The Remarkable Betty Scott
(Photo: James Fennell)
Betty Scott was a wonderful being. In September 2012, the Carlow Nationalist hailed her as ‘the inspiration for Vanishing Ireland’. And rightly so.
My earliest memories are of Betty. She played a massive role in raising me during my childhood and our bond was always very strong. She often walked me down the Lisnavagh avenue to catch the yellow bus to my school in Baltinglass. By the time I returned home, I was invariably a mess of untucked shirts, biro-marked cheeks, ripped trousers, knotted shoelaces and broken lunchboxes. Betty would raise her eyes to heaven again. ‘Would you look at the state of, you young lad! What am I to do with you?’
Betty passed away on 20th October, four weeks before her 90th birthday. She was brought into this world on 16th November 1923 by a midwife called Mrs. McKenna at the cottage in Ballybit where she lived for the next eight decades.[i] Her father William Scott was out breaking stones for Carlow County Council at the time.[ii] He was the ninth of thirteen children raised in that same cottage. He had no memory of his eldest brother Tom who emigrated to work on the American railroads when he was a baby. Rather brilliantly, a group of Tom’s USA descendents arrived in Carlow looking for Scotts earlier this autumn and they successfully managed to track down Betty for a chat.[iii]
In 1921, William Scott struck up a romance with Elizabeth Abbey of Tobinstown. The youngest of seventeen children, she had been raised in the Convent in Tullow after the premature death of her father. [iii.a.] At the Convent, she learned enough about household management to secure work in the big houses of Russellstown Park and Duckett’s Grove before the First World War. During the War of Independence, she pedalled her bicycle around the county, delivering messengers on behalf of the IRA who gave her a guard of honour when she died.
Above: Betty Scott on far left at the time Lisnavagh was being felled in 1952. Pictured with her, L-R, are PJ Roche (hidden); unknown young man; Jack Halpin; tall woman who worked at Lisnavagh;
Brian McCutcheon of Templeowen; Mick Gorman of Parc Mhuire; Matt Brien of Ouragh. (Photo courtesy of Sheila Halpin and Tony Roche).
On St. Valentine's Day 1922, William and Elizabeth were married in Tullow. They set off in a side-car to celebrate at The Fleece in Coolkenno. Betty was the eldest of their three children and the only one destined to survive. Nancy, an aspiring step-dancer, broke her back shortly after her 18th birthday. William caught pneumonia before he reached his teens.
It is probable that Betty never married simply because she felt so closely bound to her mother. She did sometimes wonders whether her life would have been better if she'd found a husband, a man who might have sat in the armchair in Ballybit puffing on his pipe.[iv]
In 1937, Betty’s mother was employed as housekeeper at Lisnavagh by my liberally minded grandmother who, as the new Lady Rathdonnell, purged the mansion of its dour and stuffy staff, replacing them with younger, fresher souls, Catholic and Protestant alike. Betty, at school in nearby Rathmore, helped her with the ironing twice a week.
In March 1941, Betty started work at Lisnavagh as a full-time parlourmaid. The war was on and every morning the staff assembled to hear the butler read out the news, transcribed from BBC Radio bulletins.[v] She was often entrusted with looking after the Rathdonnell children, my father and his three sisters, who adored her every bit as much as my siblings and I.
In 1948, Lord Rathdonnell, my grandfather, gave a party at Lisnavagh for all the employees (maybe 60 at that time) and past employees and their families. My father, then ten years old, recalls: ‘I watched in awe as the local band struck up in the great Drawing Room (candles, before electricity) and Mr. Williams, the Steward, took the gorgeous Betty Scott, parlourmaid, for the first dance.’
Above: The chair in Betty's house upon which we so often sat listening to her. It has been reupholstered by my sister Sasha Sykes who writes: "Everlasting Benson & Hedges and ferociously strong vodka & red lemonades ....I'm thinking of it like a book that's been re-covered with all those memories stored up inside."
Betty worked at Lisnavagh for 64 years, becoming the principal housekeeper by 1959. That same year, my 44-year-old grandfather asked Betty to pack his bags as he was headed to hospital for a check up. He assured her he would return in the morrow and she could unpack them again. ‘He came back alright and I unpacked his bags for him, but he came back in a coffin’. Betty always wept when she told this tale.
