In his debut novel, Dolly Considine’s Hotel, Eamon Somers skillfully spins a web of tales around a fictional hotel and bar in the heart of Dublin city. From floor to floor, and era to age, we meet the inhabitants and staff of the hotel and discover how they became entangled in its history.
This is a novel of a polarised Ireland. North and south, the stubborn rivalry of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, anti-abortion rights versus pro-abortion rights, vocal homophobes and closet homosexuals. The narrative stretches from the time of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution in the 1980s, back to the 1950s, when an 18-year-old Dolly Considine defied her mother’s wish to return to Birr from Dublin.
Instead, she takes on the running of the family-owned hotel, amid the scandal of a chambermaid’s sudden death. The 12 rooms of this weary establishment have certainly witnessed it all over the years: political cunning, drunken shenanigans and all-round debauchery. Dolly’s is a story of limited opportunity, her family history entrenched in politics that will shape both her past and her future.
Central to the book is Paddy Butler, a young man bored with the humdrum of daily life and longing for adventure and travel. His brother’s prized records are sold for fare and an escape plan is hatched with best pal Johnner. Some years back, his father deserted the family for England. Now it is Paddy’s turn, a note left for his mother to find.
“Going over to see Uncle Arthur. Sorry to miss your birthday.”
Before leaving, the young man decides a change of persona is needed. First to go is his name. Paddy Butler becomes Julian Ryder, a more audacious and sexually liberated character. When best friend Johnner decides to back out at the last minute, Julien continues on to Busáras alone, where he crosses paths with Malone, a lad who happens to be taking up a hospitality position in a Dublin hotel. The meeting is brief, as young Malone is unceremoniously hauled away by two detectives, leaving Julian with a borrowed suitcase and a borrowed job in Dolly Considine’s hotel. Here, Julien works as a lounge boy, both embracing and shrugging off the advances of clientele, all the while obsessing over the enigmatic Malone.
Throughout the book, the idea of shedding old skin is as much a theme as that of “finding oneself”. There are plenty of snakes holed up in the rooms, the hotel a nest for politicians to lay low or hide their sexual exploits. With his desire to become a world-renowned writer, Julian tries to out-snake them all. He spies on the staff and eavesdrops on guests’ conversations, recording it all in his many journals.
Some thought-provoking tales emerge, with a cast of quirky characters. “Brendan the Gofer”, as he is known to Dolly’s son, and his exile from home when still a child to work at Dolly’s hotel. The war veteran and his wife, a missing leg and wayward sock, pictures of Michael Collins hanging above their fireplace. Paddy the Porter, still living and helping at the hotel, having retired years before. Sylvia and her secretive bus journeys. Mayakovsky, a stage play director from the adjacent Porchester Theatre and his infatuation with the young lad.
Interestingly, Dolly was roughly Julian’s age when she first took over the hotel. It is her involvement in an alleged love triangle with two brothers that Julian focusses so much of his energies on. As his stories become more embellished and his behaviour becomes more erratic, the plot leads us to some dark places. The lines of fiction and reality soon cross so we’re not sure if these stories were born in the corridors of the hotel or in the mind of the young pretender.
Somers’ writing has real personality. He somehow manages to weave long debated issues into an entertaining story. Funny, surreal and complex, the book shies away from routine format. In the same vein as this polarised Ireland, the writing will both entertain and jolt throughout.
Perhaps Dolly’s hotel is a reflection of Irish society in the ’80s. Tatty curtains and a crumbling structure, there is a demand for change but the same old partisan influence keeps those doors opening each morning, and sees the same residents continuously crossing the thread-worn carpet.
Perhaps the dark rooms that shield the inhabitants reflect a society’s unhealthy attitude toward sexuality and its unwillingness to embrace diversity.
Or perhaps the book merely seeks to capture some essence of the infamous Dublin Catacombs, that all night drinking hub for many artists in 1950s Dublin where, in the words of Brendan Behan, “men had women, men had men and women had women”.
Whatever the inspiration, it’s easy to enjoy the creak of floorboards and the roll of ancient beer barrels as this battered hotel shakes its secrets, scandals and many ghosts from shadowy pockets.