The Shebeen and Covid-19 in Ireland
The shebeen (or síbín, in Irish) has seen a quiet revival in Ireland since the pandemic of loneliness accompanying Covid-19 lockdowns reached Ireland in early 2020. It is widely known that the pub is a temple of communal interaction, deeply entrenched in the psyche of many Irish people. Pub closures have left a void in Irish society and particularly in its rural communities, where pubs are not only social hubs, but economic pillars. It appears that some have reverted to the shebeen in an attempt to quell their craving for human contact that social distancing and lockdowns induce.
What is a shebeen?
A shebeen is an illegal, unlicensed pub, usually found in people’s homes or sheds. Their historical origin is in Ireland, but the illicit bars soon made their way around the world, appearing and evolving in countries like South Africa, the US and Canada. Interestingly, while shebeens have long been in decline in Ireland, they became an essential meeting-place for the black people community under apartheid in South Africa and most are now legally operated there. Shebeens have become far less numerous in Ireland, but have made somewhat of a comeback since the onset of multiple Covid-19 lockdowns, which left people craving physical and social interaction. While shebeens are not exclusive to the Covid-19 period, there has been an upsurge in shebeen raids and reports in Ireland since the first lockdown in March.
The problem with shebeens during Covid-19
Shebeens have raised concerns for two main reasons during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Firstly, leaving the pandemic aside, they are illegal. Defined as “unlicensed drinking premises” under the Intoxicating Liquor Act of 1962, to be found attending (or to supply alcohol to) a shebeen is to break the law. It is reasonably difficult to differentiate between a shebeen and a “man-cave” or legal home-bar. Gardaí are provided with vague metrics to instruct their course of action. The Act states that large quantities of alcohol stored on a premises and evidence of frequent consumption are indicators of incriminating behaviour. This allows for substantial variation in the make-up of a shebeen. They may range in sophistication from a crude few taps and some seating to being almost indistinguishable from a licensed pub. In addition, the law states that an unlicensed premises can serve alcohol to the owner, family members, residents, workers and “bona fide” guests. Hence, the distinction between a genuine private gathering space and a shebeen is precarious under this framework. However, these ambiguities are irrelevant in a time of national lockdown, during which household visits are banned.
Consequently, the second issue that the shebeen’s return to relative prominence in Ireland presents is that assembling in a shebeen likely breaks public health rules, even during milder levels of government regulations. Non-adherence to these rules can contribute to the spread of Covid-19, which is economically and physically undesirable, and may result in unnecessary burden being placed on an already inefficient national healthcare service. It can also cause undue tension between citizens making sacrifices to comply with regulations and those using shebeens, which carries its own undesirable ramifications. Likewise, licensed publicans and other business-owners feel aggrieved that their pubs, which must obey public health guidelines when open, have been labelled as virus-spreading “scapegoats” and forced to close while shebeens have become increasingly prevalent. It is important to note that while shebeens have become more pervasive since the outbreak of Covid-19, an Garda Síochána have repeated that their presence does not represent endemic lawlessness. Shebeens have always been in Ireland and probably always will be. The Gardaí have appealed to the public to report any shebeens, and will raid all illicit premises they are alerted to.
Understanding the Irish shebeen renaissance during the pandemic
Social drinking is a unique outlet for Irish people. The swathe of mental health issues that have arisen as a result of lockdowns and social isolation offer a simple explanation of why many have risked breaking the law and public health guidelines. People have become lonely, and one of their primary means of interacting with other humans has been placed off-limits. Generally, shebeens are not in the business of cramming in rabbles or making money. Rather, they are small spaces where a few people meet to satisfy their need for human connection. While the shebeen presents complex moral and legal quandaries, the reasons behind their upswing are as basic as any other human craving.