A little bit of Dublin dies as cafés used by Joyce and Behan close

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The Independent Online

Dubliners are in shock: Bewley's is closing the city's two most famous cafés, for decades iconic fixtures of its social and cultural life.

Dubliners are in shock: Bewley's is closing the city's two most famous cafés, for decades iconic fixtures of its social and cultural life.

The demise of the cafés has produced waves of nostalgia for a business which stretches back more than a century, and waves of regret that affluence and economic advance should mean the loss of such venerable institutions.

The two Bewley's Oriental Cafés, in Grafton Street and Westmoreland Street, will shut at the end of the month, leaving 234 workers redundant. Many share the sentiments of the owner, Patrick Campbell, who said: "It's like part of Dublin dying."

The irony is that the cafés, famous for their tea and coffee, should go under amid an international boom in the demand for coffee. But market forces and a sense that Bewley's has not moved with the times are blamed.

Generations of Dubliners regarded the spacious and comfortable surroundings as a home from home, sampling the legendary coffee and sticky buns at marble tables and cosy booths. James Joyce stopped for coffee in Bewley's in Grafton Street and the playwright Brendan Behan supped tea while waiting for the pubs to open.

Bewley's always had a paternal philanthropic aspect, its original Quaker owners reputedly providing free refreshment for poorer customers. Making a profit never seemed central to the concern.

Bewley's was the antithesis of fast food. Instead, its surroundings, tolerant and sometimes matronly staff and hospitable atmosphere enticed customers to linger and treat it as an inexpensive refuge from inclement weather.

The novelist Maeve Binchy said: "When I was a student, we could make one cup of coffee last an hour and a half and, like everyone else, we felt a slight guilt in case this sowed the seeds of the eventual decline of Bewley's fortunes. But we had to make it last because nobody wanted to leave the warm, happy coffee and sugar-flavoured fug and go out into the cold, rainy streets. And nobody had the price of another cup of coffee."

The business's lack of commercial rigour was part of its charm but, as Maeve Binchy suspected, it led to financial difficulties and in 1986 the chain was taken over by Campbells.

This parent company has prospered and grown in other directions, but the Dublin cafés have run up losses of €4m (£2.8m) since 1996. Competition steadily grew from pubs and smaller new cafés more suited to the quickening pace of city-centre life.

Costs soared, with Grafton Street named as the fifth most-expensive shopping street in the world, behind Fifth Avenue in New York, Causeway Bay in Hong Kong, London's Oxford Street and the Champs Elysées.

With annual rents of €3,300 per square metre, Irish concerns in Grafton Street have increasingly been replaced by UK and international ones.

The Campbell Bewley group said the smoking ban introduced this year had reduced business by 10 per cent and they could not get permission to place tables outside for smokers.

Mr Campbell added: "We are, as a society, allowing ourselves to become sterile. We are going to end up with homogenous streets which don't have any character. We are also losing something."