This stunning Dublin home has appeared in 32 films - Mel Gibson, Julianne Moore and Stephen Fry have all filmed here
Without realising it, most movie-goers have seen inside Desiree Shortt's stunning period home - it has, after all, appeared in a grand total of 32 films. It's big, it's old, but to Desiree, it's simply home, sweet home
Desiree Shortt is a fiercely independent woman, widely travelled, and for many years a hugely successful entrepreneur with a world-renowned china-restoration business, so it's hard to believe that she did something as apparently foolhardy as buying a house without viewing it.
And without knowing that there were 27 sitting tenants paying paltry rent.
It wasn't just an average house, suitable for a single woman. It's several hundred years old, comprises five floors and 6,000 square feet, and when she bought it - 45 years ago - its location would have been considered somewhat dodgy.
But the purchase turned out to be a wise move - the house provided her with a living, and thanks to her hard work on it over the last 45 years, it's also a thing of great beauty, and has given her enormous pleasure.
Of course, people back then did look a bit askance at her decision to buy, but Desiree has never cared much for what people think - she has always done her own thing and felt confident doing so; a confidence perhaps ingrained in her as a result of a privileged childhood.
"My grandparents lived in Montrose, which became RTE. My grandfather was Major Kelly, he was in the British Army, but my grandmother was the one with the cash. They had a Rolls-Royce, a chauffeur, six gardeners, a butler and his wife who did the cooking, and three housemaids," Desiree recalls, adding with a laugh, "We used to go to them every Sunday for lunch. It was tremendous fun, it gave me ideas beyond my station."
One prevailing idea when Desiree grew up was that a young woman should aspire to marry, settle down and have children, but that was an idea she had no interest in, preferring independence and making her own way in the world.
"The idea of marriage always bored me, because in those days, girls were brought up to be good Irish Catholics and remain chaste until marriage, and at that time, there was one man to every five girls. I was the first generation who got a bit restive, so some friends and I beetled off to London, wicked London, and then I went to California," she says.
In Los Angeles, she worked with McCann Erickson, the biggest advertising agency in the world, and she had a ball. "The sun, lots and lots of men, which we didn't have here, boats, sandy beaches - it was fantastic. I loved it. London was my friend, but America was my love affair with life," Desiree enthuses.
Nonetheless, she opted to come home after five years."I certainly wasn't homesick. A love affair is a love affair, but it has to come to an end. I think I got fed up with it," she says.
She came home and did "this and that", spending some time in London again, and in Brussels, before buying her house, which is on one of Dublin's finest streets, North Great George's Street.
"Why did I buy it?" Desiree says. "I would love to say how clever I was, paying £8,000 cash for such a big house, but it wasn't like that at all. I had some friends who lived on the street, and this house was for sale for six years. One night I woke up and decided it was time for me to settle, not to marry - for me, that was a locked cage. And - I think it was almost on impulse - I bought it."
According to Desiree, she did everything in relation to the house that she would advise others not to do - not inspecting the house was silly in the extreme, not to mind her complete ignorance about the 27 sitting tenants. "They were very antagonistic, and it was a bit unpleasant, but then so was I," she says.
Her income from the tenants combined was a mere £417 per year, some were paying less than a pound a week. Fortunately, they left gradually, the last of them leaving after "17 years, three months and two days" and now she has five lovely tenants with whom she gets on very well and who, of course, pay the going rate. "Now I can tell you with a smile, my tenants pay me an awful lot more than that," she says.
As for the fact that the neighbourhood was a tad dodgy, that's no longer the case, and probably the North Great George's Street Preservation Society has to be thanked for that. "We look after general standards, window boxes, trees, planning permissions," Desiree says. "We're on very good terms with Dublin City Council, and the Georgian Society and An Taisce, of course."
Desiree is a founding member of the society, and she notes proudly that they are celebrating 40 years in existence this June.
It's now a beautiful street, with handsome houses in fabulous condition on both sides, many of which are now owner-occupied; when Desiree bought her house, only seven or eight were lived in by their owners.
