The Grand Old Lady of Stephen’s Green as Shelbourne Hotel is affectionately known, has been witness to many key events in trajectory of modern Irish history. Leonie O’Hara profiles this icon of Dublin life.
From its inception in 1824 to recent times life of ‘Shel’ has run concurrently with life of Dublin and even Ireland. Indeed, some of most legendary and famous people from all walks of life have passed through its doors or stayed there. During 1916 Irish Rising hotel was garrisoned by British army. Later in 1922 it was garrisoned by army of new Free State. The Shelbourne is also historic location of drafting of first Constitution of Ireland.
More recently, hotel became an enclave where many of Ireland’s famous literary and musical greats socialized. Regulars included Ireland’s famous tenor Count John McCormack, musical composer Seán Ó Riada, poets Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney, and playwright Brendan Behan, among others. In fact The Chieftains, one of Ireland’s most famous musical groups was formed after Seán Ó Riada suggested name to musician Paddy Moloney in Shelbourne’s Horseshoe Bar.
The original structure consisted of four brick houses and was bought by Martin Burke in 1824. Burke, a Tipperary man, leased three houses, numbers 27, 28, and 29 in St. Stephen’s Green considered most illustrious location of city “to woo genteel custom who wanted solid, comfortable and serviceable accommodation at a fashionable address”.
The hotel originally was simply called Burke’s, but its owner decided it needed a grander title. Burke chose name after second Earl of Shelburne taking artistic license and adding an o to word so that his new establishment was now spelt Shelbourne.
By 1866 after it changed hands to new owners Messrs. Jury, Cotton and Goodman Shelbourne was re-built by Irish Victorian architect John McCurdy. The new edifice took 10 months to complete and was considered as majestic and grand as any of great hotels in London or Paris. In style exterior architecture is Renaissance. The walls are red brick and principal exteriors are of Portland stone. At entrance porch there overhangs a glass canopy. The entire façade is crossbanded in stucco painted cream.
Four granite pedestals hold life-sized bronze figures of Egyptian princesses and two Nubian slave girls, holding torches and standing as guards in front of hotel. These icons of Shelbourne were known by Dublin wags at time as last four virgins in Dublin. The interior decoration was in then fashionable Victorian style and set off by sumptuous wall hangings and oriental rugs.
From beginning Shelbourne’s policy for guests focused on good quality and a high standard of service. In these early years of history of hotel, and right though to 1957, Shelbourne was fashionable venue of wealthy and gentry classes. In 1824 English novelist and satirist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) whose best-known novel was Vanity Fair wrote about hotel in his work Irish Sketch Book:
“Presently car stops before an extremely big red house, in that extremely large square, Stephen’s Green… The hotel to which I had been directed is a respectable old edifice…”
The novelist George Moore (1852-1933) gives us an insight into hotel as an elegant social venue for high society of Dublin in years leading up to Great War. The Shelbourne plays an active role in Moore’s narrative where character of Mrs. Barton uses private rooms of hotel to entertain eligible young men as prospective husbands for her daughter. Although Moore’s work is fictional it did reflect life at time.