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28 July 2014

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New heights: What's new in Ireland

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With venues being built and refurbished all over the Emerald Isle, we popped across the water to check on developments, dropping by a few old favourites along the way.

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Dublin

After a speedy flight over from London Gatwick, we arrive at Dublin airport and head straight to our first destination, the brand new Doubletree by Hilton Dublin Burlington Road (tel: +353 1 618 5600). The hotel giant has spent €16m bringing the old Burlington up to date, refurbishing its 1,400-capacity conference facilities and 501 bedrooms. The 18 meeting rooms are now looking slick and modern while its 1,200sq m Art Deco-inspired ballroom, complete with mirrored walls and ornate ceilings, is impressive. There’s free Wi-Fi throughout and, of course, a signature Doubletree ‘cookie station’. We make sure we sample one on the way out. Sweet.

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Staying within the upmarket D4 area, we head to No. 25 Fitzwilliam Place (tel: +353 1 669 4646), a Georgian townhouse that has been restored to house a series of contemporary meeting and private dining rooms, the largest seating up to 40 guests. Our favourites here were the Gandon Rooms, which with their high ceilings and regal dark blue colour scheme combine to make an impressive dining space for up to 60 guests – especially once the starched white linen and candelabra are on the table.

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Just around the corner is House (tel: +353 1 905 9090) Dublin’s latest bar-cum-restaurant-cum… well, everything. Flanked by statues of hounds, its deceptively small entrance hides a main bar, a parlour, a wine library, a 12-seater ‘boardroom’ library, a conservatory, a heated terrace, a garden and a 40-capacity glasshouse with its own bar and retractable roof. And that’s before the place is even complete. The venue also has plans for a basement nightclub, Midnight at House, and a boutique hotel upstairs. We can’t wait to return when it’s finished: this is one seriously cool space.

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After a quick lunch in wine bistro favourite Peploe’s (tel: +353 1 676 3144), we rock up at Smock Alley Theatre (tel: +353 1 677 0014). Located Dublin’s the must-visit Temple Bar area, in a building that dates back to 1662, this multifunctional arts centre is billed as ‘Dublin’s newest oldest theatre’. It has lots of striking event space, but it’s in the church-like Boy’s School that the venue’s history is displayed most effectively. We loved the exposed beams and random fireplaces in the walls and could easily picture ourselves standing on one of the wrap-around balconies, drink in hand, looking down on a party in full swing below. For a conference, we’d book the theatre itself: there are comfortable seats for up to 178 delegates.

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We wander across the River Liffey past Bono and The Edge’s Clarence hotel to another musical property – the Morrison (tel: +353 1 887 2400). Case in point: seconds after we walk in, our favourite band (Biffy Clyro in case you were wondering) stroll in right behind us. The rock n’ roll theme continues throughout the newly revamped hotel: every bedroom has a lyric by an Irish band or artist written over the bed – the lifts are adorned with them too – and each lamp has bass clefs woven into the fabric. Once we’ve checked out the accommodation, we’re shown around Printworks, a 240-capacity meeting room which leads into its own courtyard, as well as the hotel’s redesigned bar, where we drool over its cocktail offerings and collection of vintage lamps.

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Next stop, we’re whisked up a lift to the top-floor Boardroom at Chartered Accountants House (tel: + 353 1 637 7200). As far as meeting space goes, it’s a knockout. There are seats for up to 32 delegates – and all the AV kit you’ll need – but the main selling point is the view: so good you’ll want to stay in here for the post-meeting drinks reception.

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For dinner, we cross town to Fade Street Social (tel: +353 1 604 0066) and are impressed by the quality of food (the gastropub-equivalent of Irish stew in particular). We also check out the Wintergarden on the roof, which can be hired for private events. Just watch out for the giant baby statue – it’s pretty terrifying.

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Our bed for the night is in the city’s newest hotel, The Marker (tel: +353 1 687 5100), a design-led property located in Dublin Docklands. Before slipping between the sheets, we take a quick tour. There’s handsome conference space for 250 delegates but our favourite space is the 120-capacity VIP rooftop lounge, where we take in the 360-degree cityscape over a Guinness cocktail with vodka, espresso, Amaretto and Kahlua – delicious. When we check out the following morning, the receptionist gives us a box of cronuts, which we enjoy munching as we head north on the two-hour Enterprise train from one capital to another.

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Belfast

We get off the train at Belfast Central. A five-minute stroll later, we’re standing outside the Waterfront (tel: 028 9033 4400), the city’s largest corporate events venue, which recently hosted a keynote speech by Barack Obama, no less. Okay, so it’s not new: it’s been a fixture on the city’s riverside since 1997, however plans have been proposed to expand the site by 4,000sq m. The development, which will include exhibition space with capacity for 750, plus additional breakout facilities, is due to be completed in 2016.

