Edward Hayes the Butler
(Photo: James Fennell)
When Edward Hayes needs to look at a map of Ireland, he would be well served by Taylor & Skinner’s road atlas of 1778. This handsome volume names and locates all the big country houses in Ireland at that time. Edward’s life has always been about the big house. They formed the stage upon which his Ireland was set, before the estates were broken up, the houses knocked, the woodlands felled and the orchards converted to housing estates.[i] His was an age when if you wanted to find your way to a particular big house, you simply got as close as you could, looked up in the sky, found the phone line and followed it all the way to the front door where the butler would greet you. In fact, there’s a good chance Edward was that butler. He certainly got around.
Edward was born outside New Ross, Co Wexford, in 1924. He never knew his father, save that ‘he existed’ and shared his family name of Hayes. Confusingly, baby Edward was registered and baptized under his mother’s name, Cooper. ‘It made it frightfully difficult because all my life I was Edward Hayes but, as far as the law of the land was concerned, no such person existed. So now when I fill in my pension form, I have to write down ‘Edward Hayes Cooper’. I think ‘Cooper Hayes’ would go better, but I would prefer to have just the one name’.
His mother, Miss Ellen (or Emily) Cooper, came from a farming background but worked as a parlourmaid and a cook in some of the big houses around New Ross. Her father, Martin Cooper, was a slater and amateur stuccadore. He was killed in a car accident in the mid 1920s and his wife subsequently married Mr Kehoe. In about 1930, she and her young son returned to live on the family farm, a small-holding of ‘fourteen rather bad acres’ at Ballinamona in the heart of Wexford, midway between Carrickbyrne and Ballyshannon. The old home was now occupied by her three unmarried half-brothers, the Kehoe boys. (Edward pronounces the name Key-ho). One brother operated the knackers’ yard for the Wexford Kennels, converting worn out old steeds into dog food and glue. Another was second whip to the Wexford Hunt, while the third worked as an agricultural labourer on a nearby farm.
Raised by his mother and uncles, Edward was 15 when he left home to work as a yard-boy in New Ross. In 1942, he attempted to join the Irish army but was not admitted on account of a chest infection. When he tried to cross the Irish Sea and join the British Army, his uncles stopped him. ‘What do you want to go and get shot for?’, they asked him.[ii]
‘And so I moved across the water’, he says, ‘and by that I mean across the Nore to Inistioge, Co Kilkenny’. His first job was as a yard boy to the Protestant clergyman, the Rev Thomas Stafford Devlin (d. 1949), who lived in the village Rectory. ‘He taught me how to drive at a time when there were no cars allowed on the road except for the doctors, clergymen and government ministers’. The following year, Edward got his driving licence; the clergyman paid the bill of one shilling and nine-pence.
Edward soon found himself working part-time as a yard-boy at several houses in the area. With its marvellous views and peaceful riverside setting, the countryside around Inistioge had long been an enclave of the Anglo-Irish gentry. ‘And they weren’t as snotty as the ones in Wexford’, laughs Edward. ‘All the gentry went off to the war, you see. They all closed their houses or rented them out. We thought that when they came back, they’d be impossible to live with. But they weren’t. They were totally different people. Their manners were quite different. They became more down-to-earth with the people’.
In 1946, Edward went to work in the yard at Coolmore House, the home of General Solly-Flood, a decorated hero of the Great War.[iii] The old war-horse was constantly bombarded with visitations from young officers seeking his help with their post-war career. Many had been in POW and concentration camps. Sometimes, when extra hands were needed, the butler would summon Edward in from the yard to help clear the dining table and bring in the next course. During one Sunday lunch, he recalls how the General’s wife sat herself beside the Bishop and then berated the local Vicar for being so consistently useless and failing to visit the sick and needy of the parish. One of the other diners that day was the 6th Lord Teignmouth, who lived at nearby Brown’s Barn. Edward recalls Lord Teignmouth looking anxiously at the clock while Mrs Solly Flood continued her tirade. An enthusiastic supporter of the GAA, his Lordship was longing to slip off into Thomastown to watch a hurling match. Some years later, Edward came across Lord Teignmouth’s diary and found a reference that brought back the memory. ‘Lunch Marguerite. Never so bored in all my life. She did nothing but ridicule the Vicar for the entire meal with the houseboy listening’.[iv]
By the late 1940s, many of the ‘Big House’ owners were facing the fact that enormous mansions were no longer sustainable residences. Edward reels off a list of houses he knew which were demolished or had their wings clipped.
By the early 1950s, he had crossed to England where he spent the summer months working in a bar in Canterbury. Although badly damaged during the Blitz, the historic city remained popular with ‘the trippers and tourists’ throughout the 1950s. He would then go to London for the Season where he began to chaperone the young Anglo-Irish ladies who were ‘coming out’ to the innumerable debutante balls and dinner parties. Part of the Season involved the presentation of these marriageable young women to the Queen at Buckingham Castle. Edward was on hand to teach the girls ‘how to walk backwards, curtseying and not tripping up on their dress’. He says the present Queen loathed these presentations and abolished them in 1958.[v] ‘Marriage never came my way although I had plenty of girlfriends and what-have-you’, he counsels.
