Secrets and pints: 60 years of the Shelbourne’s Horseshoe Bar

The Shelbourne hotel’s ‘institution within an institution’ gets ready to party – discreetly

“Well see, a good concierge would never tell you that, even if there were.”

Denis O’Brien, head concierge at The Shelbourne, bats away questions about the goings-on in the hotel’s Horseshoe Bar with the diplomacy his profession is built upon.

He also has four years studying to be a priest in an earlier life to draw on, and his blend of discretion and confessional secrecy is rock solid. “What happens in the Horseshoe, stays in the Horseshoe,” he says, firmly.

The bar, designed in 1957 by Sam Stephenson, then a recently graduated architect, is part of the fabric of the hotel, or "the old lady" as O'Brien calls the landmark property. "I always say this is an institution within an institution."

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Popular with musical and literary figures including Seán Ó Riada, Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Seamus Heaney, as well as scions of industry, politicians and the "horsey set", the bar has a history as colourful as its habitués.

“The other Denis O’Brien”, as he introduces himself, has been head concierge at the hotel since it reopened in 2007, after a two-year restoration project. Apart from a new coat of paint, the Horseshoe Bar was spared a revamp and it remains much as it was when it first opened, 60 years ago this Sunday, November 26th.

“The only thing that’s been changed here is the colour of the walls,” O’Brien says. They were originally red, and have been green and blue over the years, when the space served several purposes, including being the commercial travellers’ reading and writing room, and then a TV lounge. They have now reverted to the rich crimson that was Stephenson’s vision for the “sophisticated, intimate cocktail bar” that O’Brien says the space was intended to be.

The eight original brass trimmed circular tables that line the walls, with red leather banquette seating and low, squishy stools alongside, are still among the most prized drinking spots in the city.

At the white marble-topped bar, 12 high stools are arranged under the glow of backlit prints of Hogarth's The Rake's Progress, and swivelling blue glass screens are arranged at regular intervals along the counter.

“Conversational screens,” O’Brien says. “So you’re sitting at the bar and you’re talking to someone at the other side of the screen and you’ve had enough of their opinions and their waffle – you just close it.”

The bar’s sparkling shelves are lined with bottles of spirits. Guinness and Champagne were the lifeblood coursing through the Horseshoe in earlier years, and although it is still known for the quality of its Guinness, whiskey is growing in popularity.

A group of Japanese businessmen staying in the hotel recently sipped their way through €35,000 worth of it over a weekend, and the most expensive on offer, Midleton 1973, will set you back €514 a shot.

But just don’t expect to be able to order a bar snack on the side. “There’s an unwritten rule that there’s no loud music – there’s no music at all – there’s no bright lights, and no food,” O’Brien says. “At a push, a non-drinker might get a tea or coffee, but don’t ask for a ham sandwich, you won’t get it.”

The rooms seats about 50 people, but according to O’Brien, on a busy night you could find that number again standing, with a drink in their hand. “There are people who drink here who wouldn’t go across the hall and drink in No 27. It’s a little oasis for a lot of people. Even though it’s just off the lobby, it’s a little hideaway.”

So hidden away is it that guests and tourists often fail to locate the bar. “They’ll walk by it. There’s just the door, there’s no big sign outside saying Horseshoe Bar.” According to O’Brien many visitors comment on how low-key the bar is, considering its reputation. “They say how tranquil and how quiet it is. There’s never a singsong, it’s just not that type of place.”

O’Brien says politicians are scarcer on the ground in the bar these days, “but in the old days, because of the proximity to Dáil Éireann , a lot of them would have called in”.

It was a favourite haunt of former government press secretary PJ Mara. “He would have come in here quite a lot and enjoyed a drink,” O’Brien says.

So did he have a favourite spot, a place at the bar, or a corner table? “No, I met him here not too long before he died and he was just happy enough to stand there and enjoy his drink,” O’Brien says.

A Dubliner by birth, O’Brien is celebrating 30 years in the hotel industry. He clearly relishes his role. He takes guests on history tours of the property, and welcomes all comers through the revolving doors..

“Some people say to me ‘Oh I couldn’t go in to The Shelbourne because it’s too posh, it’s not for me’. I always say to people, the door opens the same way for everybody.”

“It’s the same with that door,” he says, pointing to the Horseshoe Bar’s entrance. “That door opens the same way for everybody – makes no difference if your a head of state or you’re coming to visit from Tipperary or Cork.”

To celebrate the 60th birthday of the Horseshoe Bar at The Shelbourne, the bar has launched a 1950s-inspired cocktails list, with classics such as the Champagne cocktail, the Manhattan and the Tom Collins on sale for €14.