Is Ireland “over-coffee-ed”?
I pondered this question recently (over a coffee).
Urban Coffee Culture
Coffee culture has well and truly taken hold in Ireland over the past decade. The capital city Dublin has a vast selection of cafés, from chains (both international and home grown), to independents (this including a broad spectrum of trendy to more traditional). It’s hard to imagine a part of the city where you can’t get good coffee. The rather amazing success of the beautifully located – and very busy – ‘Happy Out’ in Bull Island just off the eastern seaboard is a case in point.
But is the city saturated with bean culture? Drowning in cappuccinos? Overwhelmed by coffee granules? Dublin City Council seems to think so, advising a property investor earlier in the year that it would be difficult to justify opening another café in a property near St Stephen’s Green. Planners noted at the time that there was an over proliferation of places to have a coffee in this area. It’s not just expansion by chains like Costa and Starbucks either, with many independent coffee shops joining the fray.
Rural Pub Closures
This is playing out while pub closures in Ireland continue, albeit with a marked rural/urban divide. The latest figures from Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI) show that 71 rural pubs closed in 2018. There are now 1,535 fewer pubs in rural Ireland than in 2005. DIGI analysis also shows that nearly 20% of rural pubs closed between 2005 and 2018, compared to just 1% in Dublin.
So will café society replace pub culture in a changing Ireland?
It’s an unlikely prospect actually, as the Irish psyche is naturally drawn towards the conviviality of a pub. Also, many pubs have reinvented themselves to meet changing market demands by incorporating a food offer such as a food truck, while others have focused on atmosphere and niche entertainment.
The Virgin Mary on Dublin’s Capel Street, opened a few months ago, is Ireland’s first completely non-alcoholic pub while the new 1661 pub around the corner specialises in the once illegal white spirit poitin. Many pubs also now serve barista-style coffee.
The ones that are thriving – both urban and rural – have adapted their offer and work a little harder and smarter to attract clientele.
In the UK pubs have been increasingly café-like for quite a number of years, a trend which began mainly for commercial reasons, as pubs sought to attract customers throughout the day.
Follow Me Up To …
And so a few weeks ago I found myself in my home county of Carlow, in Ireland’s south east, checking out the new café developments with great interest.
I recall bringing my elderly parents for a pub lunch in our local town a few years ago. My father marveled at the newly introduced coffee “menu” on our table and slowly read the description of each type of coffee with some incredulity and amusement. A far cry from being asked if you had a preference for strong or weak as the publican switched on the electric kettle!
Picking up some tourist brochures I am reminded of Carlow’s impressive spiritual footprint. There are at least twenty two early saints associated with Carlow and some such as Columbanus and Laserian embarked from the county on great missionary endeavours in Europe.
But back to coffee. In no particular order my three café “picks” from county Carlow are as follows:
The Townie Trendsetter: Thrive Café, Market Square, Tullow, Co Carlow
This is a gorgeous café in the centre of the market town Tullow, open since early 2018, which focuses on providing healthy food & drink. It’s a much needed addition to the town’s food/beverage offer. Tullow has a quaint feel to it and some wonderfully traditional shops like Johnson’s Tailors and Duffy’s Drapers all of which seem (and I am assured are) unchanged since my youth. The café offers a choice of unprocessed, sugar-free and nutrient dense breakfasts, snacks, smoothies and lunches.
The Social Local: Café de Mode, Church Street, Ballon, Co Carlow
I was particularly keen to visit this café in my home village of Ballon. Located a little way up Ballon’s famous hill in a building which used to house the post office, it seems fitting that it is now one of the village’s main social hubs. Initially converted to a takeaway, the current owners took over the property in 2016 and have delivered a smart yet friendly and award winning neighbourhood café.
The Rural Retreat: Sugar and Spice Cafe, Altamont Gardens, Kilbride, Co Carlow
This is perhaps my favourite. The gardens at Altamont are stunning and recognised as one of the most beautiful in Ireland. The estate gains much of its character from the rare trees, huge stone outcrops, beautiful woodlands and exotic specimens throughout the gardens. As a child I lived nearby and often visited the gardens – now expertly managed by the OPW – with schoolfriends. I remember the kindness of Corona North the former owner who cheerfully allowed us to roam freely. The open air Sugar and Spice café is an absolute delight and sitting here during a rainy day I couldn’t think of a nicer place to be.
I relish the positive changes and new life that these cafes have brought to this ordinary yet not so ordinary part of my home county. And I foresee a peaceful co-existence of pubs and cafes in a changing, forward-thinking and multi-cultural Ireland.