A slice of history... and a sticky bun
It is hard to explain to a generation born during the past 20 years how much Bewley’s once mattered to Dubliners. With its stained-glass windows, steaming frothy coffee, sticky buns and motley clientele of half-baked philosophers and poets, it was once the bustling Bohemian heart of Grafton Street.
Without it, the street has seemed bereft of atmosphere. But one wondered, as it re-opened this week after a ¤12m renovation, whether it can thrive again in a city with 50 branches of Starbucks and no end of Insomnia and Costa coffee shops.
In another branch of Bewley’s on Westmoreland street, James Joyce once plotted the opening of Dublin’s first cinema, the Volta.
As the historian of Bewley’s Tony Farmar put it: “Here, noisy groups of students — often including Joyce and his friends — would laugh and plot and borrow money from each other.”
For four generations, Bewley’s has had a special place in the hearts of the population across the social classes in the capital. The cafés were the last survivors of the tea shops and eating places where Dubliners stopped while out shopping; where boozers would seek refuge during the Holy Hour, the period during the afternoon when the pubs had to close.
As one visitor noted, its bentwood chairs, upholstered booths and marble-topped tables looked as if they had been there forever, as did much of the clientele. The regulars had their own seats, and scowled if anybody took their table.
Some of the staff became well-known Dublin figures in their own right.
Tattens Twomey, who arrived at the café in 1949 and stayed for many decades, was known as the Queen of Grafton Street Bewley’s, and was renowned for occasionally withering commentary on some of the flotsam and jetsam that came through the door.
Bewley’s can boast a history going back to pre-Famine times, when the family of Quakers imported tea directly into Ireland from China.
Bewley’s set up their first retail tea shop in the 1870s in South Great George’s Street, to attract passing trade from Ireland’s original purpose-built shopping centre, the South City Market. The tea shop became the Oriental Café in 1894, and two years later the café in Westmoreland Street opened. The latter is now a forlorn-looking Starbucks. Grafton Street quickly became the flagship store after it opened in 1927.
Here, shoppers and gossipers, actors, students and poets, politicians, lovers and business people came to shoot the breeze in a fug of steam and cigarette smoke, lounging around in the cloistered booths in a city where fewer and fewer people seemed to have proper jobs.
They came to read the papers next to open fires, surrounded by mahogany fittings, or to enjoy deep conversations over cakes and coffee.
The novelist JP Donleavy once described how the customers usually included accountants and elegant “housewives” — and “in some shadowy corner, a hungover ill-natured poet would lurk studying the day’s racing form”.
Up until the 1980s, there were three great smells of Dublin: the less than palatable aroma of the sniffy Liffey, little more than a passing sewer; the waft of hops from the Guinness brewery; and the smell of roasting coffee that spilled appetisingly onto Grafton Street from Bewley’s.
Since the cafés opened in the 1890s, the famous and infamous of Dublin life have enjoyed their atmosphere: as well as Joyce, there were key political figures and architects of the future State such as Arthur Griffith, and Maud Gonne would often take a break from being WB Yeats’s muse to pop in for a quick pot of tea. For poet Patrick Kavanagh, it was a stopping-off-place between pubs. And Garret FitzGerald came to chat up his future wife, Joan.
Even the gloomy philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein went there to ruminate about the universe. While staying in Dublin, Wittgenstein wrote his Philosophical Investigations, and dined in Bewley’s on omelette washed down with coffee. In letters to friends, he expressed delight at the fact that staff there would always remember his order without him even needing to place it.
It may have been a Dublin institution for decades, but as its historian Tony Farmar has noted, it was not easy to make profitable — especially after the 1960s, when Irish tastes changed somewhat.
When I was a student, one arrived at a table to be greeted by a pile of cakes, sticky buns and the equally renowned almond buns. The management had a sometimes misplaced trust in the clientele that they would always pay for what they had eaten. And the numerous floors in the Grafton Street premises required several expensive kitchens and a large contingent of staff to run up and down.
By the early 1970s, the cafés were owned by kindly, soft-spoken Victor Bewley, Dublin’s most prominent Quaker, who at that time was involved in a campaign to provide housing for Travellers.
A noted philanthropist, he helped fund a voluntary school for Travellers on a halting site in Cherry Orchard by supplying them with free milk and food.
In 1972, he caught the State’s imagination by transferring Bewley’s ownership to its workforce as a co-operative. It lasted for nine years, but was not a financial success.
Eventually, as it languished in the financial doldrums and students had made off without paying for one sticky bun too many, Patrick Campbell stepped in to buy the business.
The cafés have had many ups and downs since, and quite a number of refurbishments, and during the early part of the last decade it was feared that the Grafton Street café would close forever. But Patrick Campbell has been determined to revive it.
And former patrons were understandably chuffed to celebrate its long awaited return this week.
JP Donleavy once described how ‘in some shadowy corner, a hungover ill-natured poet would lurk studying the day’s racing form’
Strange brew: The Grafton Street café’s famous patrons include Arthur Griffith and Maud Gonne
Patrick Campell at this week’s re-opening