Betty was still a regular feature of life at Lisnavagh until 2006. She was particularly well-know at ‘Shoot Lunches’ where her beef stew would warm the bones of the Lisnavagh Syndicate. She was never short of culinary tricks. If a plum pudding looked anemic, she’d add a dash of gravy browning. ‘It’s tasteless’, she says. My sister Sasha, who studied architecture, reckoned Betty’s chocolate puddings would double up as foundations.
Lisnavagh was a Hidden Ireland guest house during the 1990s. I remember an occasion when Christy Moore and his wife came to stay. Betty was a massive Christy fan. My mother hadn’t really heard of him. ‘Betty, we’ve a singer called Christopher Morrow or maybe Morehead staying’, she told her as Betty was preparing breakfast for him. Betty nearly dropped the lot when she walked into the dining room and saw Christy sitting there. ‘Well now Betty, the bacon’s great, there’s a bit of scrambled egg on me plate’, he said, and she nearly started jigging on the spot at the melody on him. Christy sent her a postcard afterwards with ‘Ride on Betty!’ etched on it. The card stood proudly on her dresser in Ballybit ever after.
My father, who was a small boy when she started, recalls who Betty ‘was "there" all my conscious life’. She was, he observes, ‘a very strong character’ and ‘her ordinary patter around the house was all for the stage, a private version of Maureen Potter, and we loved it.’ She had ‘really beautiful handwriting, and good composition’ which was ‘truly remarkable’ given that she came from ‘a background of many who could neither read nor write’. ‘Through her we obtained an insight into local drama groups, a world which she both enjoyed and in which she excelled, and spent many an evening in that old Rathvilly Hall that has now thankfully been demolished; it was awful but it was all they had, and they made the best of it, and it was wonderful!’
When not working in the big house, Betty enjoyed sport and drama. In 1948, she collected a clatter of camogie sticks from the Lisnavagh sawmills and distributed them amongst her Ballyhacket team-mates. Clad in white blouses, navy skirts and black stockings, the girls went on to win the Carlow County Final that same year and Betty had a 9-carat gold medal to prove it.
In 1960, Betty became an active member of Muintir na Tíre, the community development group set up by Canon Hayes in 1937. Rathvilly had a particularly strong community in those times, a fact which helped the small Carlow village win the National Tidy Town competition on three occasions. Betty’s focus was theatrical and she was one of the star players of the Rathvilly Drama Group. Indeed, she was voted Best Actress in Co Carlow for four years running and won a fifth prize in Dublin. ‘I didn’t have any lessons’, she said. ‘I just learned my lines and that was it’.
The Rathvilly Drama Group travelled the province of Leinster, performing their plays, night after night. ‘I was in Munitir na Tire which is still going, I think, in parts of Ireland. A priest started it and they were all over Ireland. There were these travelling groups going around. Rathvilly started it then. There was a drama group in Rathvilly going years back. I got involved in it. Never in a million years did I think I was going to get what – five Best Actress awards from Carlow and one in Dublin.’ She credits Seamus O’Rourke of The Nationalist in Carlow who ‘gave a few tips’ along the way. ‘And you learned a bit from the adjudicators - what you should have done - so you’d know for next time’.
‘And the fighting!’ exclaimed Betty of the behind-the-scenes antics. ‘Fecking auld ejats, you don’t know nothing, you went wrong, you can go to hell, you done no right … but of course I was the biggest devil of them all’.
One of her favourite roles was that of Maggy Butler, the elderly widow who leases Bull McCabe his four acres in John B Keane’s 1965 masterpiece, ‘The Field’.[vii] ‘We got a great few awards out of that play’, says Betty wistfully. ‘It was the talk of the country. D’you know, I wouldn’t mind going again’.[viii] She abruptly changes her persona. ‘Tis the field I came to see you about, sorr. My poor husband, God have mercy on him, said - sorr - that if I got into any trouble, I was to come to you’. Then, almost as suddenly, she metamorphoses into auctioneer Mick Flanagan. ‘Ah Maggy, you done right to come see me’.
‘I was carrying the stick when I played Maggy Butler’, Betty said in 2010. ‘But I’m carrying it for reality now’.
