Coffee At Eleven

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Bewley's Café, Grafton Street, Dublin.
Bewley’s Café, Grafton Street, Dublin.

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.” Read more »