An Irishman's Diary

 

Every time I walk along the south side of St Stephen's Green in Dublin, my heart sinks when I get to the corner of Harcourt Street, writes Hugh Oram.

The bleak office building at that corner of the Green, surely one of the ugliest of the modern blocks in Dublin city centre, replaced the old Russell Hotel, the epitome of elegant hospitality that once occupied the site.

The origins of the old Russell Hotel dated back to the earlier 18th century and by 1910, three houses on that side of the Green - Numbers 102, 103 and 104 - were occupied by the Russell. The hotel was bought in 1947 by Ken Besson of the Royal Hibernian Hotel and he added a fourth house, Number 101.

The facade of the old Russell may have been rather plain, but the hotel excelled with its culinary delights, including in the Robert Emmet Grill.

For many years, what was then the Department of External Affairs, now the Department of Foreign Affairs, just along that side of the Green, had the food for State banquets in Iveagh House supplied by the Russell kitchens.

The grand old hotels of Dublin city centre also attracted many celebrities.

Close on 50 years ago, one famous film star who stayed at the Russell, together with her first husband, Mel Ferrer, was Audrey Hepburn.

Just over 30 years ago, the Russell closed down and was then demolished, to be replaced by the present ghastly office block.

The following decade, Besson's other hotel, the Royal Hibernian Hotel in Dawson Street, suffered a similar fate. It closed down in 1983 and was demolished to make way for a shopping mall and offices.

The Royal Hibernian Hotel had been there for two centuries, beginning life as a coaching inn. In the earlier 19th century, Bianconi, the coaching man from Clonmel, had his Dublin headquarters there. In its later years, when the Royal Hibernian had a certain discreet but fading charm, it was managed by that most genial of hosts, Michael Governey, who went on to manage the Berkeley Court Hotel when it opened and who completed his career at the Conrad on Earlsfort Terrace, from where he is now retired.

When you went up the steps to the old Royal Hibernian, you were greeted by an always blazing coal fire in the small lobby. Downstairs, the hotel had a profusion of public rooms, including a ballroom. Fresh flowers were everywhere.

The Lafayette restaurant was renowned in its heyday, three small but different rooms combined into one restaurant. One of those rooms mirrored the decor of Maxim's in Paris. The hotel also had a basement level grill bar, the Bianconi, that was open all day, until about 11pm. One guidebook published just a few years before the hotel closed for the last time noted that its restaurant was still serving classic dishes from its august menus, with the occasional short cuts and lapses. But it had a superb wine list, mostly French. In its final years, the hotel suffered the indignity of having three changes of ownership in just eight years.

The old Jurys hotel, at the corner of College Green and Anglesea Street, lasted from 1839 until 1973.

When it closed, the Victorian Long Bar was shipped intact to Zurich, where it still forms the centrepiece of the James Joyce Pub.

The old Jurys hotel building was demolished in 1980, by which time the hotel had moved out to Ballsbridge, to what had been the modern Inter-Continental hotel. Ironically, Jurys in Ballsbridge is now under threat of demolition and redevelopment.

Other hotels, too, in the city centre, are also long gone, but are still well remembered, like the Moira in Trinity Street. The Temple Bar district once had the popular Dolphin, which closed in 1966, but which lingered on for another 13 years as a pub.

The Harcourt Street area once had a profusion of sedate residential hotels, like the Standard.

Dublin's most famous old restaurant was Jammets, which for years regarded itself as the only authentic French restaurant in Dublin, long before the restaurant explosion of recent years. The original Jammets was in St Andrew Street; it was bought in 1900 by two brothers from France, Michel and François Jammet. When the lease expired in 1926, they moved the restaurant to Nassau Street.

For another 40 years, Jammets was a haven to many of Dublin's literati, artists and theatrical figures, as well as business people around town. It closed in 1967 and today, on part of the site, Lillie's Bordello in Adam Court is located, just at the back of where Jammets used to be. Another long gone but fondly remembered city centre restaurant was the Red Bank, famed for its oysters and fish, in D'Olier Street. The building is now occupied by budget tourist accommodation, having been a chapel for many years after the restaurant closed.

The Red Bank was a great meeting place for its time and a favourite lunching spot in the days when working lunches were seriously vinous affairs that went on until late in the afternoon. When McConnell's Advertising Agency was in Pearse Street, the Red Bank was the "local" for many of its staff and some of its best creative campaigns were dreamed up amid the hedonistic splendours of the Red Bank.

Its heritage has been preserved in the name of the eponymous present-day restaurant in Skerries.

It's symptomatic of the times we live in that what was once Mitchell's cafe in Grafton Street, which included a coffee shop and a superb gourmet restaurant, is now occupied by the first McDonald's fast food place to have opened in Ireland, back in 1977.

The Robert Roberts cafe is another famous but vanished name from Grafton Street in the old days, as was the original Bailey in Duke Street,just a few paces off Grafton Street.

Restaurants and hotels by their very nature, tend to be ephemeral, but it's still a litany of loss: the magic was carted off in skips.

Regrettably, the Parisian approach to hospitality heritage has never been adopted in Dublin.

Imagine the uproar in Paris if it was suggested that the Ritz or Crillon hotels should be pulled down for redevelopment.

And in Paris, what is claimed to be the world's oldest restaurant, Le Procope, founded in 1686, is still going strong in the sixth arrondissement.

When SNCF, the French state-owned railway company, once proposed that the Belle Époque Train Bleu restaurant in the Gare de Lyon should be demolished in the interests of modernity, the cries of indignation could be heard from one side of Paris to the other and the Train Bleu is still there today.

Sadly, here in Dublin, you won't even find a plaque where the Russell, the Royal Hibernian, Jammets or the Red Bank once stood.