In 2007, Betty’s legs seized up with a mystery aliment and she was rushed to hospital. Heavily sedated and on the very brink of death, amputation seemed almost certain. Through the haze she somehow managed to find a grip. ‘It was just a sudden moment’, she recalled. ‘And I thought come on Betty, don’t die like this, you know, don’t just die and not make a fight for it’.
She attributed her subsequent remarkable recovery to a combination of ‘sheer determination on my own part’, and the careful attention of the staff of the Hillview Nursing Home where she now resides. ‘They have literally bought me back from the dead. Sure I couldn’t even put a foot to the ground’.
When Betty walked into the main drawing room at the Hillview for the first time since her legs seized up, all those residents who could stand gave her an ovation and everyone else gave a resounding clap.[vi] She spent the next seven years at the Hillview, painting, reading, playing bingo or, in her words, ‘I’m just gabbling and giving out as usual’. She missed her old life at Ballybit but, having lived alone for thirty years, she conceded that it was good to have some company for a change. The ‘company’ also formed something of an audience and with her corner seat secured at the Hillview, Betty was to make an impression on all who passed through the premises, resident, visitor and staff alike.
Throughout my teens, my 20s and my 30s, I sat in Betty’s kitchen in Ballybit, listening to her talk of the old days at Lisnavagh, the crack and carry on in the Big House and on the farm. It wasn’t always easy to focus. She tended to leave the telly on while guests were there. The oven was always roasting hot and sometimes smoking, or a kettle might sit there whistling for minutes on end. And she had a series of dogs that liked to yap – notably Sandy and before that Chip.
'Come on outta that'.
Ever the actress, she had a brilliant ability to portray all those she was talking about, abruptly switching from one persona to the next. The punch-lines were often hilarious and occasionally unprintable. She had a magnificent sense of humour.
My sister Sasha remembers: ‘I used to love going to stay there when I was about 6 or 7 (?) and she was so kind and would often sleep on the sofa and give me the bed. And we'd get that bus to bingo and you'd see her cracking the jokes (that I didn’t understand) and taking the mick with absolutely everyone. And she would be so protective of us! I loved all the letters and cards that she would send to us at school, the shamrock on Paddy’s Day that would be so squished by the time it arrived across the puddle. And the amazing Christmas diaries that were probably the (practical) reason Turtle ended up as a writer ... She was a great drifting listener, and forever the supporter, championing the rebels! Drinks were always very strong – whether it was tea or vodka and flat lemonade. I will always remember those amazing breakfasts she used to give us, always left in the oven. No matter where you'd been the night before or what time you go up, she always had a feast ready to go in the oven. And the choc pud you could stabilize a house with (or your tongue to the roof). And lots of unidentifiable pies! She had loads of brilliantly bizarre tricks that I doubt any chef today would consider, but they were true creative genius and outside-box thinking (and I would 100% guess were her own inventions) - like the bistro in the Christmas pud to make it go brown. I was telling Bento the other day about her bracks and Christmas puds and all the coins and mad stuff she'd put in for the craic. She was such a foodie really - the ultimate present was Billy's 21st and the trifle that went on for weeks.’
William adds: ‘My first memory is of Betty in the (then) kitchen in the Farmhouse, which is now the Dining Room. She gave me a biscuit. Mum and /or Dad said my first word was "mini" which meant biscuit. Betty's Biscuits were my staple 'treat' diet for years. In fact, apart from a catastrophic attempt at cooking breakfast for Mum and Dad, the first thing I learnt to cook was shortbread biscuits. Every time I see shortbread biscuits I do, and always will, remember Betty. Oh, and wooden spoons!’
I was staying at the Centre Cultural in Paris when I heard the news that Betty had passed away at the Hillview on the night of 20th October 2013. She had been unwell for some time. Following mass at St. Patrick's Church in Rathvilly three days later, we buried her alongside her parents and siblings in Rathvilly Cemetery.
With her passing, we have lost a link to another age, not so very long ago, when pretty parlourmaids danced with Stewards. Rest in peace, Betty. You lit up the world for us with your constant humour and your wise counsel.
[i] This was not long after the establishment of the Irish Free State and only five years before Lord "Silver- Mugs" Rathdonnell inherited Lisnavagh. Her immediate mid-wife was one Mrs.McKenna, mother to Marina Somers and grandmother to all those wee Somers we were schooled with in Baltinglass.
