As you stand in room 112 of the Shelbourne Hotel and look out the tall sash windows, the view is mesmerising.
The sycamore trees that line St Stephen’s Green are interspersed with cherry blossoms which are just about to bloom with their beautiful pops of pink.
As the road loops around the park, buses and cars follow in procession while locals, business people and tourists go about their day, against the backdrop of the Georgian buildings that line the Green.
Today the buses are modern, the cars are plentiful and the clothes worn by the locals are colourful. But interestingly the view isn’t vastly different to this month 100 years ago when 11 men sat in that exact room to draw up the Constitution of the Irish Free State, elements of which still govern our country to this day.
The one thing that was different however, was the atmosphere, both inside and outside the room. Tensions were high inside room 112 and this radiated to the city outside and beyond.
Denis O’Brien who has been head concierge of the Shelbourne Hotel for 15 years and has amassed a wealth of knowledge about the history of the hotel during that time, explains. “It’s important to cast your mind back to five years before that, to 1916. This very hotel provided shelter against the shelling outside in St Stephen’s Green during the Easter Rising. But during that time, the Irish were all on the same side, against the British. It was mostly us against them.
“The drafting of the Constitution was much more complex and extremely divisive. At that stage we were a divided nation and so there was a real power struggle, toeing the line to keep everyone happy.
“The Constitution Committee had to satisfy those in favour of the treaty, those opposed to the treaty and looking over their shoulders was not just the Irish Government but the British government. On top of that, they were under extreme time pressure.
“Michael Collins, Darrell Figgis, RJP Mortished, EM Stephens, Professor Alfred O’Rahilly, James Douglas, James Murnaghan, James McNeill, CJ France, PJ O’Toole and John O’Byrne, it was not an easy task.”
Tensions ran high
In fact, the task put great pressure not just on these men, but on their families. Denis says: “Michael Collins was chair of the committee but he actually only attended the first meeting and he died before the Constitution was finalised at the end of 1922. The real power within the committee was a lesser-known man named Darrell Figgis, who was the vice chair.
“Now it’s understood that Collins and Figgis didn’t gravitate towards each other; more they were pushed together, and they didn’t trust each other.
“Figgis was an unusual character. He was a true nationalist republican, but what made him slightly different from the rest was that he was a member of the Church of Ireland.
“One night, during the time when the Constitution was been drafted, his house was invaded by a group of oppositionists, who – as they would say in Dublin – ‘bate the lard’ out of Darrell Figgis and his wife Millie.
“This upset Collins. He wasn’t a big fan of Figgis but he didn’t feel it was right, that someone who was doing what he was doing for the nation be attacked in such a savage way. So Collins gave him a revolver for his protection.
“However, that revolver had another purpose because not too long after, whilst in the back of a taxi on the way to Rathfarnham, Millie shot herself, with her suicide note, citing her depression and injuries arising from the attack.
“Darrell Figgis himself, [died by] suicide in 1925. The atmosphere, the tension of this time, it was absolutely phenomenal. And it shows the real pressure that this committee was under as they drafted the country’s constitution in room 112 of the Shelbourne, now known as the Constitution Room.”
Today, the Shelbourne has an iconic status, the largest five-star hotel in the country and even back 100 years ago, it had a very prestigious status. Denis says: “Around that time, you would have had the Gresham, the Hibernia, the Merrion and the Dolphin Hotel, back then you would have called those places the ‘bee’s knees’.
“However, the Shelbourne was chosen for the drafting as the Constitution because it was Collins’s haunt. The Anti-Treaty under DeValera would often be found meeting in the Gresham on O’Connell Street but the Pro-Treaty under Collins and Griffith used the Shelbourne as their headquarters. So this is where they held those 27 meetings from January to March 1922.
“We’re not aware of any specific reason as to why room 112 was chosen. Most likely, it was practicality reasons. It is easily accessible, adjacent to the elevator, not far off the main staircase, big and bright with lovely views of the park.
“Although one thing of significance was probably the big windows because back in those days, they smoked like troopers. With tensions so high, we suspect there was quite a bit of puffing going on.”
Pots of tea, the Shelbourne’s signature biscuits and plates of sandwiches were frequently delivered to the room. And as the long days turned into long nights, there were orders of sirloin steaks and chicken in mushroom sauce, accompanied by pints of Guinness and tumblers of Jameson.
The significance of this important moment in history wasn’t lost on the staff either. Denis says: “Amazingly, back then, someone had the foresight to mark the chairs in which Michael Collins and Darrell Figgis sat on in that first meeting. So now when you go into the Constitution Room, these chairs have a silver plaque with their names on it.”
The beautiful Brazilian mahogany table is also still there, which given its expert craftmanship and historical significance is now valued at around €400,000. But what is truly remarkable about this table is how accessible it is.
Denis says: “Given its historical significance, there probably isn’t another table like it in the world that is so accessible to people. There are no red ropes or peering in through the doorway to catch a glimpse.
“Visitors just come in and ask can they see it and if the room isn’t in use for a function or event, they can walk in, sit on Michael Collins chair at the table, admire its beauty and appreciate the history.”
In fact, this is exactly what this writer did during a memorable stay in the Shelbourne earlier this year. On a quiet evening, we found the door of the Constitution Room open and so we stood in room 112, admiring that iconic Dublin view, running our fingers over the smooth mahogany of the table, admiring the silk wall coverings and crystal chandelier. It was eerily quiet but alive with history and if you listen hard enough, you could hear the voices of the past.