For all who dream of visiting Ireland and walking in the footsteps of their ancestors, or becoming immersed in the history and vitality of the Emerald Isle, Aer Lingus and Irish Tourism have made it easier with direct flights from San Francisco, Orlando and Washington Dulles
By Patricia Keegan
Although the capital city of Ireland is filled with 4- and 5-star hotels and abundant B&B's, there is one hotel that stands in a realm of authenticity and quiet splendor -- not only representing all that is good about Ireland -- but literally the heartbeat of Dublin's rich history.
At the 5-star luxurious Shelbourne, a landmark since 1624, a guest is never far from the history and culture of Ireland. The lobby, where first impressions are made, is cheerful with polished Italian marble floors, sparkling chandeliers and a magnificent decorative stained glass skylight overhead. On the walls are some intriguing diptychs of Didi, Gogo, Lucky and Podos -- characters from Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' -- which speak to the rich literary dimension of this small country. The reception desk is a special asset to the hotel with its efficient staff who graciously combine the speed of registering with warm and accommodating personalities.
The Shelbourne, Dublin's largest five-star luxury hotel, has always held a personal history for me. As a child growing up in Ireland, I would listen to my mother telling her friends, after a trip to Dublin, what a wonderful time she and my father had at the Shelbourne. There was something in the way she articulated the word, Shelbourne, that made it appealing. I imagined her sitting in the Lord Mayor's Lounge surrounded by writers and artists, my glamorous mother perched like a movie star, smoking a cigarette and sipping sherry from sparkling Waterford.
When in Dublin now, I have made it a ritual to stop by for at least for a cup of tea, and a visit to this grand old lady Shelbourne. I have seen her through some economic ups and downs and have noticed the hotel acts like a barometer for the city and, indeed, the country. On a recent visit I stayed at the hotel, glamorized with the help of 200 million Euros, and I find it more comfortable and luxurious than ever.
In the center of my large room with windows overlooking lovely St. Stephen's Green was a tall bed, actually quite exceptional, adorned in 100% Egyptian cotton by Rivolta Carmignani. It looked inviting, it proved restorative, guaranteeing quick recovery from a bout of jet lag.
The spacious, yet cozy, room with desk and couch, was one step up from a walk-in closet and large marble bathroom. All rooms include plasma screen televisions, high speed Internet access and individual climate control. The air in the room was fresh, completely devoid of cigarette smoke, now banned from Ireland's hotels and pubs.
The famous Irish breakfast is a classic at the Shelbourne where you can either order from the menu or explore the buffet, which I recommend for its wonderful berries and fruit, just openers for the rashers, black pudding, eggs and more, all part of the traditional breakfast which takes me right through lunch into early evening excepting a chance of afternoon tea.
Afternoon tea in the Lord Mayor's Lounge is another tradition in this fabulous setting. Delicate sandwiches, home-made scones, and small pastries help to relieve any midday hunger. Even the teabags are special, they arrive sheathed in fine silk. One of the special treats, not to be missed on a visit to Ireland, is Trifle. For anyone not yet initiated into this delightful dessert, Shelbourne chef Garry Hughes prepares the absolute best sherry trifle! Garry uses only local Irish ingredients and tops it off with gobs of fresh whipped cream. Irish cream, like Irish cheese, is easily the best in the world.
The Saddle Room has a new award winning chef from France, Fred Cordonnier, who brings his star quality to the modern steak and seafood restaurant.
Stepping Back in Time
Founded in 1624, a giant step in Ireland's history was created under this famous roof. On this 'enlightened' spot the Irish Free State Constitution was drafted, it was also here at the Shelbourne where literary masterpieces were written and the society of Ireland was created.
Marketing executive, Aisling McDermott, kindly gave me a tour of the hotel and a memorable visit to the Constitution Suite. In the center of the room stood a long conference table, to the right of the table, protected under glass, was the first draft of a page of the handwritten Constitution created in 1922. This draft was inaugurated under the chairmanship of Michael Collins.
As soon as I stepped into this room I felt myself spiral back in time, absorbing the spirit that had filled Room 112 from February to May 1922. I could only imagine the intensity of emotion that imbued those heroes who dedicated their lives to the struggle for Ireland's emancipation. George Olden, the General Manager at that time, was the first person outside the committee to receive a copy of the the Irish Free State Constitution. George Olden actually became manager in 1904, steering the hotel through the dramatic events of Easter week in 1916, when despite the fighting on St. Stephen's Green in front of the hotel, life at the hotel continued its steady course of graciously serving its guests.
