A slice of his­tory... and a sticky bun

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.