Tradition Amidst the Revolution: Three Days at The Shelbourne Hotel Dublin

 

 

We’ve always been intrigued by Ireland, a country that celebrates a patron saint and a pagan goddess, both named Brigid. The latter’s feast falls on February 1st, the Celtic first day of spring—incidentally the perfect season in which to visit the Emerald Isle. And on the heels of Ireland at last legalizing abortion, and the commencement of the Domestic Violence Act 2018 (covering new offenses of coercive control), the country also elected more female politicians locally than ever before in 2019—all making today’s climate downright revolutionary.

So needing an escape from the depressingly regressive socio-political reality at home, we booked an Aer Lingus flight to experience the capital Dublin, and coastal Donegal (the latter story to follow), in all their magical lore and lush greenery. Notably, Aer Lingus also announced in 2019 that female cabin crew were no longer required to wear makeup or skirts as part of the airline’s new uniform guidelines. Score another one…

For this trip, we opted to mix revolution with a bit of tradition; and rolling up to The Shelbourne, an Autograph Collection Hotel, we were immediately entranced by the elegant frontage of the 200-year old property—located directly on St. Stephen’s Green. The place is bursting with history, from its proximity to the Easter Rising of 1916 (which split loyalties in Ireland’s fight for independence from the British, both sides battling it out right across the road), to its later being home to the drafting of Ireland’s Constitution in 1922. The hotel has also long been a meeting point for political, social, and cultural happenings.

From the moment we entered through its new but still impressively grand front doors (they swapped out the original revolving doors last year due to guests getting caught in the whoosh), we found the excellent staff—and personalized concierge service—distinctly charming and always welcoming. There’s even a genaeaology butler on hand, providing private consultations for guests hoping to discover their Irish ancestry.

As special as they made us feel, a long list of distinguished guests had actually come before us. Think JFK and Jackie, and from Hollywood’s golden years Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Paul Newman and Robert Redford…we could go on. Princess Grace even has a namesake suite (her favorite room when she and Prince Rainier of Monaco were visiting Ireland), and it’s rumored Liam Neeson stays in the same room whenever he visits. It’s an overwhelming pedigree; though these days the Shelbourne still exudes the same sophisticated charm, infused with modern amenities like a spa with pampering treatments and a hair salon catering to Dublin’s chicest women.

The Shelbourne’s luxurious, very-well-appointed rooms overlook St. Stephen’s Green, which is worth spending contemplative time in while in Dublin. Still we skipped breakfast in bed to indulge in the world-class, morning-starting buffet—and on one morning, ordered up the delectable Shelbourne Eggs Benedict—in the elegant Saddle Room. Pairing it up with an energy juice—freshly made of kale, spinach, parsley, beetroot and red gala apple—and a really good coffee (not a given in this part of the world) it really energized us to make the rounds of the charming Irish capital.

Museum of Literature

 

We made a point of strolling through St. Stephen’s Green on the way to the Museum of Literature Ireland, which opened to much literary fanfare this past October. We thrilled to the many iconic works from Ireland’s storytelling past and present, translated into lively interactive exhibitions.

On view is an original manuscript of Ulysses, which made us love James Joyce all over again. But all the literary gymnastics made us hungry, we took a break at The Commons Cafe, showcasing Ireland’s produce and culinary heritage (never mind the outstanding pastries, also not a given in these parts). We took an excellent coffee into the Courtyard Garden, a tranquil retreat set amidst thoughtful landscaping, perfect for reading a chapter or two of, say, Kate O’Brien’s Land of Spices.

Roe & Co Distillery

With afternoon upon us, we then headed to the Roe & Co. Distillery, housed in the former Guinness Power Station in the buzzy Liberties District, and ushering in a new wave of Irish whiskey making. An interactive tour was particularly edifying, and our guide Billie energetically brought us through the fascinating history of the dark spirit in Ireland and its distillation process. Followed by a fun cocktailing workshop, it wrapped with a signature drink at the Distillery’s especially cool Power House Bar. There was also plenty of nicely branded swag—and whiskey of course—in the gift shop, which makes for the ideal take home memento.

