TERRY PRONE: Television sweeps aside vanities fair and unfair of today’s diva hotel guests

A CHEF clutching a cluster of small copper saucepans is part of the promotion for the new four-part series about the Shelbourne Hotel being broadcast by RTÉ.

The programme seems to be one of those behind-the-scenes examinations of how the impossible demands of a stream of diva guests are flawlessly met by a highly trained staff of infinite patience. It will, no doubt, get great ratings, because something about hotels fascinates us and always has, whether in the form of novels or non-fiction books, films, or TV programmes.

Looking at the chef with the saucepans and trying to work out if they were butter-melters and if so, what is the correct term for butter-melting saucepans and if so, what is the correct collective term for copper butter-melting saucepans, somewhere in the back of my mind a memory surfaced of a high-profile personality of a time before this, who put the Shelbourne Hotel centre-stage in the hot media of his time.

A search of the bookshelves turned up the tiny hardback by MA Titmarsh, first published in 1842, although my edition, with tissue-thin pages, didn’t come out until more than 50 years later.

MA Titmarsh was the nom de plume of William Makepeace Thackeray, remembered today mostly for Vanity Fair and its opportunistic cynical heroine, Becky Sharpe. But most of Thackeray’s income, once he got over being a drop-out, a gambling addict, and general waster, came from journalism, particularly about his travels.

He seems to have visited Ireland more than once, despite the fact that his wife, in the grip of a mental illness which eventually required institutionalisation, threw herself off the mailboat into the sea on his first visit, and was rescued only with considerable difficulty.

The visit, which featured in a collection of travel journalism published pre-Famine, seems to have happened around 1840, with Thackeray arriving into what he called Dunleary and travelling to Dublin City in a carriage after some bargaining with the coachman, who operated reverse psychology on the visitor. He refused to tell him the fare, claiming that he would do the journey without any charge, leaving it up to the passenger to decide what it was worth when he reached his destination, which was the Shelbourne on St Stephen’s Green.

“The hotel to which I had been directed is a respectable old edifice,” wrote Thackeray, aka Titmarsh, adding that it was “much frequented by families from the country, and where the solitary traveller may likewise find society; for he may either use the ‘Shelburne’ as an hotel or a boarding- house, in which latter case he is comfortably accommodated at the very moderate daily rate of six-and-eightpence. For this charge a copious breakfast is provided for him in the coffee-room, a perpetual luncheon is likewise there spread, a plentiful dinner is ready at six o’clock; after which there is a drawing room and a rubber of whist.”

While he consumed his “copious breakfast” of broiled herring on the first day, he concentrated on the papers: The Morning Register, which he described as liberal and Roman Catholic, and Saunders’ Newsletter, which he more puzzlingly described as “neutral and Conservative”.

The ads in these newspapers indicated that the theatrical offerings of the day were largely imports. Fanny Kemble was starring in the Theatre Royal, the Wizard from the Strand was in another theatre, and the seven Lancashire bell-ringers from Islington in a third. An Irish pianist was advertised as giving her first and farewell concert in the Rotunda, provoking Thackeray to observe: “Only one instance of Irish talent do we read of; and that, in a desponding tone, announces its intention of quitting its native country.”

Thackeray seems to have preferred broiled herring and the exploration of Ireland and its capital second-hand, courtesy of the newspapers, to actually getting out and discovering the city for himself.

He reheats anecdotes, murders, executions, and even advertisements for eight solid pages, adding that “the papers being read, it became my duty to discover the town; and a handsomer town with fewer people in it, it is impossible to see on a summer’s day”.

Dublin City centre was, apparently, not a place to visit during the summer. It was, rather, a place to get out of in the warmer days, with Thackeray assuming, when he comes upon a closed library, that the librarian must “be at the seaside”.

The few people he did meet irritated him enormously by their indolence. He writes of “a stand of lazy carmen” and of “six lazy porters” at the entrance to Trinity College, clearly believing that, in the intervals between engagements with the paying public, carmen and porters should weave bracelets or polish brass.

If the laziness of the people bothered him, at least some of the city architecture met with his approval. He came upon what he described as “several old-fashioned, well-built, airy, stately streets”, including “Fitzwilliam Square, a noble place, the garden of which is full of flowers and foliage.”

He was struck by the fact that the greenery in Fitzwilliam Square was considerably greener than that in London, already suffering from the pollution consequent upon the burning of coal in every fireplace.

BUT the biggest contrast in his account of a summery Dublin two centuries ago is not between that city and London at the same time, but between Dublin then and now — and not just in the depopulation of the city he walked through, but in its street furniture, none of which we would recognise, just as he would not, now, recognise the sculptures in and around Stephen’s Green.

In his time, the statues featured kings past and present, mounted and on foot. He got quite bored with them and, having done a little sketching and found that people to whom he carried letters of introduction were away, he returned to the “queer little room” he was occupying in the hotel, which, he suggested, was overdue a good scouring by at least six months.

“When I came back from the walk, I saw the little room was evidently enjoying itself in the sunshine, for it had opened its window and was taking a breath of fresh air as it looked out upon the green. As I came up to it in the street, its appearance made me burst out laughing,” he wrote.

The sash window was pulled up halfway and held open by a sweeping brush. Like a modern tourist with their camera phone, Thackeray resorted to his sketch pad and pencil to produce, for his readers, a picture of the window, pointing out that if you looked out of it without due care for the brush in place, the raised pane might come down and take your head off.

It’s doubtful that the RTÉ series will favour its viewers with shots of sweeping brushes being used to hold windows open.

One imagines that the Shelbourne has learned about editorial control over the past century or two.


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