Although it has been many years since it was owned by the family that bears its name, the closure of Bewley’s Café in Dublin severs a link with a more gracious, kindly age.
The last Bewley’s owner, Victor Bewley, was a gentle, compassionate man, a philanthropist who believed that all men were born equal and deserved equal respect. Known as an early advocate of Travellers’ rights, he became adviser to the Government through his Irish Itinerant Settlement Committee, under whose aegis he made many visits to Mayo in the ’70s, and to Ballinrobe in particular, to plead the cause of itinerant settlement.
The Bewleys were a Quaker family – monied, privileged, advantaged, English educated, and yet with an inherent sense of duty to others. But like all families, the Bewleys had their black sheep – in their case, Charles Bewley, who rebelled against his upbringing, kicked the traces, embraced militant Irish Republicanism and joined the Catholic Church. After the Civil War, he took the pro-Treaty side and, as a barrister, was called on to prosecute many of those he had befriendedd in the earlier national struggle.
He was appointed envoy to the Vatican but, in 1933, came the posting as Irish Minister to Berlin which would mark the rest of his life. An ardent admirer of Hitler and a bitter enemy of Britain, he was to become more Nazi than the Nazis themselves. Most of all, he was venomous in his hatred of the Jews, enthusiastically supporting the anti-Semite policies of the Hitler regime.
As Irish envoy, he was responsible for processing visa applications from Jews who wanted to move to Ireland in a bid to escape the fate that many feared awaited them. Bewley thwarted these applications in every way he could, so that in total less than a hundred visas were granted to Jewish applicants in the six years leading to the outbreak of war.
But it was in his official reports back to Dublin to Joseph Walsh, secretary of the Department of External Affairs, that the poisonous depths of his anti-Semitism were fully revealed.
Claiming that he was not aware of any deliberate cruelty on the part of the German government toward Jews, he went on and on to opine that, even if there were, it would be fully justified. Jews in Germany, he said, were involved in pornography, abortion and the white slave trade.
In any country where they had been allowed settle, they had proved to be disloyal, treacherous, deceitful and dangerous, he said. And, somewhat unwisely, he roundly criticised Irish immigration policy as ‘inordinately liberal in facilitating the wrong class of person’, meaning of course, Jews.
By now, his public pronouncements were becoming more stridently anti-British, more supportive of Hitler, and – crucially – more bitter against de Valera, whom he loathed. Increasingly, the government in Dublin was growing weary of his behaviour.
Charles Bewley was summarily dismissed without a pension in 1939, just on the eve of war. He was given work by Germany as a propagandist, but little was heard of him until he was arrested in northern Italy by British forces in 1945 with a passport that described him as ‘Irish Minister to the Vatican and Berlin’.
It was then that Joseph Walsh and his British counterpart decided to teach the rogue diplomat a lesson that, given Bewley’s ego, would be singularly painful. They decided to issue him with a new passport, only this time, under the then mandatory heading of ‘Trade or profession’, they entered the information as ‘A person of no importance’.
The humiliated Bewley never once produced the passport for the rest of his life. He died in obscurity in Rome in 1969.