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  • Writer's pictureDylan McCormack

By the River - Small Business in a Small Town

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

Small business is feeling pressure like never before. The world has shut down and unless you are essential your doors are shut also. What is it like to own a small business during these times? Is it all doom and gloom or is there ways for these owners to keep themselves going?

Situated in Banagher, Co. Offaly by the River Shannon sits J. J Houghs Singing Pub. A rustic little bar filled to the brim with character. Picture your typical, cliched Irish bar. Not one of those too clean versions you find all over the world with their manufactured design that screams, ‘Look here! Look at how Irish we are with our clipping of old papers and pictures of Guinness adds. Look how Irish we are!’. Houghs is the real deal. Entering through its great red door you find a dark pub with an old stone fireplace to your right and the cracked wooden bar right in front of you. The floor is dark and would almost remind you of walking into an old church. The main windows at the front are usually covered in flags or other materials so the light that enters is low and wintery. This description makes the place sound almost sinister, a place you wouldn’t want to take your mother, but it most assuredly is not. The walls are decorated with pictures of regulars from by gone eras and today. They all have the smiles and jovial looks that makes you wish you were with every one of them. In the time before lockdown, this pub was almost the epicentre of the small town of Banagher. Where once the town had eleven bars, now is down to just five. And out of Houghs you would have heard regular live cèilidh music, large groups of people talking and singing. The craic essentially.

Ger Hough is an easy man to chat to. We start the zoom call, and after a few moments of bad WIFI connection we eventually connect. Once we do, we both begin to talk about our personal experiences with the first lockdown. Already, I’ve lost the run of the interview. I begin to talk about how I came back from London before the first lockdown and the big culture shock of coming from that bustling metropolis to the barren boglands of home.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “The adaptability of the human mind.”

This is how our conversation begins. Me rambling on about my personal woes and Ger coming in with a well thought out response. There’s a lot of stop and start with the beginning of our conversation, due to the aforementioned lack of internet connection. Seeing as we are both living out in the country, for a while one or both of us kept cutting out with the other coming in with, ‘are you gone?’ Thankfully, the WIFI and I get a hold of ourselves and let Ger speak.

Ger tells me how the pub was bought in the forties by his grandfather, passed on to his father and finally in 2018 Ger took over. Asked whether he ever saw himself working in the bar as a young man, the short answer is he didn’t.

“I remember thinking, I’ll never do this pub. I’ll never live above the pub. I’m going to Hollywood.”

At the end of the day, Ger is a creative. If you were to look at his YouTube page or the pub’s Instagram, you can see a man bursting with creativity. Clips of short sketches and Christmas videos fill the pages of his online world. Recently, he caught a lot of online attention for his ‘School of Hough’ sketch where he lampoons the confusing lockdown measures that the government had put in place just before Christmas. However, these sketches he sees as more of a hobby. His dream is to create his own script that he can use like Sylvester Stallone used Rocky to catapult himself into stardom.

“It’s a misleading story though, cause it gives gobshites like me hope that you can write a film script in three days.”

Obviously, he says this all with a laugh and a smile, but you get the feeling by just chatting to him for a bit that film is his passion. Just looking at his videos online will show you a man who cares about what he is producing.

Running the bar and his film aspirations didn’t seem to phase him though.

“Time creeps up on you… and I knew that I had this responsibility to run the place, so I thought that maybe there was ways of channelling your own passion using the pub as a platform.” And he did. Look up Ger Hough on YouTube and you can see a man that didn’t let his duty stop him from pursuing his dream.

Our chat is inevitably scattered with mentions of the lockdown and the struggles of small business. Even before the first lockdown, Ger tells me, the industry was on a steep slope. By relying on a small town such as Banagher, the place was never busy enough for him. While money is obviously an important factor to Ger, it doesn’t strike me as being the be all. In fact, the safety of his staff and regulars was so important that he decided to close the pub before the first lockdown was even sanctioned. Again, he uses the word responsibility in terms of this decision.

Throughout our chat, I got the sense that Ger isn’t too positive about the future of small pubs. Everyone is moving away, and everything is too expensive now. While the river does bring tourists during the summer small towns need more to draw in and keep business. Yet, even talking about this, Ger keeps a positive tone.

“I’m a pessimistic optimist. It’s like having a hangover. You wake up and everything feels shit but when you open the front door it’s not as scary as you thought it was.”

We end the conversation to what his next film project is going to be. He’s struggling with writers block. But the doubt doesn’t stop him and the only way he feels to ‘develop yourself is to face these things.”

Signing off he tells me to message him if I get any filming ideas. I promise him I’ll keep him in mind.

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