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 and was a busy cafe operating 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”. As mentioned in the book, it was located on Wine Street in Sligo town.

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

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 fondly working in the café, serving the dames of Sligo, the lonely pensioners, Tom and his brother Jack,  “China tea and a deadfly bun. Earl Grey for the brother.”

Then: Café Cairo circa 1930s

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

An advertisement from Café Cairo in the 1930s, 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 shop front has been modernised. The shop sign attached to the building is in the same spot as the original sign for the café in the 1950s.

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, 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”. 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. The movie was filmed in the village of Inistioge in County Kilkenny with the beach scenes shot in County Galway and with some background footage featuring Benbulben mountain in Sligo.

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

 

Book a guided private or group Sligo Secret Scripture 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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