Reviving the fine art of cafe culture
The economic news is bad, but Ireland's coffee houses continue to thrive. Plans to develop them as artistic focal points, combined with a more leisurely era, could mean their best years are yet to come, writes Mary Russell
A SUITED BUSINESSMAN sits on a comfy sofa in a city-centre coffee shop, talking on his mobile. Behind him is a woman sipping a latte and quietly reading her book. In a corner, two students are availing of the free wireless connection and are working on their laptops. Welcome to a coffee shop in Dublin in 2008.
Amid all the financial doom and gloom Irelands cafe culture is thriving, with coffee retail business worth about €280 million a year. In Dublin, Starbucks, O'Briens, Insomnia, West Coast Cafe and many other franchised outlets occupy dozens of premises in the city. And in among the big branded names we have old favourites such as Bewley's, which has survived tough times and is back better than ever.
In the 18th century, coffee houses drew people together and were centres for cultural exchange. Although none of us will have first-hand memories of Dartry's Coffee House, which plied its trade on Skinner's Row, near Dublin Castle, in 1719, most of us know Bewley's (founded 1840), the basement of which was a much-favoured place to await literary inspiration. Also in Grafton Street, many will recall Roberts cafe, with its marvellous string trio, known irreverently to us students as the Rea Sisters: Pia, Dia and Gona.
There is a move underway to cash in on the "the cappuccino community" and to promote coffee houses as places of cultural exchange in the city. Already there are coffee houses in Dublin doing this: Bewley's in Grafton Street often has lunchtime plays, while, in Thomas Street, Italian coffee shop Caffé Noto is providing a space where people can have a cup of coffee but take in a bit of culture at the same time. This cafe is based in an old building so elegant that co-owner Michael Flynn and his partner wanted to share it with everyone, and it now has a policy of inviting aspiring artists to display their work on the cafe walls.
"We have a panel of people that the artists can submit their work to, and if they're chosen, the paintings hang on the walls for six weeks," says Flynn.
Caffé Noto is well placed to do this, as it is close to the National College of Art (NCAD). Not only does the cafe curate art exhibitions, it also sponsors exhibitions and events at NCAD, as well as holding annual open days when children and their grandparents are invited to come to the cafe for a painting day.
This kind of diversification is exactly what Dublin City Council is trying to encourage. Next January it will publish the Dublin City Development Plan, which will include proposals to encourage the development of coffee houses as places where artists and craftspeople can work and display what they have produced.
John O' Hara, the council's deputy city planner, says the primary purpose is to regenerate Dublin city centre not only as a focus for retailers but for all activities, cultural and educational.
"That includes supporting what you could call the cafe culture," he says.
O'Hara points out there is a lot of upper floor space in buildings in the city centre which is not being used as retail outlets.
"This could become available to artists and designers," he says. "What we don't want is a place to become dead at night once the shops have closed."
ALTHOUGH THE MUSIC may have changed over the centuries, the ethos of the original coffee houses has remained. The main cafes are places where you not only get a decent coffee, but where you can linger with a newspaper, chat with friends or be with your muse, pen and paper to the ready.
It's possible to tell the time of day by the clientele in a coffee house. In the early morning you get the latte-drinking urban professionals rubbing shoulders with building-site workers in for their breakfast roll and Americano. Mid-mornings see mothers with their strollers, while afternoon customers tend to be people with time to spare or maybe with a spreadsheet to scrutinise. If there are tables outside, the odd smoker will pause for a sit-down and a cigarette and not bother about the coffee at all.
On Saturday mornings, you see fathers with their toddlers, the latter wreaking havoc with the Coke bottles in the cooler while the baristas smile benevolently.
"There were always coffee houses in Dublin," says city councillor and former Dublin lord mayor Michael Conaghan. "Bewley's is the continuity link between places like Dartry's and the present."
Three years ago, when he was lord mayor, Conaghan lent his voice to the Save Bewley's Cafe Campaign, which was a major factor in the reopening of the Grafton Street outlet. His in-tray was piled high with protests about the proposed closure of what is undoubtedly Dublin's most famous coffee house.
"The only issue which produced more mail was the visit to Ireland of George W Bush," he says.
The upsurge in our coffee-drinking habits is reflected in figures from Duncan O'Toole, of Coffee Bean, a Limerick company which has two coffee shops and sells coffee online.
"When we set up 13 years ago, we were selling 70 per cent tea and 30 per cent coffee. Now it's the other way round," he says, adding that coffee-drinking habits divide along national lines. "Italians will only drink cappuccino in the morning. After that, it's espresso. Americans like their coffee weaker than that enjoyed by Europeans, which is how the Americano came about."
Even more interesting is the political demography. There is a coffee shop in Dublin's Camden Street which attracts a large number of north African Arabs. Run by an Algerian, it serves French rather than American-style cappuccinos - Algeria is a former French colony and the influence is still there in the coffee house.
Virginia Greene, who, with her brother-in-law and a friend, set up the ever-expanding chain of West Coast coffee shops, says the role of the barista is important in the coffee house, where consistency in quality as well as service is paramount.
"Our customers are often yummy mummies as well as habit-driven business people, and we have to fit in with their routine," she says. "The barista, of course, has to know how to make a good cup of coffee."
West Coast is a family business, but one thing that concerns Michael Cronin, of Dutch Masters, the Cork-based coffee import company, is the proliferation of franchises. He says it is now virtually impossible for a small, independently run coffee house to get into a shopping mall or a new development because only the bigger fish can afford the high rents. This is a factor that Dublin City Council is taking on board in its plan to reinvigorate the Grafton Street and O'Connell Street areas of Dublin.
THE ROLE OF the coffee house as a place of cultural exchange is not only being examined in Dublin. It was the subject of a conference in London recently, which looked at the way in which Venetian coffee houses became gathering points for writers and revolutionaries. Contributors included Dr Gilbert Carr, of the department of Germanic studies at Trinity College Dublin, who gave a paper on Cafe Griensteidl, one of Vienna's most famous coffee houses.
Plans are afoot to hold a conference in Dublin on cafe culture. One of the contributors will be Prof Kieran Bonner, of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, who has done a study of Bewley's recent history. According to Bonner, Bewley's is the story of Dublin's struggle with cosmopolitanism and all that this means in terms of the end of an era and the gains of the present.