As Bewley’s announced its permanent closure this week, The Irish Times asked readers to share their memories of the Dublin cafe.
Anne O’Brien, Brussels
From around 1pm on any Saturday during the early 1980s, my college pals knew I could be found at the back of Bewley's cafe, under the Harry Clarke windows, reading The Irish Times. In those pre-latte, pre-social media, pre-mobile days, I'd sit and write long rambling letters to my boyfriend, Michael, who'd left Ireland for work. I'd stretch my black coffee to last until the next pal plonked down on the seat across from me and a new round, and perhaps a sticky bun, was called for.
Saturday afternoon in Bewley’s was the award for a week of work and study as I tried to keep my head down and finish my master’s, which hopefully, even in those days of high unemployment, would secure me a job. And it did. I was soon to join Michael to work in Brussels.
In the following years, on trips home, Bewley’s remained our place, it was where we’d so often met pre-dating, where we’d had those long talks about life, where we’d fallen in love. We’d spent so much time there that we knew the lovely staff by name and they knew us too.
On one visit, we were gutted to notice that the cafe’s original tea service, white with a faded turquoise pattern, was disappearing. We asked our favourite waitress and she confirmed. “They’re smashing the old stuff. It’s a sin.” She turned a blind eye as we nicked two cups, two saucers and two side plates, concealing them in the pockets of our duffel coats.
Thirty-five years on, that “tea service for two” lives in a cardboard box, in a storage container somewhere in the midlands, while I take the long route back home to live once more in Dublin.
In the intervening years, which saw the loss of Michael to leukaemia, re-marriage and two-half Danish kids, each stage of my life has been played out in Bewley’s. What joy I had showing it off to my new Danish partner, bringing non-Irish friends for coffee and buns to the place where the great writers used to hang out, treating my daughter to a bowl of chunky soup and brown bread on trips back, when she’d left home in Brussels to study in Dublin.
In recent years, text messages now alert old college pals to my presence: “Usual spot, Saturday afternoon, Bewley’s.” I cannot bear to think of it gone.
My fondest Bewley's memory, like many customers, is of Kathleen "Tattens" Toomey (indeed, it wasn't until the Irish Times published her obituary that I found out that Tattens was not her family name).
Tattens presided over the mezzanine, and if I ever wanted to impress a young woman I would take her there. The woman would be greeted by a gushing Tattens, who would exclaim, "Well now, look at you! He's always coming in here with young ladies, one more beautiful than the next, but you – you! – are the most beautiful of all!"
"But do you know?" she would add sadly, "he has my heart broken!".
A wonderful woman!
Ah Bewleys! I first encountered this magical kingdom - with that heady smell when you walked in the door, and the enormous coffee grinder in the window - with my grandmother every Wednesday, when we got the number 5 bus from Redesdale Road. Granny Barry had her favourite table, and her favourite waitress dressed in black with a white apron and hat. She ordered a pot of tea (with tea leaves) and a small Hovis loaf. I relished my sticky bun with yellow curled butter. Fires roaring in every fireplace. My grandfather would join us after he been “to see a man about a dog”.
Later in my life, the downstairs cafe in Bewley’s became a hideout for my friends and me when we were mitching from school. We changed out of our uniforms into bell bottom jeans (bought in It’s A Beautiful Day of course) and cheesecloth blouses from the Dandelion Market. We sat over mugs of frothy coffee for hours, desperately trying to avoid the stern looks of the staff. We somehow managed to get a copy of The Irish Times and the crossword was our study for that day.
I’m hoping this magnificent building with all its history (particularly for us Dubliners) will be saved once again. The greed of property developers will be responsible for the permanent closure of much of our city centre buildings after this crisis.
Morgan Dunne, Dunedin, US
When I was a child in Dublin in the 1950s, my aunt Betty, who lived in London, would visit from time to time and she would always stop in Bewley’s and buy those delicious chocolate truffles they used to make. Years later as a student at Trinity I tried to buy them myself but alas, they had stopped making them. I always associated Bewley’s with my aunt and now sadly, they are both gone.
Some years ago, I had arranged to meet Brendan Kennelly in Bewley's. I arrived first and chose a table. The cafe was very busy. When Brendan arrived a reverential hush fell - the whole place went silent... and everyone watched as he strode to join me. As we began to talk, the cafe eased back to normal. Talk about charisma! Even in Bewley's!
Tom Flynn, Australia
In the late 1960s, after school at Synge Street, we walked down to Bewley’s and Switzers cafes. That’s where we “discovered” girls, who were discovering us. Awkward and shy, we tried to look “cool” with our collar turned up trench coats and Livis cords. The really cool guys had FCA backpacks as school bags. By 5.30pm, we’d walk across to Dawson Street and catch the 14A bus home.
The Bewley’s issue needs to be fixed! Nationalised, crowdfunded, special lottery, whatever. I come “home” from Australia to go to Bewley’s, “for coffee at 11 and a stroll in Stephen’s Green”.
