by Thomas O’Dwyer
After suffering the injury of pandemic isolation for most of the year, the pride of Dublin city had insult added in May when a national treasure, Bewley’s Café, announced that its doors would be closed not just for the lockdown, but forever. Public outrage rippled out of the city and across the country. Newspapers, blogs and radio programmes lamented the passing of a legend. Bewley’s was the only café in Dublin whose aura, history, and place in people’s hearts could equal the legendary European coffee houses of Paris, Vienna and Venice. Public anger was especially sharp because vanishing customers did not cause the closure.
Bewley’s landlord, an unpopular property mogul, refused to give the café any relief on its annual rent of €1.5 million to ease it through the Covid-19 lockdown, forcing it to close and fire its 110 employees. Print media and the airwaves filled with hundreds of anecdotes and memories from the café’s golden days as “the heart and the hearth” of the city, as the magazine Journal called it. Bewley’s, the “legendary, lofty, clattery café” has always been associated with Leo Maguire’s song Dublin Saunter, a virtual anthem of the city:
“Dublin can be heaven
With coffee at eleven
And a stroll in Stephen’s Green…
Grafton Street’s a wonderland.
There’s magic in the air.
There’s diamonds in your lady’s eyes,
And gold dust in her hair.”
Bewley’s Oriental Café, on the city centre’s stylist Grafton Street, was founded by an English Quaker family who started by importing Chinese tea to Ireland in the 1830s. Ernest Bewley opened his first coffee shop in 1840, followed by a second one soon after on Westmoreland Street, boasting of coffee that was “rich, strong and aromatic, fresh roasted and ground daily on the premises.”
The Grafton Street establishment opened in 1927, five years after Ireland won its independence and it has since shared the soul of the city with other icons like Trinity College, the Four Courts and the River Liffey itself. It immediately became a source of pride in what was then a drab and grimy city – “dear old dirty Dublin”. Bewley carefully planned the elegant Grafton Street cafe, from its striking mosaic facade to the wood-panelled and Art Deco interior, completed by astonishing windows designed by Harry Clarke, Ireland’s internationally renowned stained glass window artist.
The cafés of Paris boast their literary heritage with past customers like Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Henry Miller, Albert Camus and Lawrence Durrell. Bewley’s soon attracted the Dublin literati and their hangers-on. It was a haunt of Maud Gonne, the unrequited love interest of W.B. Yeats, although in the earlier years women were generally frowned on if they entered coffee houses. This changed rapidly after the fight for independence in which Irish women played a big part and they continued to assert their rights and freedoms. “If you had a boyfriend and he brought you into Bewley’s, you knew you were doing well with him,” one woman recalled in a radio programme about the 1940s.
The café attracted writers and they mentioned it in their works. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh and others all established Bewley’s as part of the fabric of the literary city. J.P. Donleavy, author of The Ginger Man, wrote that “in some shadowy corner of Bewley’s, a hungover ill-natured poet would lurk, studying the day’s racing form.” Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, famous primadonnas of the theatre, paraded their flamboyant homosexuality in the cafe, raising no eyebrows in the heart of the narrow-minded and priest-ridden city of the 1950s.
Bewley’s did not, however, want to become a salon for well-heeled snobs and celebrities. Close to both Trinity College and working-class streets, the owners prided themselves on keeping prices reasonable to cater to all aspects of Dublin life. The café may have been the afternoon resort of the intelligentsia but the smell of freshly roasted coffee and baking cakes wafted down Grafton Street, enticing working people and students to drop in for “a cuppa tea and a sticky bun.” Be it coffee at eleven or afternoon tea, the aroma of Bewley’s is part of the nostalgic memories of anyone who studied or worked in Dublin during most of the 20th century.
The café, or coffee house, has become a hybrid thing down the ages. It first appeared as an entity we would recognise in Mecca in the 15th century and headed west via Istanbul the following century. The Middle Eastern coffee house remains very close to its ancient roots. Travellers to Mecca described the coffee houses as popular meeting places where people (men) met to drink coffee, play backgammon, and exchange news and political or religious gossip.
“Here news is exchanged and those who are interested in politics may criticise the rulers in freedom and without fear, if only because the rulers don’t care what the people say,” wrote the 17th-century French travel writer Sir John Chardin about Istanbul coffee houses. “Innocent games resembling checkers and chess are played while mullahs, dervishes, and poets take turns telling stories in verse or prose.” A modern visitor to Cairo, Baghdad or Damascus will find that still pretty much describes the local coffee houses – the mullahs and dervishes have vanished, the poets replaced perhaps by the ubiquitous nargile, the water hookah for smoking flavoured tobacco.
With increasing trade between the powerful Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Turks, the arrival of the coffee house in Europe was inevitable. They began to appear everywhere in the 17th century – first in Venice in 1630 – and became immensely popular. In the Middle East, travellers usually characterised the coffee house as a place of idleness and time-wasting, although they did concede that it was useful for the exchange of news, ideas and healthy social intercourse. As coffee houses moved into Europe, they began to evolve into something else – popular meeting places for writers and artists, except in England and Netherlands where they were associated with commerce.
In 17th century London, trading in tea and coffee arrived and expanded quickly. The first coffee house opened in 1652 and the innovation became so popular for business dealings that coffee houses became an integral feature of English society. For one thing, they quickly came to suggest sobriety and work. Unlike the taverns where men escaped to relax and forget their worries over an ale, coffee houses encouraged energy, debate and ideas instead of intoxication and lethargy. They were suited to business dealing and became known as centres of commerce, distinct from taverns with their reputation for rowdy drinking and gambling – money wasting. Coffee houses were respectable places where men invested their time in useful ventures – money-making.
