Nobody’s really sure about the origin of the phrase “the Luck of the Irish.” Some credit Irish miners striking paydirt during a gold rush. Others point to Celtic mythology.
But to be sure, Irish pub owners and managers in metro Atlanta and across Georgia say they aren’t depending on luck this month as they prepare for what they hope will be their first “normal” St. Patrick’s Day celebrations since the onset of COVID more than two years ago.
The first COVID cases in Georgia were reported in March 2020 and during that month, international travel was curtailed, local institutions and businesses closed their doors, the first social distancing guidelines came out of Washington, and the NCAA canceled the Final Four competition set for Atlanta.
Barkeeps have their fingers crossed that with widespread vaccinations, COVID cases leveling off or dropping and Georgia’s dearth of pandemic mandates, the decks are clear for crowds to return to Irish-themed taverns in March to welcome the spring weather, eat Irish food and hoist pints of perfectly poured Irish stout.
“2020 was a terrible year for us,” said Joshua Jacob, managing partner of Limerick Junction, an Irish pub in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta. “Very difficult.”
Other Irish-themed eateries faced similar declines due to COVID. At Fado, an Irish tavern in Buckhead, St. Patrick’s Day 2020 was “dead,” the pub’s general manager Collin Reilly said, with last year showing modest improvement.
Irish pub operators say they expect things will really change this year. Some plan to start this year’s celebrations on March 12, the Saturday before St. Patrick’s actual Day. Fado plans outdoor festival March 12 featuring live music and dancing. “We are hoping for a gangbuster St. Patrick’s Day this year,” Reilly said.
At Limerick Junction, business has been booming since about last June, Jacob said, but in a nod to continued COVID concerns this year, “we are doing a ‘pared down’ version of our annual party.” That means live music inside, with just a small outdoor beer garden that can help those leery of indoor elbow-rubbing dial down their anxiety.
At the Olde Blind Dog Pubs in Milton and Brookhaven, the celebration also starts March 12, the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day, with an indoor-outdoor event featuring several bands, a DJ and games. The party continues March 17 with a smaller footprint.
“I think people are ready to get out and do something,” said Ron Wallace, majority owner of the Olde Blind Dog Pubs.
The establishment, named International Best Irish Pub of the Year for 2015, saw some tough times during the pandemic, he indicated. After retreating to takeout sales only, Wallace said, the pubs reopened with servers and customers wearing masks. Restrictions have since been dropped, although they still dutifully sanitize.
“About 95 percent of Irish pubs are successful, if run properly,” Wallace said. “The ones that go down violate the culture of an Irish Pub and become a sports bar.”
Tradition resonates with Butch Elmgren, the owner of Thos. O’Reilly’s Public House in Sandy Springs. Elmgren is a member of the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Committee and was “born and raised” in a now-defunct Irish pub in that city.
Plans for St. Patrick’s Day at O’Reilly’s include local Irish groups and societies descending on his place after the March 12 parade in Atlanta. A weeklong celebration will include a number of live music events and Irish dancers plus “the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s parade” – 75 feet in a couple of minutes.
Elmgren says federal help under the Paycheck Protection Program helped keep the ship upright-even with a 10-month-shutdown. “Our survival was very much in doubt on multiple occasions,” he says frankly.
Short of shutting the doors, pub owners and managers have struggled with familiar issues affecting many varieties of business. Difficulty attracting staff. Soaring costs for food and materials-pub owners say some prices have tripled. There have also been supply-chain issues.
“It varies from week to week,” Jacob said. “One week a product that is ubiquitous will be out of stock, and then for two months a more niche product will be out of stock.”
And while pub operators hope COVID-related drops in business may nearly be over, they say that seniors and others concerned with safety can dine outdoors and ask unmasked servers to don them.
Despite widespread closures of all stripes of eateries, “I don’t see the [Irish] concept going away,” Jacob said. “We have always been a neighborhood place in the heart of Virginia-Highland. It’s one of those places you can go by yourself, and you’ll leave with some new friends.”