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Next up is a spot of lunch at The Bar + Grill, a more casual, Soho-esque sibling to fine dining restaurant James Street South (tel: 028 9043 4310) next door, both of which are owned and run by Northern Irish celebrity chef Niall McKenna. While lunch is delicious (we’re not the only fans, as we spot the mayor tucking in), we’re here to see the venue’s sleek new cookery school upstairs. Here, up to nine guests can take part in a practical class, while 35 can be accommodated for a cooking demonstration. Beneath it is the restaurant’s bright and airy PDR, which can seat up to 40 guests (or host 60 for a canapé reception). Like the two restaurants, this private room is decorated with modern artwork by Irish artists (our favourite’s the neon creation in The Bar + Grill) and there’s a real focus on local produce.

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Next, we head to Northern Ireland’s most high-profile new opening, Titanic Belfast (tel: 028 9076 6399), situated on the exact site where the ship was built over 100 years ago. Its Giant Atrium entrance makes an impressive spot for a drinks reception for 650, while the mezzanines that are dotted around the levels above overlook the nine galleries as well as the docks outside.

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The Titanic Suite, however, makes the biggest impact, especially for film buffs like us. Not only is it located on the top floor – which is the exact height of the Titanic’s superstructure – but this space is modelled on the liner’s interiors, including the grand staircase, where Rose and Jack first meet on screen. Here, there’s room for up to 2,000 diners to be entertained in authentic style: everything from the cutlery through to the carpet has been chosen in line with the original furnishings. As you’d expect, dinners and conferences at the venue can also include a private view of the galleries – we recommend checking out the Ocean Exploration Centre, where you can observe the liner via video footage in her current state below the sea.

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Just down the road in Hamilton Dock is the newly-opened SS Nomadic (tel: 028 9073 7860), the Titanic’s former tender ship, which was recently restored to her original glory. Having served in WWII and after stints as a restaurant and floating nightclub, she needed the spruce-up. Now, organisers can choose to hold events in first or second class, with dress-up trunks and tours of the ship offered as optional extras. Our favourite space is the deck, which can host events for up to 200 guests.

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Back to the town centre and the newly spruced-up Cathedral Quarter where The Merchant (tel: 028 9023 4888) has a new pop-up space in its rooftop alpine lodge. Here, up to 60 guests will be able to mingle among taxidermy, furs and fireplaces under a retractable roof until March 2014. A Grade I-listed former bank, this hotel is absolutely opulent: we can’t decide whether we prefer its Victorian wing or the newer Art Deco space more. Dinner in the 122-capacity Great Room restaurant is impressive (especially the suckling pig and soda bread) and we have the best gin and tonic ever in its award-winning bar. The bedrooms are also extraordinary: think four-poster beds and decadent velvet drapes.

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We begin our third day with another established favourite: a black taxi tour of Belfast. If you’re short on time, as we were, these tours can take just an hour, which is long enough to absorb the capital’s key moments in history.

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We’re dropped off at Crumlin Road Gaol (tel: 028 9074 1500), which opened the end of 2012. A working prison from 1845 until 1996, the expansive prison has plenty of event space, from a modern conference centre for 120 delegates through to a reconstructed Governors’ Office for six. The most atmospheric of the spaces are the Main Circle, which can hold up to 100 guests, and the 80-capacity C-Wing – both of which are surrounded by cells and were used by the Game of Thrones cast for their last wrap party. As it’s got such a fascinating history, we suggest incorporating a private show-round (or, for the brave, a ‘paranormal tour’) into an event.

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We grab a coffee while admiring the installations in the canteen at The MAC (tel: 028 9089 2960), another new opening. This contemporary art museum contains plenty of bright, modern private-hire areas, including two state-of-the-art lecture theatres (with capacities of 120 and 150) and gallery space for up to 200 people. There’s also a dedicated top floor containing two studios and the venue’s standout space, a beautiful 12-seater boardroom with stunning views over the cathedral.

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From this vantage point, we look down onto the newly-built St Anne’s Square development, which is home to Italian restaurant Coppi (tel: 028 9031 1959), where we later head for lunch. As well as great food and plenty of space for groups, this place also has its own food truck, which can be used for outside catering.

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Our final stop-off of the trip is the recently-refurbished Ulster Museum (tel: 028 9042 8428), which contains a vast amount of event space among its exhibits. Conferences can be held in the 199-capacity Lecture Theatre and training days in the Learning Room, where you get a real ‘museum’ feel, surrounded by artefacts.
For those without vertigo, drinks receptions can be held in the heights of the Upper Hallways, while banquets for 400 can also be hosted in the blank canvas Art Gallery 3 between exhibitions. Our favourite space has got to be the reception area, where guests are overlooked by a herd of dinosaurs as they tuck into their drinks and canapés. Always a plus as far as we’re concerned.

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This article was first published in Square Meal Venues & Events, autumn 2013.

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