Dublin’s mayor says he will lead effort to save Bewley’s cafe

Closure of historic cafe ‘rubs salt in the wounds’ of those affected by Covid-19 pandemic

Bewley’s on Grafton Street, Dublin is listed under the city’s Record of Protected Structures. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Bewley’s on Grafton Street, Dublin is listed under the city’s Record of Protected Structures. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Tom Brabazon, is to spearhead plans to try to again save Bewley’s cafe on Grafton Street, following the announcement it is to close permanently with the loss of 110 jobs.

The announcement of the closure “rubs salt in the wounds” of those already suffering as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Brabazon said, particularly those who were to lose their livelihoods.

“Bewley’s is one of the real icons of Dublin. For the 110 workers it is a real, real tragedy; for Dubliners, and many others, it is an institution of the city.”

He was speaking after staff were told on Wednesday of the decision by Bewley’s Ltd, which is owned by artist Paddy Campbell, to close permanently due to the impact of the pandemic and the €1.5 million annual rent.

The cafe, which opened in 1927, also shut down in November 2004, with owners Campbell Bewley Group citing the high cost of rent and insurance rates for losses. Following a campaign involving councillors and heritage groups, Bewley’s reopened the following year, with restaurateurs Jay Bourke and Eoin Foyle opening a fish restaurant, Mackerel, on the first floor.

The restaurant struggled during the recession and eventually closed, though the cafe continued to trade. Concerns for the future of Bewley’s emerged again in 2015 when, after a protracted rent dispute, the cafe closed again for a refurbishment that was due to take six months. The cafe didn’t reopen until two years and nine months later, in November 2017.

‘History repeating’

“We have a case of history repeating itself. It’s not that long ago that Bewley’s came under threat of permanent closure, but came out the other side,” Mr Brabazon said. He said he recognised the restaurant sector was “under considerable threat” due to the pandemic, and many restaurants may have difficulty in surviving and reopening. “Bewley’s may be the first of many,” he said.

However, he said he had already received a significant number of emails from “concerned Dubliners” worried about the future of its historic cafe and the building, as well as the workers.

“I am going to try to put a plan together to see if it can be rescued as a venue. Whether or not people will be quite nervous about making a commitment from a long-term financial prospective, I’m not sure, but I will certainly see what can be done.”

Damien Cassidy, who founded the Save Bewley’s Cafe Campaign in 2004, said “Bewley’s is one of the treasures of Dublin, it cannot be allowed to close down. I fear for the city, I fear that we won’t know the city when all this is over.”

Stained-glass windows

John O’Hara, city planner with Dublin City Council, said the cafe has the benefit of “three layers of protection” governing the preservation of the fabric of the building, including its prized six stained-glass windows commissioned from the artist Harry Clarke in 1931, as well as the future use of the cafe.

“Firstly, the building at 78 and 79 Grafton Street, which is Bewley’s, is listed on the city’s Record of Protected Structures, which covers it both internally and externally.”

The cafe is then protected under a specific provision of the current Dublin City Development Plan. “Under the development plan, Bewley’s cafe on Grafton Street is deemed to be a use that contributes significantly to the unique character of Grafton Street and is considered an essential part of the street,” he said. This provision also states that the use of the building specifically as a cafe is intrinsic to the special character of the building.

Finally, Grafton Street is an area of “special planning control” which means the replacement of existing uses with certain types of business, such as phone shops, takeaways or bookmakers among others, is prohibited.

Mr O’Hara stresses that this does not mean the use of the building can never change, but that it would require a planning application which would be assessed in line with the three protections above. “It is a pretty high bar to cross,” he said.