‘The craic is back!’
Publican Brendan Fay is ebullient as he leans through his newly installed front-hatch windows and waves energetically to a familiar face driving down Main Street. In reply, the driver lifts a solitary finger in recognition, as is the country thing to do, toots on the horn, and travels onwards.
"There's a great buzz about the town," he enthuses. "Ever since the County Fleadh, it was a real eye-opener for some people, they hadn't realised just how much we'd all missed out on seeing each other, coming together."
He's right - Belturbet has never been brighter, with the Erneside town one of only three selected last year to benefit from the first phase of the newly announced Streetscape Enhancement Initiative. The scheme directly supported local property owners to undertake works such as shop-front improvements, painting buildings in vibrant colours, installing lighting, and developing green areas, along with the installation of canopies and street furniture.
"It has been an incredible success, and has made a big difference. I think everyone can see that, and the people who came to Belturbet over the June Bank Holiday weekend, they were impressed with how the place looked, the work of Tidy Towns and other groups as well, it's been a true community effort."
Like many other bar owners across the country, Brendan's livelihood came to a shuddering halt when Covid hit, and government restrictions hit the pub trade hardest, with various contrivances involving serving food and table service introduced.
Brendan chose not to go down that path, and The Widow's Bar, a mainstay on Main Street, remained close for almost 28 months. The arrival of the County Fleadh in Belturbet, after a two-year hiatus, set Brendan a deadline.
"I had to decide one way or another but I have to say it felt good to be back. The whole weekend was amazing - amazing for the town, amazing for local business, amazing for the local community, and the musicians who came to play and compete here. Great credit has to go to the organising committee, the local Comhaltas, the team of volunteers, and to everyone else involved. Our town is famous for its music, and creativity, and it was so great to see it all come back."
The pub trade has come through a difficult period. Even before Covid, some rural pubs had closed their doors. For others, Brendan says, the pandemic "gave them a chance to get out. The trade was already going through a major transition even before Covid hit."
Despite the rise of gastro and pubs serving savoury fare, Brendan believes there will always be a place for the traditional pub, where drinks are served at the counter as if an altar and the "craic is ninety".
"We've enough great restaurants here in Belturbet, The Seven Horseshoes, The Castle, Cafe Nua now and The Bedrock, without me getting involved.
And I think there's a place for me and my pub and others like me as well, where people want to come in, listen to a bit of music, sit and talk and have the banter without worrying about salt and pepper sitting in front of them. It's the old céad míle fáilte. After, all we've been through, I really get the feeling that the craic has come back, and long may it last."
Brendan has a number of music events lined up to take place at the newly reopened Widow's Bar, with The Prodigal's Album launch on Friday, June 24; Green Diesel, Saturday, June 25; and a family fun day taking place on Sunday, June 26, with magic show, face-painting and much more from 2pm.
This will be followed with music by Belturbet Comhaltas, 4-6pm, and Celtic Storm (9-11pm).