[ii] Betty has no personal recollections of her grandfather, also William Scott (c 1848/9-11 Jan 1921), who died before she was born. By all accounts he was a genial old geezer with a full flowing white beard. According to Pat Cuddy, he was a dealer in crockery and a labourer. Both his cradle and his coffin lay in Rathvilly and, indeed, I am told that what is now Phelan Street (after the parish priest there in the 1930s) was formerly known as Scott's Row in honour of himself and his many siblings. The houses on Scots Row - which still stand - were built from rocks carted across by horses from Arklow.
William Scott married Esther/Elizabeth Hughes on 13 February 1869 in Rathvilly; she was also alive at the time of the 1901 and 1911 census. According to Betty, she dressed in colourful capes and bonny bonnets and died at a great age on 30th May 1932. Their son William, born on 10th June 1875, was Betty's father. His siblings were Thomas (bz. 20th February 1871, Rathvilly), Mary (bz. 16th March 1873, Rathvilly), Michael (bz. 22nd April 1877, Rathvilly), Eliza (bz. 29th June 1879, Rathvilly), Anne (b. 20th June 1892, Ballybit, Rathvilly)] and Margaret, who was born in 1881, and married in Medford, Massachusetts, on 28th June 1908 to James Jospeh Cuddy, son of Edward Cuddy (1849-1914), a tailor based mainly on Tullow Street, Carlow.
Thanks to Pat Cuddy, grandson of Margaret and James, for providing the following inscription from the Scott's headstone in Rathvilly:
Erected by Margaret Cuddy Carlow
In memory of her parents William Scott died 11th Jan 1921, Elizabeth Scott died 30th May 1932
And their grandchildren
William died 27th Nov 1943 aged 17 and Nancy died 8th May 1947 aged 18
[iii] The thirteen Scott children were reared in the same cottage but not at the same time. In time, eight of Tom’s siblings would also move to the USA. None came home. It is extraordinary to think that Betty's uncle was one of those umpteen zillions who upped and left for the New World in the aftermath of the famine. It's rather like my late grandfather who, on hearing of Cordelia Crampton's first child, his great-great nephew, commented modestly that his great-uncle had fought at Waterloo. I check it out and he’s quite right. This is where one gets into the realm of asking oneself what life will be like on Planet Earth in 2170. The youngest of the Scots, Frank, died in 1949. Another was the mother of Rita Byrne, a great bingo pal of Bettys who I think is mother of Jim Dunne.
A cousin of Pat Cuddy's from Boston wrote to him about the Scotts once: "We lived with an Alice Scott for some time. She had a son in the Priesthood, Father. Alexis Scott came on numerous times for a visit and sometime with a priest Father Burton. (Father Burton loved to drink and face was always 'red'. and quite funny), maybe the typical priest, maybe not during that era. Fr Scott was serious and sincere person.“
[iii.a.] In September 2016 I just met a lovely woman in Tullow called Mary Brennan (wife of Brendan) who said she was a granddaughter of Mick Abbey (an uncle of Betty Scott). She said he drove the first tractor at Lisnavagh and that there was a photograph taken of him seated on it before his death in 1924. It must have been quite a curious looking tractor in 1924 but alas the photograph is missing. Mick had been a ploughman on various estates during the first decades of the century but came to Lisnavagh circa 1922, only to be hit by diabetes shortly afterwards.
[iv] When Betty’s father died aged 81 in 1953, the bond between Betty and her mother tightened further still. Mrs. Scott died on the 14th September 1977 shortly before her 91st birthday.
[v] ‘Old Mrs Drew was there then – the Woman in Black – a beautiful lady. None of the daughters took after her. She was lovely and lady-like and very gentle’. Betty says she adored the Rathdonnells. ‘They were so decent and good to me. Pamela taught me how to read and write’. As my father says,
[vi] ‘There is no end to how good they’ve been. They have literally bought me back from the dead. Sure I couldn’t even put a foot to the ground’. She attributes her amazing recovery to ‘I suppose, sheer determination on my own part, number one, that when I come here and realised there was people a lot worse and that ‘come on Betty don’t die like this, you know, just die, not make a fight for it’. So I did. They can’t believe it here. I can walk all around now but I haven’t yet got the guts to put the feet to the ground. They’re still very sore, tender, very tender’.