself. That’s “too dramatic,” he said. He settled on the word “essential,” saying closure will cut people off.
Donald, 55, was born in Argentina to Belfast parents and has been working in pubs since his school days.
“This is an old-school public house, I love that term, public house,” Donald said. “It is somewhere you meet people, be it a business meeting, be it someone catching up, be it someone home for Christmas.”
When pubs had to close earlier this year for a few months, it was a bit of a novelty, he said, as people got a break during the lockdown to reflect on life, and it provided an opportunity for publicans to get done things they had been putting off.
“This time is going to be harder,” Donald said.
Bittles said that during the spring lockdown, he still came to the bar every day and pulled the shutters up — for his own mental health.
His unusual flatiron building on Upper Church Lane is adorned with images of famous Irish writers and political artwork, and has a traditional Cead Mile Failte (Irish language for a “hundred thousand welcomes”) sign above its tiny bar.
The pub attracts tourists but is usually full of regulars, mostly men, who drink whiskey or Guinness. There is no food, sport or music, just patrons talking over pints.
Bittles knows them all. “They could drink at home, but they come here to chat,” he said. “We know them. We look after them. Some have been coming to us for 30 years. Protestants and Catholics, whoever. And the bar is a major part of my life. I never take a week off.”
Eddie Atkinson, 67, a wheelchair user, originally from Leeds in England, said Bittles is his favorite bar because it is full of character, great whiskey and his friends.
“What is happening with COVID means to me I am housebound for four weeks and can’t go out and meet anybody,” he said. “I think eventually there is going to be a mental health crisis.”
Atkinson has been making the 30-mile journey from his home in Toomebridge to Bittles in Belfast every week for 26 years.
He said pub culture in Ireland is completely different from that in England.
“You are only in there five minutes before complete strangers are talking to you. That wouldn’t happen in an English pub.”
He was reluctant to head home.
“I’ll see you on the other side,” an old friend said to Atkinson as he left the bar.