95 year old Cork housekeeper

Cobh woman Patty Butler, aged 95, spent almost three decades working at Fota House. Here CHRIS DUNNE catches up with her after she paid a recent return visit there, to chat to her about life in the ‘Big House’
95 year old Cork housekeeper
Bryan Murphy, the new General Manager at Fota House, Ms Patty Butler and her niece, Ms Eileen Cronin. Patty used to work as a housekeeper at Fota House for almost three decades.

WHEN Patty Butler, from Belvelly, Cobh, went to tea with her friends at Fota House to celebrate her birthday recently, it was like she’d never been away.

“I could never forget the time I spent in Fota; that’s why I like to share the memories about the place and people I loved so well,” says Patty, aged 95, who worked in Fota House from 1947 to 1975, serving as in-between maid, housemaid, cook and housekeeper.

“In 1947, my first cousin Peggy Butler told me there was a vacancy in the ‘Big House’ and that if I was interested she would tell Mrs Bell, formerly Dorothy Smith Barry,” recalls Patty, who having left school at 15 already had five jobs before Fota.

Fota House, where Patty worked as a housekeeper for almost three decades.
Fota House, where Patty worked as a housekeeper for almost three decades.

“I was well up in domestic work,” adds Patty, who was somewhat awed when she was shown into the library for her interview by the butler George Russell.

Was it like Downton Abbey?

“There was a distinction between the upper class servants, mostly English and Protestant, and the lower class servants, mostly Irish and Catholic,” says Patty.

“We dined in separate rooms; the upper class servants lodged with the housekeeper, Mrs Kevin. Green baize doors kept the servants apart from the family. The lower class servants slept in the still room. But we were all good pals. There was never any animosity or rivalry among the staff,” says Patty, who made life-long friends upstairs and downstairs in the big house.

The workers were all decked out according to rank.

“I wore a black dress with a small apron and a smaller white cap with a velvet ribbon,” says Patty.

“When I did housekeeping duties, I dressed in a blue dress with a big white apron. I cleaned the Major’s study, and hoovered, dusted and polished the housekeeper’s room before 8am. I settled into a routine quickly and work was never boring.”

Patty’s interview with Mrs Bell was brief.

“Patty, have you come to join us?” inquired Dorothy.

“I answered; ‘yes Madam’, and that was that!” says Patty.

“The housekeeper will show you your duties,” Dorothy said.

Lady Barrymore's gardens at Fota house in 1930. Picture: Archive
Lady Barrymore's gardens at Fota house in 1930. Picture: Archive

“It won’t be all clean work, so you won’t be dressed up as you are now. Mrs Kevin will tell you what to wear.”

And with that began a quarter of a century of dedicated service as Patty became a member of staff in the efficiently run, sometimes eccentric household of Fota House.

“The landowners of the time had status,” say Patty.

“Visitors to Fota House enjoyed fishing in the spring, tennis and boating in the summer, cubbing and fox-hunting in the autumn and shooting game in winter.”

What was her first day like in the grand house?

“To me, the inside of Fota House was like a palace,” says Patty.

“I felt very small in the midst of all this grandeur.

“Mrs Kevin went into such detail about my duties — I could scarcely take it all in! There was always lots to do. After the morning household tasks, I helped with lunch, then tea, served in the library at 5pm.

“At 7pm, the gentry would go up and change before dinner, a lengthy four or five course affair which usually included game from Fota Estate. Everyone dressed up for dinner — it was great to see the glamour.

“Among the many visitors to Fota in the 1950 were Guy and Harry Dacres-Dixon of Tipperary, Lord Dunraven from Adare, Co Limerick, Lord Powerscourt from Wicklow, and the Duke and Duchess of Westminster.”

Fota Island festival at Mrs. Bell's house, back in 1953. Picture: Archive.
Fota Island festival at Mrs. Bell's house, back in 1953. Picture: Archive.

The ladies came prepared.

“Most ladies brought their own pillows covered with satin pillow cases because they believed satin did not crease the face.

“They had pink satin nightdress cases covered with lace and tied with ribbons.”

Patty, establishing herself in Fota House, became invaluable in the big scale of things, and proved invaluable to the lady of the house.

“When Dorothy Bell came back from a day’s hunting, she never did so quietly! She would rush through the front door ringing the bell, up the stairs, calling us maids, Peggy! Mary! Patty! We’d pick up her discarded belongings, including the picnic basket and her riding gear, and hurry to run the mistress a bath.”

Patty had a good working relationship with her immediate boss.

Mrs Kevin was very good at giving her ‘gurls’ orders.