But eager to explore Dublin style, we made our way to Stable of Ireland, one of the most authentic shops for Irish textiles in the city. Located in the shopping district of Grafton Street, the women-owned, distinctly Irish company was founded by Francie Duff and Sonia Reynolds, and featured exceptionally well designed scarves, herringbones, blankets, throws, plus table and bath linens.

From pure Irish linen to Donegal wool yarns, cashmere, merino and alpaca, Stable works with the best hand and machine weavers (a difference Sonia was happy to explain) from all over the island of Ireland. We took time to linger over their luxurious selection, in gorgeous colors, textures and tweeds, all exclusive to the lovely little shop. It’s hard to leave empty-handed—and we didn’t.

 

Stable of Ireland

 

But seeking a more immersive tour of the city’s culinary and fashion scenes, we met up with Eveleen Coyle, Director of Fab Food Trails. We then spent a few hours strolling Dublin with local Coyle, who provided an insider’s glimpse of textiles (she actually introduced us to Stable), cheesemaking, cafe hopping and curio collecting. Specifically, we popped into Courtville, a family-founded antique, vintage and estate jewelry dealer.

Proprietor Matthew Weldon now helms the pocket-sized shop, ready to assist with all your bling ring needs. We were dazzled by their exquisite array of art deco hand-carved jade bracelets and engagement rings, and the many more unique pieces that made this corner spot in a stunning Georgian building an absolute highlight.

For fashionphiles, no trip to Dublin is complete without paying a call to the country’s most famous designer, Louise Kennedy, and her gorgeous flagship store. Establishing her namesake brand in 1983, the regal Kennedy is a member of the British Fashion Council and has won a slew of awards, including Irish Designer of the Year. At her atelier on Merrion Square (where you can also see the Oscar Wilde Memorial Sculpture), we were treated to a private tour and preview of her latest collection.

 

Oscar Wilde statue at Merrion Square

 

Kennedy is a genius at draping, using sumptuous fabrics in a range of jewel-tones and graphic black in her timeless designs, “which flatter women of any age.” We coveted the Emerald tartans and Black Watch tweeds, lightweight silks, tulle and chiffon, that are sort of socialite with a subtle edge. Her tweedy version of the quintessential motorcycle jacket was a genuine one-of-a-kind.

Kennedy has dressed almost every important and stylish woman on the continent and beyond; indeed, she’s designed for Irish Presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, members of British, European and Middle Eastern royal families, and even movie stars like Meryl Streep and Anjelica Huston. In 1998, she designed the Aer Lingus uniform, and was just reappointed to design the new version (we can’t wait); but perhaps most impressively, she was commissioned by the former Chief Justice to design the first national judicial robes for the Irish Supreme Court…how cool. She also developed a signature fragrance, one of our prized takeaways from the visit.

With a second flagship in (Belgravia) London, Kennedy also holds trunk shows in New York if one is looking to discover her stateside. But we especially loved that Louise’s right-hand dog and atelier assistant, Paddy the miniature Schnauzer, features heavily in her feeds (@1louisekennedy).

Louise Kennedy

While we could have spent all day immersing ourselves in Dublin style, we headed back to The Shelbourne for an Irish whiskey tasting in the Horseshoe Bar (where Bono is sometimes spottedd enjoying a tipple)—though we especially appreciated the unique cocktails only available in the book-and-art-filled 1824 Bar. The hotel also has exceptionally good afternoon tea (oh those sweets!) in The Lord Mayor’s Lounge, on ground level overlooking the Green.

But dinner in the refined Saddle Room afforded the very special opportunity to indulge in a genuine classic: their famous beef wellington, aged angus beef coated in duxelle (like a mushroom pate) and wrapped in crispy puff pasty then cooked to pink. It needed to be ordered 24-hours in advance, given its special preparation—but it was so definitely, deliciously worth it.

And refusing to feel guilty for our indulgences, the next day we worked it off at The Shelbourne’s fully-equipped health club with sauna, steam room, and indoor pool—perfectly exhibiting how such a storied hotel can deftly appeal to the needs of contemporary travelers, without sacrificing a whit of its storied charm. Which, in fact, is exactly what we would say about Dublin.

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