Sebastian Barry Literary Trail – Café Cairo

Are you a fan of the Secret Scripture?  this café is referenced throughout all three books and provides the backdrop to many scenes from the books.  As a child, Eneas’s mother brings him here for tea as they sheltered from the rain in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, “usually they would not go into such a place, out of respect for the expense of bought tea..” after visiting the Cathedral.

The Café Cairo did exist in Sligo town, it opened for business on 13th January 1911, an announcement in the Sligo Champion newspaper at the time, declared that the owner a Miss Murtagh “begs to state that she will undertake to cater for all dinner, supper and luncheon parties” and as in the book it was located on Wine Street in Sligo town.

The original Egyptian themed café changed owners over the years and expanded to include a delicatessen and grocery section, it closed in the late 1970’s, it was located in the building on Wine Street, now occupied by Cara Pharmacy.

Download the Sligo Secret Scripture Walking Tour

Sligo Walking tour

In The Secret Scripture, Rose Clear works here as a waitress and it is where she becomes acquainted with the McNulty brothers.  “The café served everyone in Sligo without criticism.  It was owned by a Quaker family, and we were told to run no one from the doors.”  Rose in her old age remembers her time working in the café fondly, serving the dames of Sligo, the lonely pensioners and Tom and his brother Jack,  “China tea and a deadfly bun.  Earl Grey for the brother.”

Then: Café Cairo circa 1930’s

Cafe Cairo 1930s
Source: Tom Harte Family Copyright – Owner of Café Cairo in the 1930’s

The café was well established in Sligo by the 1930’s and sponsored sporting events in the town.  In the café, an orchestra played daily to entertain customers and in The Secret Scripture, Rose played piano in Tom McNulty Senior’s Orchestra in the dance hall at Strandhill.

An advertisement from the Café Cairo in the 1930’s, when Tom Harte owned and ran it.

Menu Café Cairo in the 1930's

Then: Nuns from Nazareth Order, walking on Wine street outside the Café Cairo in 1959

Cafe Cairo Sligo Wine Street
Nuns walk past the Cafe Cairo in 1959. Photo: Jim Eccles copyright



Notice the Egyptian decorative motifs running along the side of the building front.

Now:  Former buildings of Café Cairo on Wine Street, today it is a pharmacy business.

Original site of Cafe Cairo Sligo melcoo

The windows and shop front remain largely the same and the shop sign attached to the building, is in the same spot as the original sign for the café in the 1950’s.

Original building of Cafe Cairo

A fire engine outside the Café Cairo in 1959, a small fire had broken out in the building but it continued to trade for another 20 years.

Cafe Cairo 1960s
Source: The Sligo Champion

This old postcard from the Francis Frith collection in 1960, shows the inside of the café serving cakes and selling groceries and cooked meats at its delicatessen counter.

Cafe Cairo Francis Firth Collection
Cafe Cairo Francis Firth Collection

In The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry uses the Egyptian theme in the café, to describe the ladies, the dames of Sligo, chatting and gossiping, “rising from them like dust from a desert caravan of camels” and in The Temporary Gentleman, Mai is one of the fashionable ladies of Sligo,  drinking tea in the Café Cairo, “arranged among the tables like the fabulous beasts of some impossible watering hole”.

Barry creates a wonderful picture of the exotic sounding cafe in his novels, the café operated for nearly 70 years in Sligo town, it closed before I was born, although I remember my mother mentioning it.

In the Secret Scripture movie released in 2017, the main character Rose, played by the actress Rooney Mara, works in a cafe referenced in the movie as the less impressive sounding Prunty’s.  This is an ode to the character in the books who owned the cafe, Rose in the books refers to the Quaker owner as Mrs Prunty.  Let us know in the comments section if you ever visited the Café Cairo in Sligo?

Check out other locations that inspired Sebastian Barry’s novels here.

Also, available on Android and iPhone, download the Guidigo App from the Play or Apple store and search for Sligo Secret Scripture.

You can also check out the guided tour here.

This blog post was first published in 2015 and updated in 2017.

Featured Image Source: Brown Betty tea room – Shorter College, c.1920

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