Fast forwarding to a calmer time in Ireland's history, we visited a suite named after Grace Kelly, where the renowned actress stayed on visits to Dublin. A painting of the star adorns a wall of the super lush and spacious accommodation. Princess Grace and Prince Rainier stayed at the Shelbourne many times and had a personal attachment to Room 270.
President John Kennedy and Jackie stayed at the Shelbourne before and after his election. It was on a visit on June 27, 1963, during which he made an emotional visit to the family's old homestead in county Wexford.
It was around five in the afternoon when we walked through the Horseshoe Bar happy hour at its energy peak. I saw a gathering of elegantly clad women, in the latest styles of boots and skirts with penciled eyes flashing from flawless faces, and men bristling with energy, with one eye on the women as they walked about with cell phones pressed to their ears.
Elizabeth Bowen, one of Ireland's great writers who loved the Shelbourne said; 'It is haunted in no other sense than the place where the handsome, the hearty, the happy, and the polite still seem to be thronged.'
The crowd with whom I mingled was a flood from the offices of Dublin, and my greatest wish was to linger awhile, observing this theater and eavesdropping on their conversations. If only I could hear the theme of their chats, maybe I would understand today's priorities of the 'well-off' Dubliner.
The hotel has been a part of the Dublin scene in many books written either under its roof or nearby. For example, it was here that George Moore wrote 'The Bending of the Bough” and 'A Dream in Muslin' in which he immortalized the Shelbourne.
While staying at the stimulating Shelbourne, one only needs a good pair of walking shoes to explore all corners of the city. My first stop was the National Gallery of Art -- a 'must' for visitors with an Irish heritage and anyone who appreciates great works of art. The Irish collection spans works from the 14th through the 20th century encompassing Irish paintings which date from its re-emergence in the 17th century to its most important 20th century painter, Jack B. Yeats. If you have never seen a collection of Yeats work this is a real treat. Irish portrait artists Hamilton, Barry, Lavery and Orpen hang alongside a tradition of landscape artists, with a few poignant paintings depicting Ireland's famine. The Italian section is the second most numerous collection and includes Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ, a lost masterpiece discovered in Dublin. The Dutch, French, Spanish and British Schools are also well represented.
Walking the streets of Dublin is far less stressing than driving, enabling an enjoyment of the aesthetic crispness and order on O'Connell St. that reflects a vibrant energy. As an Irish native, I have been bypassing Dublin to focus on more rural areas, particularly the West Coast, but now I find, in my absence, a city transformed over the past few years. Flowers line the center of the street and historic facades have been cleaned and polished. I like to visit the Post Office on O'Connell St. for the ongoing exhibit of spectacular drawings of the faces of Irish heroes who started the Easter Rising on April 24, 1918.
For a better understanding of Ireland's robust history, an IMAX screen at the Trinity College Visitor's Center takes viewers back to the origins of Dublin -- its days of elegance and its days of turmoil. This is a condensed, microscopic version of the city's history, but it does put events in perspective and provides images of each period. Nobody visits Dublin without seeing one of the world's great masterpieces -- the renowned Book of Kells created from 650-800 AD. It is a inspirational glimpse into the noble and delicate sensibilities of the minds of the Irish monks who strove for perfection in their illustrations of the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Grafton St., cut off from vehicular traffic, is one of the city's most exhilarating places to shop. Irish fashion has a flair for originality and garments are created from extraordinary wools and colorful fabrics. In a city always filled with life -- from early morning into the wee hours -- one senses the pace has increased. All day long a maze of people seem to be hurrying in all directions, walking with determination and purpose, as though intensely conscious of clock driven time. Dublin never sleeps, there is music everywhere, but there is always time to visit a book store or a restaurant, and Molly Malone will stand forever with her wheelbarrow at the top of Grafton Street.
Dublin is vibrantly alive at any time of the year but for the holidays and new year, a stay at the Shelbourne, together with a humorous look at Irish writers during a Literary Pub Crawl, is enough to make an optimistic opening to 2009.