Bewley’s: if you have been in Ireland, you have very likely tasted Bewley’s coffee or tea. You may well have enjoyed these taste outwith Ireland as well, as Bewley’s has long been an international brand whose coffee and tea you find for sale in many places across the world.
The flagship Bewley’s Cafe in Grafton Street in Dublin, however, is closed. Rising rents and the fall in business many have felt in recent months led to this decision.
The business itself, the the tea and coffee supply side of it and the work with other businesses, carries on. You’ll still be able to find your favourite varieties of Bewley’s products in other businesses, at grocers, and by mail order.
Having a fine lunch, a Christmas sandwich, or an afternoon tea as a break from the bustle and hurry of Grafton Street? A taste of the well loved cakes and scones? A look at the stained glass art in the dining room, or a trip below stairs to see the bakers at work? A cheerful welcome or a lively quip from staff?
Those, you’ll not be finding as they were.
As a bit of background, in the late 1830s, brothers Samuel and Charles Bewley imported 2099 chests of tea from Canton in China to Dublin. In 1840, the company was officially founded and has been going ever since. It’s long been a distributor of tea and coffee and in recent years developed training methods for those who use and serve its products as well.
At one time, there were several cafes in Dublin.
In 1927, Bewley’s Oriental Cafe in Grafton Street in the heart of Dublin City, opened its doors and became the flagship, and after bit a the only company cafe in Dublin. It was in a building which had once housed Whyte’s Academy, where Robert Emmet and the future Duke of Wellington were among the students.
Classy wood paneling, mosaics on the facade, and stained glass windows set the cafe apart from the building’s previous uses, however. The oriental motif was a nod to popular fascination with the then recent discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb by the Earl of Carnarvon.
The stained glass windows, which featured classical motifs and images from nature, were by Harry Clarke. Clarke, a native Dubliner who is considered Ireland’s greatest stained glass artist, often blended Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles in his work. For Bewley’s he created graceful images on clear glass, which allowed lots of light to come into the cafe.
Clarke’s windows were later joined by a dramatic portrayal of Cruithne, a woman from Celtic myth. by Jim FitzPatrick.
Through the years, the cafe gathered other art work for patrons to enjoy, including stained glass with contemporary themes, some of the original china vases that the Bewley brothers brought to Ireland with those first tea imports, and sculptures from well known Irish artists including Paddy Campbell and Eamonn Ceannt.
The art work was one thing that set the place apart. The quality of the coffee and tea was another. There was good and creative food, too: scones, and buns, croissants and sandwiches and all manner of cakes among the choices.
These, too, kept people coming back to the cafe for nearly a hundred years. In recent years people also appreciated the company’s commitment to fair trade practices, ethically sourced goods, and concern for climate change in its practices. Among other things they devised ways to burn logs made from coffee grounds in the cafe’s fireplaces.
All of that was framed by the welcome, top quality service, and genuine warmth of the staff.
When the Bewley brothers founded the business back in 1840, they included ideas of their faith — they were Quakers — into the company plan: community, equality, honesty, fairness, and integrity of character. In my experience of the place, those qualities in the staff, along with a well tuned sense of humour, kept that welcome going for all who came through the doors. It was fun to watch staff at work.
That was one of the many things to explore at Bewley’s. It made a fine place to sit and relax with the papers, have a chat with a friend, or soak in the history and the welcome.
I do not always spend loads of time along Grafton Street in Dublin. I am glad I did when I was there last, though, and took the time to sit over a cup of tea in Bewley’s for a bit on a winter afternoon to enjoy all this.
The cafe is closed now. Over its long history it has closed a time or two, mainly for refurbishment. This situation seems more permanent, but then again, things change.
However that plays out, there are good memories.
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