Normally around this time of year, Davis Square in Somerville is packed with shamrocks. Loud, green, and boisterous, residents clamor around Irish pubs, stoked for Guinness and green beer.
On Monday night, the eve of St. Paddy’s — and the last night Massachusetts restaurants were able to host dine-in customers before closing for three weeks — this revelry was nowhere to be found.
Instead, the streets are eerily quiet as most are staying home because of the coronavirus. I wonder, who, if anyone, has ventured into the Irish pubs?
Most restaurants along Elm Street are dark and shuttered, and the few that my partner and I pass are barely occupied. From the outside, we can see The Burren, that beloved landmark of Davis Square glimmering with string lights and tinsel.
When we step inside, we are immediately greeted with the warm, familiar din of people, talk, and laughter. There is neither the expected line nor crowd, yet a rich human energy infuses the atmosphere like we were coming home.
At the bar, my partner and I order Guinness, Harpoon Craic, and whiskey-laden Irish mules to pair with our own plates of corned beef and cabbage. We are surprised by how fast the meal is served, as though the kitchen was all too ready for us. They are primed for the annual March deluge of patrons craving their buttery mashed potatoes, sweet carrots, and translucent cabbage draped like fluted robes over odalisques of tender corned beef. It is the kind of decadent comfort that one looks forward to when New Year’s resolutions have given way to cravings for good dark beer, white starches, and salt-cured, meat-marbled slabs of fat.
But I imagine their preparedness this time is like taking a deep breath and getting punched in the gut. The Burren spent the previous week readying over 200 pounds of beef stew and 200 pounds of corned beef — an amount that would have easily been consumed during a normal Saint Patrick’s Day weekend — but this year, there is no normal for customers to attend to.
In the front room of The Burren, tables were spaced wide apart, creating ample room to stand back from one another. Yet, the need for human connection treading against all caution. Friends greet each other with elbow bumps. The few diners are islands in their booths, but they lean their faces toward one another. Behind us, a couple makes out like it’s the end of days.
This holiday week would normally need all hands on deck staffing to cope with the reveling crowds—yet tonight, it’s just Dan Moy working the bar. I chat with Moy, a bartender who’s manned the taps at The Burren for sixteen years. “You plan for this holiday. Working on Saint Patrick’s Day is like a Christmas bonus…. And we don’t get Christmas bonuses in this industry.” Moy has a three-year-old and a six-month-old at home, and is one of the fortunate ones. He just sold his house, giving him a small financial cushion to help support his family for the next few months. Most, however, do not have this luxury. “I know a lot of people who live paycheck to paycheck, and they don’t know what they are going to do now.”
Two young women take the bar stools beside us. Both from Dublin, they planned their visit to Boston around Saint Patrick’s Day because no other could compare—even in Ireland. They had made their itinerary well in advance of the coronavirus outbreak. We can neither clink our pints nor cure the pandemic, but talking with them eases the strangeness of this situation.
And as the night wears on, people leave and no one comes in to replace them. On a normal night at The Burren, with the music of Irish sessions reeling through the air, we might easily be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. Tonight, there is an undeniable emptiness to the place.
Before I leave, I’m able to catch the owner, Tommy McCarthy, who bears the brunt of the situation with wry optimism.
“I don’t want anyone to come in here and get sick,” he says. “We have to close for a few weeks, but we’ll be fine when this is all over.” His concerns are big and small — he is bothered by the nation’s response to COVID-19 and the excess food that, if he is not able to donate, will go to waste. Like everyone, he hopes normalcy returns soon.
On St. Patrick’s Day, we are reminded of the value of holidays like these. It is less about Irishness than about our deep-seated need for shared celebration. When The Burren (and the rest of Boston) eventually reopens, it will certainly be cause for a toast. We will get back to the kind of nights you can only get in your favorite pub. The nights where you make connections with people that we often don’t notice until it has been taken away, and the kind we crave and will welcome once it returns.
The Burren is closed beginning March 17 and will plan to reopen when statewide restrictions lift on April 6.