Cork’s cafe society in the era before lattes!

Coffee-on-the-go goes hand in hand with the modern world, but in her weekly Throwback Thursday column, JO KERRIGAN recalls a time when coffee and tea was a leisurely treat in the city. Anyone for cake?
Cork’s cafe society in the era before lattes!

The Green Door Restaurant near the old Echo offices at Academy Street, Cork, in 1935. It famously sold the ‘Connie Dodger’. 

WE have looked back before at the café/restaurants in those two great cinemas, the Savoy and the Pavilion, where elegant ladies passed titbits of scandal along with the cake stand, and fortunate grandchildren were treated to afternoon tea.

But there were so many wonderful old cafes in the Cork of yesteryear which have now disappeared without trace.

Surely many an elderly structure on our main thoroughfares is redolent with memories of assignations and conferences, passionate discussions and gourmet indulgences.

Ladies took time out from their shopping mornings to enjoy coffee and freshly buttered scones. Gentlemen dropped in at lunchtime for something more substantial. Students gathered in groups throughout the afternoons, discussing the latest political issues or, more practically, how to get to a dance down at Boat Club and what to wear to attract maximum attention.

ICONIC SPOT: The dog-trough where the Old Bridge Restaurant was.
ICONIC SPOT: The dog-trough where the Old Bridge Restaurant was.

The Old Bridge, with its signature bow window, was a venerable establishment at the northern end of Patrick Street, staffed by dignified ladies in black dresses and white aprons.

This writer well remembers being persuaded in there for the very first time when let out from school for the morning to sell flags for some religious cause. The collecting boxes didn’t do very well, but an intense commitment to café society was definitely born.

The old building still stands (one hopes sincerely that it is listed) but the café is gone. Not forgotten, though. Isn’t that lovely dogs’ drinking bowl, sculpted by Seamus Murphy, still in situ outside?

 Tivoli Restaurant in 1936, which had tea and Thompson’s cakes.
Tivoli Restaurant in 1936, which had tea and Thompson’s cakes.

Almost across the road, The Tivoli was the Mecca for generations of youngsters hoping to be taken for tea, which of course had to include several of those famous Thompson’s cakes.

Fortunate First Communicants might be brought there to celebrate the occasion — this was well before the extravagant Hollywood-style bashes that are now expected to mark such events.

Student days in the 1960s almost always included meeting up at the Tivoli in large groups. So much so in fact that the management put in place a sternly strict rule that at least one cake must be purchased by each and every penniless struggler to accompany the long, drawn-out coffee.

The Savoy was famous for its hushed and dimly-lit, red-carpeted dining space upstairs, but the management broke new ground when it embraced the ’60s and opened The Talk of the Town down in the basement, where freshly-made hot doughnuts were available.

Further down Patrick Street was The Leprechaun, upstairs in another bow-fronted building, over a sweetshop. You entered from the side street and climbed the stairs to the cosy little tearoom.

The Leprechaun was great for sitting in the bow window and seeing everybody who was passing up and down Pana, and with whom. Many a burgeoning teenage liaison was first spotted from the Leprechaun.

Next comes a historic block which once housed the Echo and Examiner and — complete with those wonderful old printing presses which thundered throughout the night — as well as Barter’s Travel, still there on the corner, the legendary Chateau, still run by the Reidys, and, in a now disappeared Faulkner’s Lane, the much-lamented and fondly-remembered Kealy’s Bar. Look to the Academy Street side of this block and see the steps which still run up to what was once the famous Green Door Café.

What a reputation that place had. “As nice as a Green Door cake” was a well-known saying among the cogniscenti of Cork, but it had another secret recipe too.

When Bishop Cornelius Lucey was in determined charge of reluctant and backsliding parishioners, fasting during Lent and Advent was taken extremely seriously. A cup of tea and a biscuit was the maximum allowed at certain times.

To the aid of the beleaguered public came the Green Door, with a famous biscuit known as The Connie Dodger. Large, decently thick, and covered with chocolate, it did very well in place of a full meal, especially when accompanied by a vast mug of strong, sweet tea.

Who remembers Stella’s, another upstairs café, this time over the Princes Street entrance to the English Market?

Run by Stella O’Donovan — her son Noel became a dentist, as one recalls — it specialised in particularly delectable chocolate cakes with whipped cream inside.

Irresistible when you had just emerged from the market with full shopping bags and some time to spare before that next bus home to the suburbs.

There were several popular cafes in Cook Street and Marlborough Street too, although they changed their owners and their names too often to remember.

Each and every one had its own faithful clientele, and those engaged in illicit relationships with somebody else’s official girlfriend would have to choose carefully to avoid meeting the Offended Other amongst the teatables (it did happen).

Way outside the café heartland, the Betnu, hidden away on Tuckey Street off the Grand Parade, was known only to a few.

In the Sixties, it was the haunt of artistic students who spent much of their time at the rickety old Group Theatre on South Main Street.

It also looked after those street sweepers and cleaners who dropped in for a cuppa before resuming their thankless task of keeping the city’s byways navigable.

O'Brien's ice cream van in the 1930s.
O'Brien's ice cream van in the 1930s.

O’Brien’s Ice Cream Parlours were venerable indeed, having been founded in the 1920s. Wherever did they get the idea back in that early period? It could well have been garnered in America.

William O’Brien went over to Boston in 1909, his fiancée to follow when he had found work as an accountant. However, she was prevented from joining him in 1911, due to suffering from a bad cold when she was about to board the liner at Cobh. (In those days the Americans were paranoid about admitting unwell immigrants.)

Mr O’Brien immediately sailed back, they were married at Cobh Cathedral, and eventually set up their business in Cork.

ICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT: O’Brien’s ice cream van, known as Florrie, at Gougane Barra in the 1930s and (below) crowds flock to buy one on a sunny day.
ICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT: O’Brien’s ice cream van, known as Florrie, at Gougane Barra in the 1930s and (below) crowds flock to buy one on a sunny day.

O’Brien would have seen the success of places like Brigham’s Ice Cream Parlour in Boston, which had opened in 1896.

In their heyday, O’Brien’s had shops at McCurtain Street and Oliver Plunkett Street (later moved to Washington Street), and in the early years also had a little van called Florrie which they took to race meetings and other large gatherings, selling ice cream and cakes from the back of the van.

The tea rooms at MacCurtain Street and Washington Street were still doing a roaring trade in the 1960s, offering ice-cream sundaes and milkshakes as well as a range of cakes and sweets, created upstairs in McCurtain Street.

It was a great place to meet friends on Sunday mornings over a plate of flaky pastry custard slices.

You must have your own favourite memories of Cork’s classic old cafes. Did you meet someone special there, or are your first recollections of being taken by a kind relative?

Can you still get the scent of the coffee, the savour of the cakes?

Some of you can probably remember your absolute top choice among the many slices, tarts, buns, apple, chocolate, lemon, vanilla-flavoured, on offer.

Does anyone remember a particular iced currant bun called a ‘sneckin’?

Email us! jokerrigan1@gmail.com.

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