Mary Killen Mary Killen

When a footman’s home is his castle

In the 1970s, Gillies Macbain served as a sort of Jeeves to the remnants of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy — and wound up with a castle of his own

My own love for this memoir may be all to do with snobbery and self-identification. Moreover, I’ve always thought a life downstairs is an underrated career opportunity, offering access to all the aesthetic pleasures of the big house while bypassing the nuisance of admin and the financial burdens of its upkeep. On another level, here is the psychic restfulness of parking your own ego while, like HM the Queen, you focus on serving. And now I’ve found a personal account which, in spare and understated comic style, not only confirms that theory but refreshes my memories of the old days in my Irish homeland.

Gillies Macbain totally gets the point of Ireland and its — mainly benign — peculiarities. He is not Irish himself, but he had fallen in love with the country and so, when in 1964 he failed to pass the exams for Trinity College, Dublin, he decided to go and live there anyway. He had a tent and a bicycle and, after some uncomfortable camping, he headed to Miss Synnott’s employment agency in Dublin’s Middle Abbey Street.

Miss Synnott had an in with the remnants of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy who went to her for butlers, footmen, cooks and housemaids. She clearly had a gift for these things and had only to clap eyes on the youth (‘20, tallish and lean’) to realise that he would make an ideal pantry boy for a Georgian mini-stately in County Wicklow. Macbain, an architectural enthusiast, and with nowhere else to sleep, was more than ready to move in right away:

I was happy to settle for a bed, clean sheets and three meals a day, with 4 pounds 10 shillings a week in wages and half a day off each week. The pantry boy polished glasses and silver and other such jobs behind the scenes without emerging from the pantry.

Macbain quickly loved the life.

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