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Pandemic upends life for Ireland’s pub owners-cum-undertakers

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Pandemic upends life
Funeral director and publican Jasper Murphy of McCarthy's Bar and Undertakers drives his hearse, through empty streets past his business, containing a prepared coffin to collect the body of a deceased local man from hospital, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in the County Tipperary town of Fethard, Ireland, January 31, 2021. . REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

FETHARD, Ireland (Reuters) – Pandemic upends life, Jasper Murphy has seen first-hand how the pandemic keeps people from coming together in good times and worse. As one of around 80 Irish publicans, they continue the custom of doubling up as the local funeral director.

In the small southern Irish town of Fethard, the doors of his McCarthy’s Pub and Restaurant have been shut for most of the last 10 months. With COVID-19 restrictions it is also restricting mourners at funerals to as few as 10 for most of that time.

In ordinary times, family and friends may remember a loved one over a meal and a pint at McCarthy’s. However, after a catastrophic third wave of infections led to more COVID-19 deaths in January than the previous eight months combined. That’s not possible that the nation locked down again.

“People really do miss that,” Murphy said, sorting orders for takeaway Sunday roast dinners – the only hospitality service allowed under COVID-19 curbs – before beginning to prepare a coffin for a funeral he was notified of early that morning.

“In a lot of cases, a funeral might be the only time a family meets. I know that’s an odd thing to say. When you’ve got people living away, you might not see them again until the next funeral.”

Many bar owners have traditionally juggled careers as undertakers, farmers, grocers, auctioneers and postmasters in Ireland. McCarthy’s was once a hotel, and numbers still hang on the rooms upstairs, where Murphy, the owner of the fifth century, turns into a body-gathering outfit.

Preparations in this case include a trip to Marks & Spencer to purchase a suit for the deceased, whose home was too wet to recover one of his own after he died in treatment.

Non-essential retail is currently prohibited.

In an additional complication of coronavirus, Murphy had to ask the owner of the store for a dispensation to make the order, since currently they prohibited the non-essential retail.

Three days later, at the man’s funeral, relatives, many of them elderly men, dotted their masks across the outer walls of the cemetery to pay their respects from a distance.

Before the pandemic, a few hundred or even a few thousand people sometimes attended funerals in rural Ireland, Murphy said. The service and burial pass by quickly with numbers limited.

Murphy last pulled a pint on Christmas Eve and might not be able to at least get there for another two months. His yard is full of unused beer kegs between the pub and a coffin storage space.

But the 53-year-old father-of-four – who also juggles homeschooling like his wife – is most looking forward to the return of McCarthy’s traditional music sessions on Thursday night, when he moonlights as a drummer and chief cameraman.

“Playing a session every week is my release. One time I was literally between two funerals and the band said if you don’t play, we’re not playing”. He remembered.

“So I hopped out of the hearse in my suit. And I hopped behind the drum kit and hopped back into the hearse again and headed off.”

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Pandemic upends life for Ireland’s pub owners-cum-undertakers

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