Then and Now: St. Stephen’s Green and the Shelbourne Hotel

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Over the course of our work with the British Library Labs images collection, we’ve found that a significant portion of these digitized works are on travel: both traveller’s accounts of their journeys, and also many guidebooks.  Some of these books provide advice that would raise eyebrows nowadays; for example, Dignam’s Dublin Guide enthusiastically recommends Mountjoy Prison as a tourist destination for the savvy holidaymaker of 1891 – “These are vast establishments; and no stranger should leave the city without seeing their interior.” (109)  Other top destinations, however, have changed relatively little since the 19th century.

This image of one of the streets to the side of St. Stephen’s Green comes from a work in Italian titled Inghilterra, Scozia e Irlanda, which was written by Paul Villars; the edition in the British Library collection  dates to 1897.  On the right of the image, you can make out the facade of the Shelbourne Hotel, with one of the lamp-holding figures that are still stationed out the front.

Pen and ink illustration of a street view, from Dublin in the 1890s, showing a park to the left, a main road with carriages and people in the centre, and a row of buildings to the right.

A Google Street View image, taken from almost the same vantage point, shows that although the vehicles and the clothing style of the people going by have changed, the street itself is very similar!

Google Street view of the same location as above, dating to 2014, showing modern people and vehicles.

Although this part of Dublin seems to have remained much the same – in appearance, at least – to its state in the late 19th century, the Shelbourne Hotel itself has changed substantially since its earlier days.  By the time Villar’s guidebook was published, the hotel was well-established and presumably quite grand, but one famous early 19th-century guest did not find it nearly as luxurious as its current reputation would have it.  In July 1831, Maria Edgeworth arrived at Howth early in the morning and surprised the housekeeper at her Dublin residence, who had no rooms ready.

I recovered her from despair as well [as] I could and enquired for the nearest cheapest hotel – Shelbourne’s on Stephen’s Green – I made recovered Peggy lead me to it and found it full – crammed all but one very dirty sitting room and bedchamber smelling insufferably of stable – 9 shillings per day – Waiter & chambermaid scarcely awake and barely dressed – but while we were parlaying a red eyed thin faced man put his head between their shoulders – “My name’s Burke, Ma’am, and I’ve just learned your name’s Edgeworth and you’re as welcome as life to the best room in my house for anything at all! Only not a room have I vacant till after 12 – then the tenant will be gone & you shall have a proper drawing room…

Maria Edgeworth to Fanny Wilson, Shelbourne Hotel, July 9th 1831, Maria Edgeworth’s Letters From Ireland

Maria Edgeworth was a well-known and very popular author at this point, which explained the hotelier’s eagerness to help, but even for a literary celebrity the accommodations at the Shelbourne seem to have been fairly basic.  The food was terrible (“a very bad breakfast we had – and a worse dinner”), and the attentions of their hovering host didn’t impress her, either:

not a word without flattery – or lying – One of Burke’s unanswerable speeches finished with “Ma’am, I admired you before you were born” –

Ibid.

Perhaps understandably, Edgeworth’s review of the hotel does not seem to appear on the modern hotel’s website.


Works cited

Dignam, James. Dignam’s Dublin Guide. With a Handy Map, Etc. Eason & Son; London, 1891.

Edgeworth, Maria, and Valerie Pakenham. Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Ireland. Lilliput Press, 2018.

Paul VILLARS. Inghilterra, Scozia e Irlanda. Opera illustrata con 494 incisioni, etc. Milano, 1897.

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