Buswells Hotel: ‘The third house of the Oireachtas’
A hotel since the 1880s, it’s now much more than just a politician’s watering hole
Buswells Hotel: “I started out in the kitchen, then worked my way up to the hall,” concierge Paddy Clerkin says. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
“What’s your soup of the day?” asks a lady in her soft Donegal accent while an American tourist at the next table, with mobile to her ear, loudly recounts a trip to Trinity College.
“Oh, darling the Book of Kells was amazing but the queuing system was just awful. I told Jeff we should have booked online beforehand,” she tells whoever is on the other end of the line.
Jeff is halfway through his pint of Smithwick’s and looks as though he couldn’t care less about the queuing system.
The key to our success? Well, obviously, location is important, but Buswells never got too posh for itself. We’re sort of a come-all hotel
As the Spanish waitress rushes between tables to take orders a couple of young business types pop in for a bite to eat. They’re giddy like schoolboys who’ve skipped out for lunch a few minutes early.
It’s just a regular afternoon in Buswells Hotel on Molesworth Street Dublin, the small boutique hotel just a stone’s throw from Leinster House which has become known as “the third house of the Oireachtas”.
It’s an unusual place on an unusual street in, some would say, an unusual city.
“The key to our success? Well, obviously, location is important, but, you know, Buswells never got too posh for itself,” explains Paul Gallagher, who’s been manager here for the last 21 years.
“There’s a country feel to the place. We’re sort of a come-all hotel and international visitors are mesmerised by the place. It’s unlike any other in the country.”
During the Celtic Tiger years, and for decades before, Buswells doubled as a hugely popular meeting place for politicians from across the road. And while many still call in to chat with interest groups, constituency visitors and journalists it is less of a parliamentarian highway these days as Gallagher explains: “In the old days there was a bell here, of course, to calls TDs back to Leinster House for a vote. More recently the recession has had a major impact I think.
“With fallout from the downturn the life of a TD became more difficult – they became a target, no doubt. I recall Pat Rabbitte being heckled by people who were at a farm auction nearby when he was having lunch here, we had to call the gardaí and it was messy. As a result TDs, generally, have kept a lower profile. And with the advent of smartphones everyone is a reporter and can photograph and film them so they avoid being put in that situation where possible.”
Even so, politics is still very much part of Buswell’s DNA. Gallagher tells me he has no doubt but that brown envelopes were once exchanged here in years gone by.
“It wasn’t like we were brushing them up at the end of the night or anything but that was the era.”
On Budget 2019 day the hotel hummed to the sound of politicians, various interest groups and members of the media scrutinising Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe’s calculations.
Even its current state of ownership is indirectly linked to the banking and political crisis.
“Seán Quinn bought Buswells in 1995 but the asset is currently controlled by the IBRC. We have a board of independent directors and we report our performance up the line to them,” explains Gallagher.
I ask how that impacts him? Is it a worry? “Well to be honest it’s not really in my mind at all. Will all the worry I might have change the outcome? No, it won’t, so what’s the point in worrying? My job is to keep our customers and staff happy. If that works, profits will flow and we’ll all be okay.”
Out in the reception area, beneath the chandelier and near the open fire Paddy Clerkin is helping another tourist work out their day’s itinerary. He’s been here for more than two decades.
“I started out in the kitchen then worked my way up to the hall. I was made a night porter and now work as day porter and concierge,” he explains. The Donaghmede man is the third “Paddy” in a row to have held the title as concierge at Buswells.
At reception Leonora Bethencourt is checking the day’s guestlist. I overhear the phrase “mystery guest” mentioned but ever the professional Bethencourt is unwilling to share the person’s identity. Her association with Buswells, which has 67 bedrooms, goes back to 1998.
“I’m half-Spanish, half-Irish. I first worked here in 1998 when we moved from Spain but then went off to try other things. Then five years ago I asked for my old job back and they gave it to me,” she explains.
And she has another string to her bow. Bethencourt is also a theatre producer and comedian in her spare time. In 2016 she organised a production of a play called Easter Tuesday to commemorate 1916, which was staged in the hotel and she hasn’t looked back since.
“This year we have literary cabaret every month. From James Joyce to LGBTQ Literature to the Gaelic revival where we had John Spillane as a special guest. We’ve had Spanish cabaret and in October the theme is gothic horror.”
In all there are at least 10 different nationalities among the 58 staff at Buswells and the cacophony of various accents drifts through the corridors, down the protected staircase and towards the quaint reception area.
“You know when I started working here I was a little shocked when there were protests outside. But now I like to see the colour. It’s so interesting to see a country making its voice heard just outside the place where you work. And as a result the shift at work flies by,” says Alvaro.
It turns out that certain political episodes are better for business than others. “Short referendums are great because they’re very intense and the conference rooms at the hotel are booked out,” explains Gallagher.
During the referendum on the Eighth Amendment the No side used the same room at Buswells as the Yes side one afternoon – just half an hour apart.
General elections, Gallagher explains, are bad for business as TDs return to their constituencies, though the election of a very popular newcomer can see the hotel filled with revellers and supporters on the day he or she first passes through the gates of Leinster House.
Behind the bar, Ciara Deegan is polishing glasses. “I usually work in the restaurant but it’s busier behind the bar. I’ve been here since 2011, my aunt Bríd was here for 40 years before me,” she explains.
She enjoys the customers but her real passion is for beings of a four-legged variety. “I’m studying canine behaviour and training in the evenings and at the weekends in Glasnevin,” she tells me.
And with that the door bursts open and a troupe of well-dressed business women escape an unexpected squall outside.
“What’s your soup of the day?” she asks. It’s business as usual at Buswells.