Billy Lawless — The Good (Friday) Senator
More than any other, Senator Billy Lawless - the ‘diaspora’ Senator - can take the credit for driving the Good Friday legislation finally passed last month. Pat Nolan spoke to the Chicago publican on a recent visit back to these shores.
7 March 2018 | 0
For 90 years the debate over allowing pubs to open on Good Friday had trundled on without resolution. Then, last year, independent Senator Billy Lawless took up the cudgels (well he would, wouldn’t he, he’s a publican himself?) with the result that after many years of intransigence by government pubs and restaurants can now sell alcohol on Good Friday.
And he made this difference simply because he felt so passionately about it from his first day as VFI President way back in 1982.
He’d always believed that the law forcing pubs to close on Good Friday was hypocritical. Even back then he’d proposed relaxing the law, with opposition to his stance coming from many of his own members who’d use the day to clean and paint-up their premises. He’d always remind them there are plenty of days in January & February to clean and paint their pubs.
“What hit me, coming from Galway, was seeing hundreds and thousands of tourists who couldn’t get as much as a sandwich – they just couldn’t believe it,” he says.
It was the type of hypocrisy where greyhound tracks, train stations, theatres and (more latterly) the Aviva Stadium could serve alcohol to the public but not pubs.
“Ah, come on!” he’d think, “Holy Thursday’s the highest off-sales day of the year and some people binge-drink throughout Good Friday!”
Many of his Seanad colleagues supported his Bill including those who strongly advocate for the Public Health Alcohol Bill. Even the Justice Minister at the time Frances Fitzgerald was happy (once it had passed the Seanad) to bring forward the legislation.
Senator Imelda Henry also had a lot of the groundwork done during her five-year period and being a publican herself she’d have been very involved in it, he adds.
“The Marriage Referendum also helped change the climate but work certainly went into this, it didn’t just happen.”
And so fast forward to the present and what now takes up his time as a Senator.
The reason former Taoiseach Enda Kenny appointed him to the Senate in May 2016 was to represent the Irish diaspora abroad, to carry out advocacy work for the ‘undocumented Irish’ in the US.
“That’s my main focus but I was criticised by some for taking on the Good Friday issue – but that’s also been my own business for the last 40 years.”
Indeed it has. He and his wife Anne have four children who now run six restaurants and pubs in the US.
“These represent the top echelon of fine dining in downtown Chicago,” he says, “They’re large outlets with around 500 people in one of them, for example.
“The Gage holds some 350, the Dearborn beside City Hall seats some 300 and has a 40 foot long bar but my first pub there was the Irish Oak in Wrigleyville.”
Billy was on the board of the Illinois Restaurant Association too. He has now been replaced on it by his son.
Rural/city divide in Ireland’s pubs
On his frequent trips back to Ireland he doesn’t hear that much complaint about what needs to be done still vis-à-vis licensed trade legislation but the biggest anomaly he’s noticed here is the rural/city divide and the death of the rural Irish pub, once so much a part of the fabric of Ireland, of community-based hospitality.
“I know that rural areas are in serious trouble,” he continues, “We used to have too many pubs over the years but they’ve also been a vital part of communities all over Ireland. The saddest thing I see is the number of male rural Irish farmers, one of the biggest losses to the debate on drink-driving.
“They used to come down to the local for the news and to relax.
“Basically it was their home-from-home and they enjoyed the company. Of course they’d to drive to it but now they’re at home alone and sadly suicides have gone up in rural Ireland.”
The drinking methods too have changed over the years, he says.
“Minimum Unit Pricing needs to be brought in as quickly as possible. That’s probably the most important public health measure.
“One of the things I’ve seen now I am back home in Ireland more regularly and which was pointed out by a friend of mine, a taxi driver in Galway, who collects 18 year-olds from home on a Friday and Saturday night to go into town. Most have drunk a large amount of alcohol – mainly spirits – before they leave their home.
“Buying cheap vodka from supermarkets with no controls and then coming in for the late night entertainment…. I suppose I’m glad that it’s in their homes that they’re drinking rather than in the bushes. MUP must be set at a level that will make a difference to affect consumer behavior.”
The question is will the Alcohol Bill’s provisions really be able to tackle such problems?
“The supermarkets are using low alcohol prices to drive sales but you can’t restrict advertising, social media being what it is. How do you control that? It’s difficult.
Pub trends and today’s customer
In Galway, drinking in pubs is pretty fashionable still, despite reports of Generation X abandoning the pub, he says. “Young people are looking for different things now,” he says, “In Chicago we offer both fine dining and the pub so we haven’t lost that Irish pub character and I would hate it if we ever did.“
That’s what makes the Irish Pubs Global winners so very proud of their Irish pub concept abroad, he adds.
Evolution of the Irish pub
He’s proud of the way that the Irish pub has evolved since his VFI Presidency in 1982 “when pubs were not in a good place”.
He remembers being the first publican in Galway to introduce pub lunches – now all pubs have to have a food offering to survive.
Over this time he describes as “phenomenal” the standards in today’s pubs, with some even having a Michelin Star.
“It’s a great development which has further to go into the digital age to keep evolving,” he believes, “Most importantly, standards for which we’re now renowned weren’t there 35 years ago.”
Chicago/Dublin differences in licensed trade
The former owner of the Tribesmen in Galway can annotate a number of differences between being a publican in Galway and Chicago.
“We’ve much the same issues there as here: getting good staff, for example. Chicago is so busy that its biggest problem remains getting people into our profession. In that, I don’t find the two countries much different.”
Chicago has some advantages over Ireland though.
“It’s much easier to open a pub/restaurant in Chicago than in Ireland,” he says, “I can open any premises once it’s been zoned and I can apply for a food incidental with drink licence much more easily than here.
“We’ve the same issues in regard to competition though. We have to be on our toes.
“What’s similar is that everybody thinks that there’s a fortune to be made in the pub/restaurant until they get into it.
“We work to a 70% gross margin. All expenses come out of that, so you come out with under 10% net.
“The food business is 60% of our turnover with a much higher markup on liquor than food because the labour costs are in food, but you have to have it.”
On the other hand, some aspects of the Irish on-trade are superior.
“You could never lose the craic and cameradie in an Irish pub.
“Guinness is still a stalwart even with all these boutique beers – the biggest change I see in Chicago.
“Even though we’re not an Irish-themed pub, we’re still seen as one and are proud to be so.”
Rural Ireland remains close to his heart it seems, as he has huge ties with it.
“… After all, I came from the dairying business into the pub trade.”