The Quaker warmth of Bewley’s warm fires

(Written in December 2 2004, when Bewley’s cafe, Grafton Street, Dublin, closed for an indefinite period for refurbishment. Its future was uncertain. But I am glad to report that it is up and flourishing for some time, warm and glorious, its sticky buns as good as ever. )

I will miss the Quaker warmth of Bewley’s coal fires. I will always be grateful, not only for the comforting Irish breakfasts and sticky cherry buns but for the warm coal fires in Bewley’s noisy restaurants in Dublin, now sadly a thing of the past. The 1950s were, as far as I was concerned, an unofficial ice age. As children we were always cold. And the relief of standing before those generous glowing fires in short pants, jumper and zip jacket was one of the highlights of my boyhood memories.

Like thousands of other families we drove to Dublin early on those frosty December 8th mornings for mad Christmas shopping, and a day out. The driving was shared between my aunt and my mother. We children piled in the back of the Austin A40. My aunt would only drive on a straight road, and never in the Dublin traffic. The deal was that my uncle turned the car into the Dublin road just outside Galway at 7am, and the aunt drove all the way to the Ashling hotel, at Parkgate Street. We got the bus from there along the Liffey to O’Connell Bridge. ‘The nice Bill Naughton’, the owner of the Ashling, would kindly turn the car about for the return journey in the evening.

There was no heat at the back of the Austin and we boys huddled together under several rugs. Each village and town we drove through had a story which was always told, and of which we never tired of hearing. Passing over the dark fields of Aughrim the famous battle of 1691 was recited, and how “that bastard” Luttrell failed to make the vital charge at the crux of the battle handing victory on a plate to the ruthless Williamites. The bodies of thousands of brave Irish soldiers were left to rot on those very fields we drove over. But there was always grim satisfaction to hear of how 20 years later, when Luttrell was going to the theatre in Dublin one evening, a man stepped from the crowd and shot him dead, crying; “death to the traitor of Aughrim”.

Going over the bridge at Athlone, “the very bridge bravely held by the Irish Jacobites” until “’in the face of 25,000 Williamites” who had previously bombarded the small town and castle with no fewer than 12,000 cannon balls, the Irish blew up the bridge to halt the Williamites’ advance. The Williamites desperately tried to forge a crossing but were gloriously held back by a single, brave, Irish sergeant of the dragoons, Custume by name. The story was told with the same reverence the Greeks reserve for Leonidas who held the Persian army at Thermopalae. We boys loved these stories; and once across the Shannon, there was a feeling that we were leaving the heroic west behind, and going into foreign territory.

Locke’s unique whiskey

The adults took much more interest in the whiskey distillery at Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath, owned for many years by two sisters with the wonderful names of Flo and Sweet Locke. They lived in the enormous house directly opposite the distillery. It is said that the Lockes were kindly people, and as the great copper vats were being heated they had no objection if the staff and their families had a bath in the warm waters. These ablutions added a certain gamey piquancy to the whiskey, that made Locke’s much sought after, and was a favourite tipple of Sir Winston Churchill. It was a great success story in its time.

From a small rural distillery started in the 1700s, it prospered in the 19th century exporting to the US, South America, all over the UK and its empire until it ceased operations as recently as 1953. Happily today Flo and Sweet’s house is owned by Brian Quinn who bought the distillery, and continues the actually blending of the malt and the grain at the Cooley distillery, in Dundalk. The whiskey matures in oak casks back in the original 200-year-old warehouse at Kilbeggin. It is unknown what gives Locke’s its unique taste today; but I am assured the vats are off limits to the staff.

An exhausting day

After the Ashling hotel, the first stop in Dublin was Bewley’s and a thaw by the fire. The fires were seen as a Quaker thing, “and sure all the Bewleys are Quakers; and Quakers are well intentioned people. Look what the Ellis family did for the poor of Connemara at Letterfrack during the Famine?” We would stand before those fires and smile in their Quaker warmth.

Bewley’s was the shopping HQ for the day. There were always a few words with Miss ‘Tattens’ Twomey, who in recent years was the maitre d of the Grafton St Bewley’s, but ever since I can remember Miss Twomey was the face of Bewley’s. She would politely inquire, in a rather posh voice, after “everyone in Galway,” and watch over us as we scoffed sausages, fried eggs, puddings, and gallons of toast and tea while making plans for the attack on Dublin shops.

There were certain things that had to be bought, such as at least 4 pounds of Hafner’s delicious spicy sausages, for various relations back in Galway. Dublin at the time was famous for its German sausages made by such families as Haulikers, Hafner’s, Alhaussen, Steins and Magerleys (Magerleys, on the South Circular Road is renowned for its pork pies. They and Alhaussen are still in business today ). There was much debate as to who would go down to Hafner’s in Henry Street as there were no plastic bags then. Sausages were wrapped in greaseproof paper and parcelled in brown paper and tied with string. It was a heavy load and sometimes the wet sausages would melt the paper and peep through.

But once back in Bewley’s you were safe. Deirdre White and Pauline Lacey would keep our parcels behind the tea and cakes counter in the front of the shop. It was an exhausting day: Back down to Clery’s and McBirney’s for practical things like underwear, which to boys was the very worst waste of time imaginable. (Once when Granny came with us, she waxed lyrical about an old corset she had bought in Arnotts. We boys looked at each other in horror ).

There would be a visit to Brown Thomas’, and Woolworths, and secret parcels for Christmas stuffed into bags; and as a treat for us boys up to see the model soldiers and Air-fix plane kits, the latest Meccano sets and electric train sets at Gearys at the top of Grafton Street.

Around 4pm we would all meet again at Bewley’s. It was time to go. We’d collect all our parcels and the women behind the counter would warmly wish us a safe journey home, a Happy Christmas, and would ask us to say hallo to “ everyone in Galway”.

It would be a long walk back to O’Connell Bridge, with heavy parcels. A bus ride back to the Ashling, where the ‘nice Mr Naughton’ had the car turned facing the West.

But once on the long, dark road to Galway, the journey was brightened by a stop at Harry’s of Kinnegad for more sausages and chips, and a Club Orange. If we needed to stop again (and toilets called ), we would all troop into Haydens of Ballinasloe. After that there would be silence in the back of the car as we slept oblivious of the dead over the mid-winter fields of Aughrim, and its many brave Irishmen resting under its sward.

Before I wrote the above article, I commiserated with Ms Tattens Twomey on the closing of Bewleys. I asked her where her unusual Christian name came from. “ From Dunlavin, Co Wicklow,” she replied. “ We were an unusual family.” I told her I thought all families were unusual in their own particular way; and how many thousands of families have memories of Bewleys with its smells of coffee, its warmth, and cheerful staff; its Harry Clarke windows, and hissing steam. She seemed pleased with my remarks.

NOTES: Sadly Ms ‘Tattens’ Toomey died February 18 2007.

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