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Victoria White: Iconic Bewley's is city's front room, so why not preserve it

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Bewley's Cafe.

Bewley's Cafe.

James Joyce.

James Joyce.

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Bewley's Cafe.

We own Bewley's Cafe on Grafton Street. It's ours.

It belongs to Johnny Ronan's Ickendel development company. Johnny Ronan's debts are in NAMA. So, we own the cafe.

And in our wisdom we are charging Bewley's Cafe €1.5 million in annual rent for it. Which is twice what it's worth.

And Bewley's Cafe are losing a fortune. It has closed for at least six months, with the loss of 140 jobs.

When it re-opens, only the ground floor will be used and that lovely mezzanine, from which so many of us have watched the world go by, will be closed.

Are we completely bonkers? Bewley's should be a national heritage site.

The building once housed Whyte's Academy, in which the Duke of Wellington and Robert Emmet were students.

But when Ernest Bewley decided to locate a café there his plans were on a grand scale.

There's not just the six stained-glass windows designed by the famous Harry Clarke in 1927, for which Bewley's paid IR£60,000.

There's the stunning front of the building which evokes ancient Egypt in gold leaf, inspired by the mania which followed the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922.

And of course there's the main room itself, with its high ceilings, its chandeliers and its velvet banquettes - on which I made several attempts at seduction.

So we're not good enough to have a grand café, are we not?

care

We don't care if this beautiful building is thrown on the open market and Harry Clarke's figures stare down on girls struggling into new jeans in yet another shop dressing-room?

Is the history of the place worth nothing?

Or the memories of all the writers and artists who frequented the place?

Bewley's was mentioned by James Joyce (above) and the poet Patrick Kavanagh was a regular. The daughter of the famous short story writer Mary Lavin once told me she spent mornings sitting on the velvet seats as a young child while her mother sipped coffee and worked on her writing.

Because that's what Bewley's has always offered: space and time. We don't have the weather for piazzas.

The best we can do on Dublin's most famous shopping street is provide a grand café which welcomes anyone who has the price of a cup of coffee.

Bewley's Cafe is a refuge. It's the place our emigrants come to for tea and sympathy and sticky buns if they really want to feel they're back in Dublin.

We need to cop ourselves on and fast. The cafe should be taken into State ownership as a national monument.

There's nothing outlandish about this. In Paris beautiful cafes associated with artists and writers like the Café de Flore and the Café des Deux Magots, are national monuments.

Even in nearby Belfast, the amazing Victorian Crown Bar is rightly protected by the National Trust.

Dublin's not the grandest city in Europe and Grafton Street isn't exactly coming down with character.

We need to preserve Bewley's for the State and lease it at a reasonable rent, with reasonable conditions. We can find a different tenant at a later date if it doesn't work out.

And we would have a very valuable piece of real estate in the State's portfolio.

gains

The gains we would make in tourism and retail would be massive, while Bewley's Cafe closing down would be a PR disaster for Dublin.

We've lashed out millions on pieces of real estate in the past which have benefited relatively few people. Farmleigh House in the Phoenix Park has cost millions of euro in renovation and operating costs but only big-wigs get to stay there.

Bewley's Cafe belongs to anyone who can buy a bun. It is our front room.

The government which presides over any threat to the future of Bewley's betrays this city and its people.


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