DUBLIN - "Up the stairs, to the right," said the server working the first-floor tea room of the Shelbourne Dublin overlooking St. Stephen's Green. "No charge; you can't miss it."
The directions set my heart aflutter: Were we going to get to visit an important historical site in pricey Dublin at no cost?
Consider the tea laid out for us in the Lord Mayor's Lounge. It was just tea, sugar, and cream, no more. The tab was $14, without tip. A Guinness here costs $12.
Certainly, we took steps to economize before vacationing in Ireland. We followed a friend's advice to check out the real estate website daft.ie, rather than scramble for a room in a hotel or B&B. The online service lists short- and long-term rentals available in houses and apartments around the country, with lots of photos, maps, and the like.
With only a bit of Internet digging, and one trans-Atlantic phone call, we found a centrally located one-bedroom apartment, modern and clean, with a small but serviceable kitchen and bath for 1,600 euros for four weeks. That's about $2,500, but a far better number than, say, a basic room at the Shelbourne. If you can find one, they start at 199 euros a day, more than $300, or about $8,400 for four weeks.
Still, we splurged for tea breaks at the Shelbourne about four times. The cost entitled us to rest in the comfortable lounge, use the sparkling restrooms, and witness a slice of Ireland not found at our humble digs several blocks away.
It was at the Shelbourne that the first Constitution of the Irish Free State was hammered out between February and May 1922, and ratified that June. Historians say it brought peace with Britain after the 1916 Easter Uprising, and set off discord among the Irish that lasted until last year when Northern Ireland Protestants and Catholics agreed to share government, and the border crossings between the two states were taken down.
It was curious that Irish nation building took place in a hotel, as opposed to the United States' Independence Hall in Philadelphia. That gem of a Christopher Wren spire knock-off always seemed so elegantly austere when I was a boy learning about the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
When I chaperoned my daughter's class trip to visit the hall a few years ago, we discovered that much of it had been restored over the years.
I wondered whether Ireland's foundation hall had suffered the same fate.
So, we climbed the Shelbourne's central stairwell up one flight, turned right, and two doors down on the left was the "Constitution Room," the former room 112. There was no guard, no guided tour, nothing but us and the room.
"Could I help you?" asked one of the front desk women who appeared out of nowhere. When we explained our mission, she warmly escorted us into the room, where the three of us took our time examining everything.
"This is the exact room, and everything in it from the drafting of the first Constitution," she said, adding, "Everyone is welcome to visit, and we have schoolchildren from all over Ireland stop by."
In a corner under glass was a big old clunker of a typewriter they used to hammer out the document, and several pages of corrected copy marked up in black pencil. Thick folds of golden drapery hung over the windows, plush green silk covered the walls, an icy chandelier as heavy as a refrigerator dangled overhead, and brass this and that shone everywhere.
None of that could be preserved from the period, I thought.
After thanking her, we ambled down to the lobby for a look at one of those "history" books sometimes worked up for historic properties. There was a photo from June 1922 in the Constitution Room, with Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins. Around him sat the Constitution's drafters at the table we had just left. The same chairs, the same floor.
Not a bad bit of history for the price of a cup of tea.
Raymond M. Lane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.