By Clodagh Kilcoyne
FETHARD, Ireland (Reuters) - As one of around 80 Irish publicans carrying on the tradition of doubling up as the local funeral director, Jasper Murphy has seen first hand how the pandemic is preventing people coming together in good times and bad.
The doors of his McCarthy's Pub and Restaurant in the small southern Irish town of Fethard have been shut for large parts of the last 10 months, with COVID-19 restrictions also limiting mourners at funerals to as few as 10 for much of that period.
In ordinary times, family and friends might remember a loved one over a meal and a pint at McCarthy's, but that's not possible with the country locked down again after a devastating third wave of infections led to more COVID-19 deaths in January than the previous eight months combined.
"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."
Historically in Ireland, many bar owners juggled careers as undertakers, farmers, grocers, auctioneers and postmasters. McCarthy's was once a hotel and numbers still hang on the rooms upstairs, where Murphy, the fifth generation proprietor, changes into a suit to collect the body.
In this instance preparations include a trip to Marks & Spencer to buy a suit for the deceased, whose home was too damp to retrieve one of his own after he died in care.
In an added coronavirus complication, Murphy had to ask the store owner for a dispensation to make the purchase, as non-essential retail is currently banned.
At the man's funeral three days later, friends, many of them elderly men, dotted around the outer walls of the graveyard in masks to pay their respects at a distance.
A few hundred, or even a few thousand often attended funerals in rural Ireland before the pandemic, Murphy said. With numbers restricted, the service and burial pass by quickly.
Murphy last pulled a pint on Christmas Eve and may not get to for another two months at least. His yard between the pub and a store room of coffins is full of unused beer kegs.
But with vaccines rolling out, the 53-year-old father-of-four - who like his wife also juggles homeschooling - is most looking forward to the return of McCarthy's Thursday night traditional music sessions, 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 recalled.
"So I hopped out of the hearse in my suit, hopped behind the drum kit and hopped back into the hearse again and headed off."
(Additional reporting and writing by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Mike Collett-White)