Saturday, November 27, 2004

The heart and the hearth of Dublin

Well, Bewley's Oriental Cafés in Dublin close on Tuesday coming, the 30th of November. Not a particularly significant moment in the history of civilisation, but a rather sad event for Dubliners. Bewley's was set up in the 19th century by a Quaker family, right in the middle of Grafton Street, Dublin's primary shopping street. Bewley's was a real Dublin institution, a classy, slightly exotic institution - a café when Dublin only had pubs, where you could sit for a couple of hours in front of a real fire, nursing a cup of coffee and an almond bun. It was a place to meet people, a refuge at all times of day and night, and a great leveller, shared by all. It really was, as Brendan Keneally put it, the heart and the hearth of Dublin.
As actor James Bartlett said on a documentary about the place (what can I say, there's not much on Irish TV at the best of times!), there was five notable smells in the Dublin of his childhood: the biscuits being baked in Jacob's Bakery between St. Patrick's Cathedral and Stephen's Green, Keeve's the Knackers in the Coombe, where horses' bones were boiled up to make glue, the sniffy Liffey, polluted by the chemicals from Clondalkin's paper mill, the smell of Guinness's brewery as they roasted the hops, and the 'lovely comfortable aroma' of Bewley's Coffee coming from the café. Bartlett's a bit older than me, but I certainly remember the last three of those. My particular favourite was the Guinness smell, but Bewley's always brings back dark and rainy Winter nights, taking refuge in the warmth. And don't forget that real fire!

But I have to say that some of the uproar in Dublin at the idea of the place closing itself reflects an underlying sadness about change in Ireland. This is one more mark of how Dublin isn't what it used to be. In part people rage at the loss of Grafton Street's character, since the street has slowly been transformed into a typical British high street. But there's also a large amount of 'Dublin in the Rare Oul Times' sentimententality, harking back to an era which wasn't all that much fun. This nostalgia is at least partly a response to a general feeling that the pace of change in Ireland. In a sense this is a traumatised culture, where the place has completely transformed within, say, half my parents' generation's lifetime. So, the response to Bewley's closure fits (as a mild instance) in the same vein as blood scandals, anti-Europeanism and a range of other political troubles - the feeling that a breach has been made with the security and honesty of the past and all that is left is plastic, anonymous and inhuman. And also the ultimate humiliation, although I won't go into it here, that the new Ireland doesn't look all that different to England.

On a lighter note, it is worth keeping in mind that the cafés are closing for two simple reasons: in recent years Bewley's coffee and food was just piss poor. The place was all just a bit tatty and you could get better coffee elsewhere. And, of course, the nostalgic story for Bewley's (mine included) generally involves the idea of sitting for hours over a cup of coffee. As the owners of the place have said, that ain't a good basis for a business. And, unless the City Council takes the place over (interesting EU competition law questions there), it was just a business.

Update: Kieran Cooke has an interesting article about Bewley's in Saturday's Guardian, arguing that the place was destroyed by Ireland's nostalgia industry. It does make you wonder if we should change the name of Ireland to Irelandland...

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