Something shifted when the taxi dropped me off at Dublin’s Shelbourne hotel. As I glided through the revolving door of the 198-year-old brick building on St. Stephen’s Green, I was enveloped in the warmth of old-school grandeur. Its façade is landmarked by the Irish Georgian Society, but the Shelbourne is protecting more than just architecture—it is preserving an important part of European history.
Within minutes, I was asking the concierge, Alan Grange, for stories about the 1916 Easter Rising, which paved the way to Irish independence from the British Crown. Royal troops were garrisoned in the hotel, and Republican rebels fired at their imperial overlords from inside the park, which was bursting with spring foliage.
Every day, the opposing sides declared a brief cease-fire so the park-keeper could feed the ducks. “They killed one another, but they never killed the ducks,” he tells me.
The Shelbourne, in all its statuesque glory, has been both witness to and participant in almost two centuries of history. James Joyce mentioned it in Dubliners, Elizabeth Bowen wrote a book about it, and many writers, politicians, artists, and personalities have experienced its hospitality, including William Makepeace Thackeray, John Ford (born John Martin Feeney), Grace Kelly, John F. Kennedy (whose portrait is etched on my key’s envelope), Michelle Obama, and Lily Collins. “It carries the stories of everyone that ever worked here, and stayed here,” says general manager Lucius Farrell.
Built in 1824 inside three adjoining town houses, the hotel was founded by Tipperary-born Martin Burke, who named it after the second Earl of Shelburne. It was constructed, explains Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin, at a time when the colonized Irish were beginning to find their voice.
“They killed one another, but they never killed the ducks.”
“Dublin was often referred to as the second city of the empire,” he says. When the Shelbourne opened, it was a vote of confidence in the city’s rising status: now Dublin had a first-class hotel that could rival any in London or Paris.
It was therefore highly symbolic that Michael Collins, chairman of the provisional government of the Irish Free State following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which created an independent Ireland within the British Commonwealth, chose the Shelbourne as the workspace for his team to draft the country’s first constitution. “They thought, We are taking our place amongst the nations of the earth, and so we needed a place as opulent and significant as this one,” says Ferriter.
The work transpired in Room 112 over five months in 1922. During that time, Collins also tried fanatically to sell the treaty to a movement that was now bitterly divided over the required oath of allegiance to the British monarch. By the time the constitution was ratified, later that year, Collins had been assassinated and the Irish Civil War had begun.
With this legacy, both divisive and triumphant, in mind, I explored the Shelbourne’s commemoration of events a century ago that ultimately led to today’s democratic and free Republic of Ireland. “We want to doff our hat in a nuanced way to this history,” says Farrell over coffee in No. 27, one of the hotel bars. For example, the Big Fella cocktail, blended with Irish whiskey, Campari, orange bitters, and plum–goji berry vermouth, is named after Collins’s sobriquet.
Like most public spaces at the Shelbourne, No. 27 retains its elegant bones, sash windows, and finely carved cornices. The Connemara marble fireplaces, too, date from the 1800s, as does the grand staircase that winds through the heart of the hotel. It’s surrounded by stained-glass windows depicting the crest of Ireland’s 32 counties, including the 6 from Northern Ireland.
The Shelbourne’s renovation began in 2016, and it required a brick-by-brick repair of the façade. London taste-maker Guy Oliver was engaged to refresh the interiors. Today, the hotel is washed in soothing shades of maritime blues and grassy greens.
In the Constitution Suite, which has been re-purposed as a private dining space, I ate scallops from Bantry, salmon from West Cork, and bacon lardons from Grannagh—a fresh take on Irish staples prepared by chef Garry Hughes. He scours century-old hotel menus for the stalwarts—apple tarts, saddle of lamb, black-pudding terrine—and adapts them for his high-end 21st-century guests.
But it is ultimately where and how you rest that determines the memory of a place. When I awoke in the morning, light from the sky above St. Stephen’s Green flooded my perfectly idyllic room. The same rays from the same sun that has shone down for centuries.
Marcia DeSanctis is a contributing writer at Travel + Leisure, and writes essays and stories for Vogue, Town & Country, Departures and BBC Travel. Her new book, a collection of travel essays called A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life, is out now