I have memories as a child walking in the evenings from Harold’s Cross with my mother and older sister, and sitting in Bewleys drinking a big hot chocolate with marshmallows and soaking in the atmosphere. We loved the small nooks, hidden away and watching people come and go, or playing board games.
Mary Hannis, Toronto
I should be sitting down to my first breakfast after arriving in Dublin on my yearly visit, and staying around the corner at the Central Hotel. So many happy memories of delicious meals in Bewley’s on Grafton Street and in times gone by, Dundrum. On admiring the beautiful art one morning, the server mentioned that the artist himself was there, and would I like to meet him? Minutes later Paddy Campbell was at my table for a chat. To say the least, it made my day. It is very sad to think I will not be able to sit under Harry Clarke’s windows on my next visit to Grafton Street. A huge loss to Dublin, as was Clearys. The loss of these places diminishes the vibrancy of my beloved Dublin, always my home town.
Diarmuid Hester, United Kingdom
Those gorgeous, gothic, decadent stained-glass windows by Harry Clarke. I remember as a child coming up to Dublin from Kilkenny with my mother; we’d stop at Bewley’s for a tea and I’d just stare up at them for what seemed like hours. The bustle and business they presided over and contrasted with so starkly somehow made them even weirder, even more magical.
Christmas shopping on a very cold day. Hands frozen, into Bewley’s, sit by the roaring fire. Order huge steaming mug of coffee and scone. Bliss!
As a freshman student at UCD on Earlsfort Terrace in 1960s, my friends and I would rush down through Stephen’s Green between lectures, to Grafton Street to lounge in a red velvet banquette, have coffee and sticky almond buns and gossip. I still have a sense of the aroma of their coffee grinding machine, which permeated Grafton Street then. I visited Dublin last summer and had lunch upstairs at the window. I enjoyed watching the action and listening to the buskers below. Much had changed in the refurbishment, the coffee grinding was gone. But so much was still the same. Such a loss of a great Dublin landmark.
As a young child in the late 50s and 60s, my mother would take us to Bewley’s as a special treat. This would happen once a fortnight on a Saturday morning trip, by bus 42A, to town to “get the messages”. The treat would be flagged well in advance, and if we were misbehaving my mother would tell us to “get a hold of ourselves” as the Bewley’s trip might be cancelled. The aroma of coffee from the “coffee bean machine” in the front window could be detected quite a distance from the cafe itself. Anticipation mounted. Then there were the waitresses dressed in black and white uniforms, who served the tables. A three-tiered plate was placed on the table displaying different treats at each level: the scones, cakes and cream cakes. When all was over the account was settled with a handwritten receipt from the waitress, with an appropriate tip and payment at the booth on the way out.
In the early 60s I used to go to Bewley’s basement during my exam days in the School of Architecture at UCD. At that time, as I remember it was men only in the basement. Times have changed.
Stacy Feldmann, Dublin
My nana used to take me to Bewley’s for a bun when I was young. Later as a student, Bewley’s was our choice if my friends and I wanted a cozy cuppa after a day of lectures. The atmosphere always felt like your granny’s house. I loved the revamp in recent years. My last visit was with my children to celebrate my uncle’s 58th birthday a few years ago. He emigrated to the UK and we hadn’t seen him in a few months. It was a lovely reunion marked by a cuppa and cake at Bewley’s. I am so sad about the possibility of it closing for good. I hope a solution can be found, or that someone will step in to keep this heritage site open.
I brought my girlfriend there for Valentine’s Day this year. It was a really lovely cafe. Lovely ambiance, the stained glass windows were amazing.
Patricia Buth, Bremen, Germany
Last September I enjoyed this wonderful cup of mocha on Grafton Street while listening to Stray Melody, now one of my favourite bands. It was a perfect moment! I had planned to be in Ireland right now, enjoying a scone and mocha in Bewley’s Cafe - but all travel plans were of course cancelled. For now I drink my Bewley’s Tea at home in Germany and send sad greetings.
As a child in the 60s, my granny used to take my sister and me to Bewley’s for cherry buns and hot chocolate every Saturday. It was such a treat for two very small girls. It seemed so posh and special compared to anywhere else in Dublin. The fantastic aroma of fresh ground coffee, the beautiful antique interior, silver teapots and cutlery, linen cloth napkins and smart waitresses dressed in black with crisp white aprons and those cute little caps! It was such a special treat, especially at Easter when all the chocolate eggs and buns with Easter bunnies came in. Grafton Street just won’t be the same without Bewley’s.
I worked on Dawson Street in the 80s, and Bewley’s was my first taste of proper coffee. The smell of the freshly ground coffee reminds me of Dublin and taking the cherry and almond buns home to my family. I have never tried a cherry bun like it since. I remember when Victor Bewley was still there. There is so much competition now from multinationals.