Shortly after her house purchase, Desiree had a terrible accident which meant she was not only confined to one floor of the house, but also there was a possibility that she would be paralysed. "I was very keen on riding and I was doing a three-day event in Cork; I was thrown, and broke five vertebrae," she explains, adding, "I was in a back brace for two years, and was told I mightn't walk again, but I was lucky. I took two-and-a-half years to recover."
Many a person would have given up such an enormous house at that stage, but Desiree turned it to her advantage. She was in London visiting cousins and saw a sign for a china-restoration course at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and decided to sign up for it. "I didn't know what china was. All crockery was called china here, but I thought, 'I'm here for 10 days', the course was starting at two o'clock that afternoon so, heck, why not? I went and got hooked," she says. "I came back here and set up as a professional restorer with three weeks' training. But that was enough, as long as I was ahead of the posse, and by the time they realised how bad I was, I was better," she says.
She's being modest. It became a thriving business for the next 25 years, and not only did she train over 200 people, she employed many of them in her business. At one time, she had a staff of 28, such was the demand for china restoration; clients included antique dealers and museums, as well as private individuals. Her most high-profile job was the restoration of the terracotta warriors [discovered in 1974 in China's Shaanxi province, guarding the burial mound of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang]. When they were brought on tour to Dublin, they became damaged while they were here, a near-disaster which almost turned into an international incident.
"That was the apogee of my career. I had to mend them. I was in touch with the National Gallery in London and the V&A Museum. Things were sent over by diplomatic post, to arrive three hours later by aircraft, things they had which I didn't," Desiree says, adding, "The Chinese professor in charge didn't speak a word of English, and I didn't speak a word of Chinese. We both smoked, so we communicated our frustration by blowing smoke rings, and we got along famously. Body language. That was great fun."
As a souvenir of that event, Desiree has two replicas warriors, which she displays in her winter drawing room, one of the four piano nobile rooms she has reserved for her own use; three of them are living rooms, and the fourth is her bedroom. She also has a compact kitchen and bathroom. The other rooms make up five one-bed apartments. The house dates from 1785, and has been home to many illustrious people, including Professor John Pentland Mahaffy, who was a tutor to Oscar Wilde, and who went on to become provost of Trinity.
Fortunately, when Desiree bought the house, it was technically sound - there was no dry rot, there were no rodents - though it had been neglected.
"The roof was good, the windows were mostly intact, though a bomb in Parnell Street blew out a few and they needed to be replaced. It needed tlc. There were 20 rooms, and in addition now, there are six kitchens and seven bathrooms as well. In Georgian houses, they didn't have either - they had servants and pos," she says with a laugh.
In some cases, the neglect was good. For example, the piano nobile on the first floor has a wonderful ceiling by one of Ireland's most famous 18th-Century stuccodores, Charles Thorp. It's still in perfect condition because it was too high to be painted over by any of the tenants.
Of course, Desiree has had to maintain the house and install up-to-date heating systems, and decorate it. She has lovely old paintings and wall hangings which combine to make it grand and elegant, yet at the same time cosy and inviting, which probably accounts for the fact that it's been in demand for tours and corporate events and even films - stars who've filmed in the house include Mel Gibson, Julianne Moore, Kate Beckinsale and Stephen Fry. "I adored Stephen Fry. He was bold, so was I," she laughs.
The house is furnished with stunning antiques, some from her parents' and grandparents' homes, but mostly from auctions. "I'm a divil for auctions. But I'm a shrewd buyer - at one stage I went to 27 auction viewings and didn't buy a thing," she says.
She did buy enough over the years to decorate her yellow drawing room with over 100 pieces of porcelain, though some were gifts, including a Ming vase which dates from 1644. "It was given to me by one of my ex lovers," she reveals, adding, "Enough about that."
When it comes down to it, however, Desiree is firm on the matter of love. "This house is the love of my life," she says simply.