Long centuries ago, Sir Laurence Parsons, brother of the Surveyor General of Ireland, acquired 1000 acres of land in what was then the King's County. By the 1820s, Parsons' heirs had turned the old fortress into a sumptuous Gothic Revival castle and built a bustling tree-lined town around it. Birr Castle remains the Parsons family home today and its mighty walls engulf the handsome Georgian town where Cantonese chefs and Polish mechanics intermingle with the indigenous citizens.
Margaret Shortt lives in a small stone cottage close to the castle wall. For half a century, she slept within the castle itself. ‘I had just turned seventeen when I started.’ There was already eighteen staff in the household, including a butler and two footmen. ‘The footmen wore green tailcoats, red waistcoats and big brass buttons. Even the soles of their shoes were shining!’
Margaret wore a khaki-coloured dress to signify her position as ladies’ maid. As such, her role was to attend to all the chores one might expect when one’s lady is wont to host the occasional princess or viscount. Her immediate boss was ‘the old Lady Rosse’, a magnificent woman ‘who dressed in the old style and knew all the Birr people and would wave if she saw you’. Lady Rosse’s husband was the fifth Earl of Rosse, ‘a beautiful old man’, directly descended from Sir Laurence.
Margaret’s mother, a Miss O’Meara, left Birr as a young woman and secured a post as housemaid to the fun-loving McCalmonts of Mount Juliet, County Kilkenny. Here she met and married the McCalmonts’ groom, a teacher’s son called James Mackey. During the Troubles, James had been shot at by the Black and Tans and he was obliged to lie low until the British Army withdrew from Ireland. At length he returned to Mount Juliet and remained their groom for the next forty-five years. The pride and joy of his stable was a powerful grey stallion called The Tetrarch, who had been the Seabiscuit of Ireland during the Great War. ‘My father looked after him every day. When we were kids, we used to go and watch him being washed. His tail was shampooed! He was a beautiful horse.’
Margaret was the second of the Mackeys six children. They lived in one of the McCalmonts cottages, close to where they kept the pack of hounds that headed up the Kilkenny Hunt. It was a good place to be a child. At Christmas, the McCalmonts threw large parties for all the children living on the estate. ‘We used to have great crack. We’d not go to bed. They’d send us home with boxes of chocolate. That was a great thing!’
Although brought up in Mount Juliet, Margaret and her siblings often spent weeks on end back in Birr with their mother’s mother. ‘She only had two beds so we all had to share, the six of us.’ Her grandmother’s garden was awash with lavender and the evenings were long. She tells us this as we walk over to this house together. The building has been abandoned for some time and is up for sale. It looks at us with forlorn, sad eyes. Margaret shakes her head and we walk on.
And so, all too quickly, one moves from childhood parties to old age. As it happens, Margaret Shortt believes the elderly are well looked after in Ireland. ‘We have free travel. Free electricity. Free heating, free briquettes. Free everything! They’re very good to the blind too. I know people that have been in the dark all their life that are now looked after.’
While working in Birr Castle, Margaret met and married the late Pat Shortt, a cobbler from Birr who specialised in making ‘the little lad’s boots’. Their only son, John, is a barrister and lives in Blackrock, County Dublin, with his wife and two children. Margaret now lives with her younger sister, Sarah.
‘The castle means an awful lot to me,’ says Margaret wistfully. ‘It was a very good house for food and lots of posh, rich people came. I do miss it, the activity and everything. I still go walking in there a good deal.’
Birr has evolved a good deal in the eighty-one years since Margaret Shortt was born. It’s likely to keep going that way. ‘There’s a lot of Chinese here now,’ she says. ‘They come to mass a good bit so they’re good Catholics! And why not live here? Birr is a happy place!’