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Remembering Bewley’s: Once 'the heart and the hearth of Dublin'

Donal Fallon reflects on the end of an era, as Bewley’s cafe on Grafton street prepares to close its doors.

Donal Fallon Historian, writer and broadcaster

THE STORY OF Bewley’s as a brand is a truly international story. On one level, it is the story of a Quaker family with their roots in England, who made their commercial beginnings by importing Chinese tea to Ireland in the 1830s.

On another level, it is a very local tale. The name of Bewley’s will forever be synonymous with their series of self-styled Oriental Cafes which opened across Dublin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

One of those branches, Grafton Street, was the jewel in the crown of the company. It was a place where one could see all aspects of Dublin life, from the fashionable enjoying “coffee at eleven, and a stroll in Stephen’s Green” to the literary set.

The great J.P Donleavy, author of The Ginger Man, recalled that “in some shadowy corner, a hungover ill-natured poet would lurk studying the day’s racing form.”

A new kind of cafe

The city of Dublin had long played host to coffee houses, indeed the city of the eighteenth century was home to a whole series of institutions which styled themselves in such a manner, but they were almost exclusively the preserve of those at the very top of society, modelled on their equivalent on the neighbouring island. Jonathan Swift rightly said that too many would “mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom.”

90070720 Source: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland

What Bewley’s opened on South Great George’s Street in the 1890s was something different entirely, intended to bring the cafe to the masses. That first cafe was quickly followed by another on Westmoreland Street, in more recent times a Starbucks and TGI Fridays, though its Bewley’s ghost signage remained, a reminder of a former Dublin.

Advertisements for the early branches noted that the coffee was “rich, strong and aromatic – fresh roasted and ground daily on the premises.”

A young James Joyce became a frequent visitor to the Westmoreland Street branch,  a contemporary remembering it was “the afternoon resort of the intelligentsia”, ensured by its proximity to Trinity College Dublin. Still, it was the Grafton Street branch of the company which would become the Bewley’s flagship.

Stained glass windows and Opera Cake

Ernest Bewley’s 1927 Grafton Street cafe was unlike any cafe the city had seen before, with the company investing heavily in the appearance of the new site. Its beautiful mosaic facade captures the best of the Art Deco fashion of the time, while inside visitors would be greeted by stained glass windows from Harry Clarke, the greatest stained glass window artist of Irish history. 

born-on-this-day-james-joyce A young James Joyce became a frequent visitor to the Westmoreland Street Bewley's. Source: PA

Clarke’s windows depict the orders of architecture: Corinthian, Doric, Ionic and Composite. On closer inspection, butterflies, small colourful birds, tiny flowers and more are hidden in the detail. They beautifully frame the back of the downstairs seating area.

The more recent stained glass comes from Jim Fitzpatrick, an artist perhaps most widely known in Ireland for his work with Thin Lizzy. Fitzpatrick’s iconography for the band remains iconic, while he also designed the 1960s print of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara which would become one of the most recognisable art pieces of the twentieth century.

In Bewley’s, we see a window from his school of Celtic influenced art, showing the Goddess Cruithne. Fitzpatrick’s work can also be found on the other side of Grafton Street in Captain Americas, itself an important part of the story of 1970s Dublin.

pjimage The landmark Grafton St building features artwork by Pauline Bewick and Jim Fitzpatrick. Source: PA, Rolling News

Pauline Bewick completes the trilogy of stained glass artists in Bewley’s. Her work, entitled Cafe Society, depicts customers sitting in front of the Harry Clarke windows.  It is one remarkable piece of art tipping its hat in the direction of another. It is easy to lose yourself in the art and aesthetics of Bewley’s, but a cafe builds its reputation on food and not surroundings.

Particularly iconic on the plates was Opera Cake, a French cake dating from the 1950s and consisting of several layers. 

It is the kind of thing one feels guilty eating. Always pricey and somewhat indulgent, its Proletarian sibling, by comparison, was the Bewley’s sticky bun. The smell of Bewley’s roast coffee and sticky buns is as nostalgic a Dublin memory as the Millenium of 1988.

A part of the street

Bewley’s Grafton Street branch became a part of its surroundings in a way no other branch could truly claim. There was the Diceman, Thom McGinty, a legendary Dublin street performer who not only performed on the street outside Bewley’s, but who was often hired by the cafe.

00001132 Thom McGinty (The Diceman) was a regular in Bewley's and often worked for them. His coffin was carried past the cafe in 1995.

A biographer notes that “for Bewley’s cafés alone he appeared as a Hallowe’en Brack-ula, a green Santa Claus and a composite Easter-egg chicken.”  The poet Brendan Kennelly, a Bewley’s regular, recalled watching McGinty at his pitch outside the cafe:

Time and again, bang in the middle of Grafton Street, I have been happy to join other children gazing on this figure, either utterly immobile or moving with a slowness so perfectly measured as to be almost imperceptible.

Thom McGinty’s magic has to do with his ability to mesmerise his audience, to lure them out of their busy city selves and to take them away into that land of perfect stillness where marvelous dreams are as normal as Bewley’s sticky buns.

The cafe gained a reputation as a good place to work, with staff sticking around for decades. There was Kathleen ‘Tatens’  Toomey who joined in 1948 and remained for decades, becoming known affectionately in Dublin as the ‘Queen of Bewley’s.’

One Dublin memoir recalls that “she had the air of a duchess welcoming guests into her home.” Victor Bewley, the well-known Dublin philanthropist and activist, even-handed the company over to a co-operative model in the 1970s, which in essence meant that staff were no longer staff, they were stakeholders.  

Bewley’s reborn and reborn again

The history of Bewley’s since the 1980s has been the curious story of several rebirths. The company was rescued by Campbells in the late 1980s, the family carrying out significant work on the Grafton Street cafe in the 1990s.

The closure of Bewley’s in 2004 sent shockwaves through Dublin – how could it be in the midst of the Celtic Tiger, when demand for coffee had never been higher, that such an iconic institution could close its doors?

Writing at the time, Jerome Reilly captured public feeling about the changing city, insisting that “Grafton Street could just as well be in London, New York or Milan – the same shops and the same commercial imperatives of the new designer culture…the loss of Bewley’s and other intrinsically Irish businesses to be replaced by impersonal brands will be felt like the death of an old friend.”

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bewleys-oriental-cafe-grafton-street-dublin-co-dublin-ireland-people-outside-of-a-cafe Source: The Irish Image Collection

Not for the first time, rumours of Bewley’s demise were proven to be greatly exaggerated. In its most recent incarnation, the public wondered if we would ever see its doors open again, a seemingly endless restoration job taking place out of view.

When all was revealed, however, the value of the work was immediately apparent, including the perfect restoration of the exterior of the cafe by P Mac’s restoration company. It seems just as we were becoming accustomed to sitting in Bewley’s once again, it was gone.

It is highly unlikely that Bewley’s will be the last high profile commercial casualty of the current crisis. Yet while many small and medium businesses may be lost, recent history shows us we can never write off Bewley’s, which has reemerged, phoenix-like, before. In the words of the prior mentioned Brendan Kennelly, it is both”the heart and hearth of Dublin”.

Donal Fallon is a historian based in Dublin. He presents the Three Castles Burning podcast. Its most recent episode explores the history of Bewley’s.

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About the author:

Donal Fallon  / Historian, writer and broadcaster

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