“There was a kindness about Mrs Kevin,” says Patty.

“She was very nice, kind and fair. She called me ‘peteen’. If ‘een’ was put at the end of your name, then you were accepted!

“I felt at ease in Mrs Kevin’s company.”

And she did as she was told.

“I listened very carefully to her instructions. She rang the bell at 7am and all the ‘gurls’ got up. The gentry arrived in the dining room at 9.am. At 8.45.am I went upstairs to call a certain lady who was assigned to me for the duration of her stay. The work upstairs had to be finished before 11am and then work began downstairs.

“Trays were taken upstairs for early morning tea. The curtains were pulled, the shutters opened. I still remember those dainty green teapots with a gold rim and matching teacups,” says Patty.

Before Patty’s arrival, the Bells, — The Honourable Mrs Dorothy Bell, her husband Major William Bertram Bell and their three daughters, Susan, Evelyn and Rosemary — had been looked after by an army of servants.

Fota House back in 1955. Picture: Archive
Fota House back in 1955. Picture: Archive

In the 1930s, around 50 men worked on the grounds of Fota alone. By the time Patty took up employment there, staffing levels had fallen to about 13.

The grand house, spreading its enticing charms, in many ways became home to the servants too, both Irish and English.

“There was a lovely homely feeling there,” says Patty.

“It was so pretty and Mrs Bell was into flowers which always made the house very pretty.”

Patty felt at home.

“I had everything I needed,” she says. “A bed, a wardrobe, a dressing table with a mirror and an armchair near the fireplace. I remember also a beautiful washstand shaped like a heart with three legs. On top of that, there was a jug and basin with a matching soap dish.”

She dined like a queen.

“Pigeon, pheasant and rabbit were often to the menu and the servants enjoyed the same fare as the gentry.”

While the cats were away, the mice often played.

“While the Bells were away, the staff used to play croquet,” says Patty.

“Indoors billiards were played. From January to March when the Bells travelled around to collect plants from different parts of the world, Peggy, the parlour maid, and I, would ask the lads from Belvelly to come up for the evening.

“Russell, the butler, always enjoyed the company as well,” says Patty.

The local lads sampled upper-crust life.

“The lads were delighted to be told by Russell that they could have a bath as there were neither baths nor toilets in any of the houses in Belvelly!

“The boys loved the bath. Using the big white fluffy towels, they thought they were in heaven!

“This was followed by a good Irish fry-up served in the kitchen where it was always warm.”

Fota Island Carnival on grounds of Fota House back in 1953. Picture: Archive.
Fota Island Carnival on grounds of Fota House back in 1953. Picture: Archive.

The servants enjoyed social outings too, often in style.

“We went to shows in the Opera House twice a year,” says Patty.

“We were chauffeur- driven!”

And they got to enjoy a welcome day off from duties.

“On Christmas Day, the servants had Christmas dinner in the middle of the day in the servants’ quarters while the family helped themselves to a cold lunch in the dining room,” says Patty.

“This was the only day of the year that they waited upon themselves so that we could enjoy our Christmas dinner.”

The occupants of the house enjoyed a happy, lively atmosphere where there was always something happening.

“In every household, little things will happen to ruffle your feathers,” says Patty.

“But overall Fota House was a lovely place to work, and it was the people who made it. They were lovely people at Fota.”

There were talented people there, too.

“There were men who were extraordinary craftsmen,” says Patty. “The blacksmith, the shepherd and the stone mason.

]”They’d usually have an apprentice that would be training up.”

Nothing stays the same forever. By the 1960s most of the servants had left. Patty remained loyal.

“There was only me and Peggy running the house,” says Patty.

“Pat Shea, from Carrigtohill, was the last butler. Little by little, the staff dwindled away.

“In her declining years, Dorothy moved to the Gardner’s House situated in the orchard of Fota House. Nurses came in to tend her and I looked after her too.

“I was glad to be by her side at that time. She lived in the Gardner’s House until she died a few years after her husband in 1975.”

Patty moved to a new job in Verolome Dockyard and Fota House passed through various stages of ownership, including UCC and Fota Trust.

In December, 2007, The Irish Heritage Trust took over responsibility for Fota House, Arboretum & Gardens.

Patty remembers her time at Fota House through rose tinted glasses. She remembers the Green Baize Door and the wonderful people on either side.

“Mrs Bell was 80 years old when she died,” says Patty.

“The curtains were drawn over the history of the Smith-Barry family in Fota.”

But, Patty, hale and hearty at 95, can take a bow, having 25 years of rich, meaningful memories in the house she loved so well.

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