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'Ponies, dogs and servants - she thought all of them should know their place': Life in a big house in 1960s Dublin

Gillies Macbain writes about one New Year’s night in the 1960s in an extract from his new memoir.

IN THE SUMMER of 1963 Gillies Macbain arrived in Dublin with only a bicycle, suitcase and thirty shillings. After finding refuge at the monastery of Mount Melleray, County Waterford, he took a job as pantryboy in County Wicklow. Thus began his foray into Irish life. In his new memoir, The Last Footman, he writes about his experiences such as working at Malahide Castle and Corballis House in County Dublin; Castletown House and Leixlip Castle in County Kildare; Castle Leslie, County Monaghan, and Snaffles Restaurant in Dublin city, while his professional and personal life would intersect with stays in Castletownshend in West Cork, Kinsale, Connemara and The Glebe in County Meath. In this extract, he writes about one New Year’s night in the late 1960s…

New Year, 1968

It had become difficult to get staff to work in big houses. this was to do more with the hours than the wages – the awkwardness of being free and idle in the middle of the day, but then still busy working at 10 o’clock at night. As once before I dropped the hint to Aunt Laura that I knew someone who might be willing to cook, temporarily.

“We would have nowhere to put her,” was her reply.

“She could sleep on the top floor,” I suggested, but Aunt Laura unfortunately took me up wrongly on this suggestion and was offended

“This is not Leixlip Castle!” she said, primly.

The foot-and-mouth scare was still on when Uncle Jeremy’s niece, Octavia Knox, came to stay. She was apparently recuperating, but from what, no one explained. Connie the daily help thought it was a broken engagement.

She was a tall girl, dark, about my own age. She was witty, but inclined to melancholy, and Aunt Laura would do anything, including breaking out champagne in the middle of the afternoon, to cheer her up. In the long winter afternoons I would see her from my room, walking the same path as Plato down the tree-lined avenue – half a mile to the middle gate, half a mile back.

It was Celia Knox, the 14-year-old daughter of the house, who first noticed me taking notice of her cousin Octavia. In the matter of ponies, dogs, and servants, Celia took her father’s view more than her mother’s. All of the above should know their place.

It was after dinner. I had retired to the basement, before going up to bed. Celia appeared in the doorway and announced that she would like two buckets of coal for the fire in her bedroom. Aunt Laura was coming down the back stairs behind her, and must have been aware that her daughter was addressing me in the same high-handed tone used for erring Kerry Blue terriers.

Aunt Laura dismissed the idea of coal at this hour of the night, and to make amends (I felt) asked me to come upstairs to open champagne. There were no visitors, they were just playing music on a gramophone for the cousins and themselves.

I had the knack of being able to open champagne without causing a pop. This is a kind of snobbery, and the trick is to keep a very tight hold on the loosened cork, while twisting. A moment comes when the cork wants to pop but if a firm grip is maintained, it can be removed, and the champagne can be poured into a glass noiselessly, and without spilling a drop. Some people appreciate this, despising foaming champagne as being too Formula One. Others, equally, don’t see the point and think that the pop is half the fun, if not three quarters of it.

Aunt Laura must have being talking about this, because she said: “now shut up for a moment, everybody, and watch how Gillies does it.”

The Louisiana cousins shut up. Like any knack, noiseless champagne is extremely difficult to do when people are watching. This time as I loosened the cork, which was at first very stiff, it flew out with a sharp report into a chandelier. Bubbly froth everywhere.

Failure.

In spite of this, when the glasses were filled, I was offered one for myself. The side table needed a wipe of a cloth, but Aunt Laura was a true American. Defeat was not an option. we would open another bottle.

Which we did.

This one worked.

Then one of the Louisiana cousins was bet that they couldn’t open a bottle without noise or spillage. It was not very long into this impromptu party before I was asked if I could do a charleston. Now I was not a good ballroom dancer, I was one of those who tend to mutter one, two, three under their breath when waltzing. However, in my teens I had been at first captivated, but then baffled, by the rhythm of the charleston. I had persisted in making a cousin of mine demonstrate it to me till I had mastered it.

So yes, I could do a charleston. In fact the charleston was the only dance that I could really shine at.

The record was put on again, more than once.

Even Celia Knox got caught up in trying to learn it.

This was a typical Aunt Laura evening. By sheer force of personality she had transformed a wet January night into a bright party, even without guests. She had rescued a solitary butler, a sulky daughter, a melancholy niece, and the Louisiana cousins. She had turned up the music and turned down the lights and had everybody hopping. Uncle Jeremy went along with it but I am not sure what he thought of it.

Before the night was over I was dancing with his niece, Octavia Knox.

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Gillies Macbain

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