Michael Moynihan: Cork's coffee spots rival New York's

The coffee experience on Leeside is becoming increasingly sophisticated
Michael Moynihan: Cork's coffee spots rival New York's

The coffee-house was known as the penny university in the 18th century.

Last Sunday, I strolled the city streets like an ordinary citizen, which makes a change from my usual Sunday routine.

(That routine traditionally involves muttering to myself as I try to find parking near sports stadiums, but you don’t want to hear about my problems.) What caught my eye last Sunday was the regularity with which I encountered queues around Cork at apparently random spots. 

Here and there gathered half a dozen people or so, nicely distanced, waiting patiently at an open doorway.

They were lining up to get coffee, of course.

In Fitzgerald’s Park and on Anglesea Street; at the top of Washington Street by the college and along the Grand Parade and elsewhere.

The numbers were striking even if you accept as a matter of course, as we all do, that in these extraordinary times, takeaway beverages are the currency of the age.

Anyone who is familiar with the coffee spots of the city will be able to identify the establishments involved; anyone like me, unfamiliar with the Sunday afternoon mid-pandemic experience, would have been surprised.

Not so much by the interest in a warming drink on a chilly November afternoon, but in the increasing sophistication of the entire coffee experience on Leeside.

I must confess to a dark secret in this regard: many years ago I was a barista in California – Mission Coffees And More in the Fremont hills – an episode so distant now it might be the Cretaceous. For context, at the time Starbucks was regarded as a plucky underdog rather than a harbinger of corporate monoculture.

(My strongest memory of that phase of my life was the pregnant lady complaining I hadn’t served her decaffeinated coffee. She had taken all of one sip. I was about to share some tales of 1970s' parenting in Ireland with her, but I thought better of it.) However, I can go back a lot further than that when it comes to coffee in Cork.

I can recall as a very small boy going down the steps from the old Roches Stores car park – which backed onto the buildings which once lined Merchant’s Quay – and into the department store’s coffee shop.

(I surely don’t need to explain that Roches was a department store. Or what a department store is, come to that?) At five or six years of age, the macchiato was still some distance in the future – Fanta Lemon and a Thompson’s chocolate slice were my weapons of choice then, which was the kind of tale I should have shared with my pal in Fremont – but I retain a strong memory of the ‘white coffee’, which was served, steam still rising, to the sophisticates of early-'70s Cork.

I’m not being sarcastic when I use the term ‘sophisticates’, by the way. 

My own coffee habit exploded in UCC, where a cup was so cheap – a farthing? two ducats? 20 old pence? – that seven or eight a day was manageable, even for an impoverished student.

As long as you didn’t mind vibrating audibly once you reached the even half-dozen by mid-afternoon.

That was around the same time as the outside coffee world introduced itself to us. A lad in our class had put down a year or so in New York and one evening a few of us were strolling down Winthrop Street when he said he fancied a coffee.

This was late evening, with nowhere open, so we were looking around, mystified, when our hero went into McDonald’s and ordered a coffee and then . . . walked outside, pinched off a corner of the lid and started to drink it.

As he continued to walk around. In the open air.

"What are you . . . doing?" I said.

"I’m having a coffee, what about it?" he said.

"You’re out in the street," I said. "The street." 

"In New York you see people walk around the street with coffee all the time," he said.

Not only do I hear "Well, you’re not in New York now, kid", but I hear it in a particular friend's voice with a Larry David extravagance to "kid".

I’d estimate this to have happened around 1989, which might account for my reaction. Walking around the streets with cups of coffee? What was wrong with those people?

You sat down to drink coffee. You went and found it in a place like Mary Rose’s in the Queen’s Old Castle, where the coffee was hot and in a cup, not a small plastic container, the cakes were delicious and the stools were on the precarious side for the broad of bottom.

Or you headed to the Harlequin down on Maylor Street. Bewley’s. And other outlets, now long forgotten.

The coffee spots of modern Cork are better than their predecessors, to my eye at least (you may disagree, but of course, you are wrong). In a competitive market, Cafe Gusto and Idaho top my league table.

My only regret is that we seem to have leapfrogged a stage in development that other cities enjoyed when it comes to coffee.

Take, for example, the Café de la Régence of Paris. In the 19th century, this was the centre of chess, and the great players of the time, from Morphy to Anderssen all visited and took on the local players. If The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix was set in the 1800s, then the Café de la Régence would have been front and centre.

Early in the following century, the coffee shops of Vienna stimulated the development of soccer: “players, supporters, directors and writers would mix. Fans of Austria Vienna, for instance, met in the Cafê Parsifal; Rapid fans in the Cafê Holub,” writes Jonathan Wilson, tracing the tactical development of the game when Austria was the source of such innovation.

On a more serious note, though, there’s a reason the coffee house was known as the penny university in the 18th century.

They were the places where men went to discuss radical ideas and politics (though those ideas and politics weren’t radical enough to include women in the discussions, by all accounts).

The reason coffee houses were centres of high-minded argument rather than taverns or alehouses is immediately evident to anyone who has tried to start a logical discussion in a pub at closing time.

That said, I myself would be inclined to back away slowly from any randomer bringing up the Biden transition or Carlow school uniforms as I queued for coffee. Perhaps the 18th century was a time more amenable to unsolicited political opinions.

Coffee shops sometimes morph into something else entirely, of course.

One coffee shop in London in the late 1680s attracted a particular clientele when it opened: sailors, sea captains and merchants were such frequent visitors that it served as an unofficial clearing house for shipping news.

As time went on, there was so much shipping information circulating in the shop, with London growing in importance as a port and centre of international trade, that the owner began to serve less coffee and monetised the flow of information.

In time, the coffee ceased and the owner focused on maritime insurance. And Lloyd’s coffee shop became Lloyd’s of London. Looking back, did Mary Rose’s miss a trick in not diversifying into financial services? I think it did.

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