Here was born the modern habit of hugging a single coffee for hours in a cafe while chatting, reading or working on a smart device. In London, a man could pay one penny to enter a coffee house and stay as long as he wished with no obligation to buy anything. The venerable shipping insurer Lloyd’s of London was born in a coffee house run by Edward Lloyd, where ship underwriters met to do business. By the 1750s, London’s 500 coffee houses had sorted themselves into individual centres for different trades – stockbrokers, merchants, lawyers, publishers, writers, textile traders, and financiers from the City. The London Stock Exchange grew from a coffee house where traders moved stocks and commodities. The auction houses of Sotheby’s and Christie’s evolved from art salesrooms attached to coffee houses.
Coffee houses barred women, but they could own them or work in them. Oddly, a “respectable” woman could enter a tavern because by law taverns had to serve food and offer lodging to any traveller. Coffee houses, which didn’t have to provide anything, would not accept even non-respectable women. This ban was common across Europe, except for Germany, where women could take part. England and France strictly excluded women though there were documented cases of Parisian women dressing as men just to gain entry. One engraving from 1700 illustrates a single woman in a busy Parisian coffee house – she is serving cups of coffee from a corner booth. In London, a group of women published a petition against coffee in 1674. Their poster stated: “The Womens Petition Against Coffee. Representing To Publick Consideration The Grand INCONVENIENCES Accruing To Their SEX From The Excessive Use Of That Drying Enfeebling Abominable Heathenish LIQUOR called COFFEE.”
In Europe, it is the legend of coffee houses as cradles of the arts that has endured, rather than the image of pedestrian business dealing. It is an exaggerated myth, even if some famous novels and literary works emerged from the continent’s cafés stretching from Saint Petersburg to Dublin. For American expatriate writers in Paris and Henrik Ibsen on his continental travels, coffee houses were places to combine meeting people, building stories, listening to conversations. Cafés keep writers and artists in touch with life, energy and the street – more positive influences for their creations than a musty library or lonely apartment room.
Paris is the undisputed queen of the coffee house’s literary legacy. The sidewalk café defines Paris as much as any Eiffel Tower or Louvre. It is the essence of the French lifestyle, the centre of Parisian artistic and philosophical aspiration. It is where the French go to sit around looking French, as Dave Barry observed. Le Procope, opened in 1675, claims to be the first and oldest Paris café. In her book, Literary Cafés of Paris, the author Noël Riley Fitch explains that the café is closely related to, and sometimes difficult to distinguish from, the coffee house of Austria, the taverna of Greece, the club and pub of England and Ireland.
“But it is neither a bar nor a restaurant. It is a lounging place, where one meets friends and exchanges news while having a drink or a bite of food. Cafés first appeared in Paris after tea, chocolate and coffee arrived in the cabarets in the second half of the 17th century. The cabarets subsequently opened their windows and doors to the street, added crystal chandeliers, introduced the habit of smoking with coffee and provided leading journals to read. Le Procope was opened by a Sicilian, who helped turn France into a coffee-drinking society.”
Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway were all regulars at café La Rotonde. “No matter what café in Montparnasse you ask a taxi-driver to bring you to from the right bank of the river, they always take you to the Rotonde,” Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises. He also haunted Les Deux Magots, one of the oldest cafes in Paris, where he followed in the footsteps of Rimbaud, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Fitch recalls a memorable scene from Moveable Feast when Hemingway stops in the café, “hangs up his wet raincoat, puts his worn hat on the rack, orders a café au lait, takes out his notebook and pencil and writes a story set in upper Michigan.” Hemingway captures the warm and friendly atmosphere and the inspiration of a pretty girl sitting alone by the window. She excites him, and he writes on to the finish. When he looks up, she is gone. Feeling empty and sad, but happy to have the story finished, “he orders oysters and cold white wine, and soon he loses the empty feeling.”
Lawrence Durrell, author of The Alexandria Quartet, complained that he was too poor to eat inside La Coupole. His friend Henry Miller also frequented the place while he was developing Tropic of Cancer, a book dripping with the poverty, hunger, booze and endless sex of his Paris years. Durrell wrote much of his first novel The Black Book there. “As did everyone else, I got drunk at La Coupole when I landed for the first time in Paris. From the terrace, I saw all my heroes passing, and I was young. With Anaïs Nin, Miller and Alfred Perlès, we were the three musketeers of La Coupole. We played chess there. One might say that Perlès almost slept there. As for Anaïs, she quarrelled at the bar with her lovers and her publishers. She really liked men, but on all fours, if possible psychiatrists, and if possible weeping.”
Vying with Paris for the crown of café capital, Vienna takes its coffee houses so seriously that “Viennese Coffee House Culture” is listed as “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in UNESCO’s agency for this classification. The Viennese traditionally describe a coffee house as “a place where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee appears on the bill.” The literary Café Central, once the haunt of Austrian writers Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig and Peter Altenberg, is the city’s main tourist favourite.
Many cafes in Vienna drop the names of clients who were royalty (many), musicians (Mozart) and other artists (Gustav Klimt). Freud and Jung frequented cafes with intellectuals of their time. Yet, for all its efforts, the Viennese café scene cannot aspire to the cachet that only Paris owns.
The Rive Gauche, age-old, gay and grey;
The impasse and the loved café;
The tempting tidy little shops;
The convent walls, the glimpsed tree-tops;
Book-stalls, old men like dwarfs in plays;
Talk, work, and Latin Quarter ways.
– The Little Café, by Florence Wilkinson