For Dublin's diplomats, the glamour has long gone and the houses are up for sale

 

The French ambassador's residence went on the market this week, for €60 million. Robert O'Byrnerecalls the days when the diplomatic circuit was the only social show in town

Younger readers might be incredulous, but there was a time not so long ago when Dublin's embassy circuit was generally perceived as being the very apogee of glamour.

Ambassadors were furiously courted by local socialites and nothing was thought smarter than an invitation to a diplomatic reception or, even more exclusive, a dinner in the residence. One of the highlights of Horse Show Week, for example, used to be a garden party hosted by the British ambassador at Glencairn in Sandyford, even though it was a terrible nuisance to reach and the canapes were supremely indifferent.

Of course Ireland - even 20 years ago - was a very different country to the one in which we live today. Few Irish people ever travelled abroad, so the closest they got to visiting another country was stepping inside the home of a foreign national. And the food and drink were so different from our own plain fare; ingredients such as garlic or paprika, non-existent in domestic cuisine, were revelations for most of the Irish population.

Autre temps, autre moeurs (as no doubt is regularly remarked on the diplomatic merry-go-round). With the passage of time it's possible to see those receptions and dinners for what they really were: rather dull occasions on which outdated protocol discouraged all spontaneity and encouraged the talk to be very small indeed - the Irish climate was a conversational staple. Not that Irish social life in general used to be any more exciting, but at least in its plate-of-stew-and-pint-of-plain fashion it came with no pretensions of grandiosity.

THE FACT IS that diplomats are trained to be diplomatic, which is a polite way of saying they rarely light up a room with witty banter.

An exception ought to be made for American ambassadors who, as a rule, are not careerists but have been awarded a few years' residence in Dublin as a reward for their donation to whichever party is currently in power. This means they have bypassed the grooming process undergone by most diplomats and at least some of them have behaved as if they thought protocol was the name of some new pharmaceutical product.

Actually, a chance to see inside ambassadorial residences was one of the best reasons for getting on to diplomatic guest lists. In the days when we were a poor country, almost the only people who could afford to buy Dublin's finest properties were representatives of other nations.

Which is why, since 1948, the Italians have occupied one of this country's most exquisite Georgian buildings, Lucan House, and why, for the past 70 years, successive Spanish ambassadors have been able to bask in a couple of prime acres of land on Merrion Road while French ambassadors have had the run of probably the grandest residence in the city.

Though beyond our own means, for other countries the cost of a big house in Ireland was relatively small; they had the price of a site on Ailesbury Road, we didn't. Now roles are reversed and the value of Dublin property is infinitely higher than in most other capitals around the world. Should the imaginary state of Ruritania wish to buy somewhere for their ambassador to live here, either a couple of years' national revenue would have to be set aside for the purpose or else the decision taken to purchase a one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Phibsborough - presumably without the extra of a car-parking space, since this would be beyond the Ruritanian budget.

It's no wonder so many countries are cashing in on the value of their Irish property portfolio. Last winter it was the Canadians, now comes the turn of the French. Why hold on to a large, high-maintenance house when today's ambassadors can just as easily be accommodated in something smaller and more manageable? Though some ambassadors might argue otherwise, with the advent of e-mail and the internet and constant communication between one government and another, their role has grown more and more decorative, an eventual reward for decades of assiduously ascending the diplomatic ladder.

AND GIVEN OUR own affluence, they no longer even offer a glimpse of what life is like elsewhere around the world; as the turmoil of Dublin Airport indicates, most of us can find that out for ourselves. Nor have the dinners and receptions grown any more interesting. After all, garlic is now a regular presence in Irish cooking.

Whatever glamour the embassy circuit might once possessed has definitely long since departed.