In 1957, Edward saw an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph from a big house on the Kildare-Wicklow border seeking a houseman. A few weeks later, he was seated in St James’s Club, London, being interviewed by the wonderfully named Harold Wilfrid Armine Freese-Pennefather, the newly appointed British Ambassador to Luxembourg. Edward duly returned to Ireland to work in the Pennefather household at Rathsallagh.
When Mr Freese-Pennefather died in 1961, his widow sold the house to a fun-loving German named Funk. Edward began to freelance his services to other big houses in the area such as Grangecon (where Madame O’Mahony lived[vi]), Milford (with the Alexanders[vii]), Hollymount (with Mrs Annesley[viii]), Tynte Park, Lyons (with Mrs Blacker[ix]) and Carnew (with the Spicers).
In 1963, a solicitor called Reggie Roper recommended him to Pamela Massy, formerly Lady Rathdonnell, and grandmother to this author.[x] Pamela and her husband, Major Massy, had lately decided to rent their home at Lisnavagh, Co Carlow, to an American family for the summer. They needed help.[xi] ‘Mrs Massy was very much ahead of her time’, says Edward. ‘She could see all these things that are happening now forty years ago. ‘People want to learn how to do things now’, she would say, ‘because in a very few years time there will be no such thing as butlers, parlour-maids or footmen. Everyone will have to look after themselves, no matter who they are or how wealthy they are’.[xii]
When Edward arrived at Lisnavagh, the house had not been lived in for several seasons. ‘The furniture was pulled into the centre of the room and covered in sheets’. Edward set to work cleaning the house.[xiii] When the Americans came, he acted as their full-time butler and chauffeur, escorting them to houses all around Carlow and the neighbouring counties. ‘All their friends tried to help, you see. ‘We’d better have Pamela’s Yankees to dinner’, they would say. And of course, the Americans were mad for the Irish gentry’.[xiv] Edward, with his black hair slicked back, generally sported a black morning suit or an elegant white smoking jacket, given to him by an army man but which later ‘fell asunder’. ‘I have no tails or anything now’, he says. ‘They’re all worn out. I told Lord Rathdonnell to fire them all into the new boiler they had downstairs at Lisnavagh and it might heat the house. Nobody wants morning dress anymore, only charity shops’.
Edward would remain at Lisnavagh for the next eight years, living in a flat in the back yard and looking after American guests and a family called Wilkinson who let the house for the hunting season.[xv] ‘I travelled all over the country and in my spare time I went back to Lisnavagh, cleaning the houses, polishing silver, cleaning the windows, that sort of thing.’
Edward moved to his present home in Kells in 1997. It is a terraced house, tucked in behind the town centre, with views of the Round Tower and the steeple of St Columba’s Church. His front garden is immaculate. His house is also exceptionally well maintained. The décor is somewhat paradoxical. On one wall there are photographs of the present and previous Popes, former President Mary Robinson, a Proclamation of 1916 and a flag, dated 1917, from the Bailieborough branch of Sinn Fein with a sketch of Eamon de Valera at its centre. Another wall is covered in postcards depicting stately homes, mostly Irish and all known to Edward, and portrait photographs of the pretty women he once escorted to the London Season. One shelf supports cups and plates emblazoned with Royal motifs, such as Charles and Diana’s Royal Wedding from 1981. A handsome bookcase in the corner is crammed with weighty tomes, well-thumbed copies of Burke’s Landed Gentry of Ireland, Debrett’s People of Today and such like. These books provide the names and dates of the cast of characters with whom Edward has worked for the bulk of his life. And he is able to colour in most of those names with gossip of a juicy calibre.
Fans of ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ may recall the code of discretion that exists among butlers where they agree not to betray the antics of their employers. Edward was never an official butler and so his eloquent conversation is liberally peppered with droll tales of the big house, of foiled thieves, devious daughters, surprise heirs, cantankerous housemaids and faithful grooms. The time Lady Helen McCalmont came back to her car from a day’s racing at Gowran to find her chauffeur dressed up in her fur coat and fast asleep with a bottle of whiskey by his side. The time the robbers were fleeing Ballynatray when the bridge collapsed beneath them sending their truck into the water. Such stories are often accompanied by a heartening chuckle. He seems to know what became of every heir, every housemaid, every hound, every house. Such-and-such is owned by a beef baron. That’s now a stud. That’s a hotel. They burned that one to the ground for the insurance.
Indeed, while the days of the Big House butler are certainly over now, the well-groomed bachelor still has a sound grasp of what is going on today, gathered while attending parties and reunions thrown by former colleagues and employers. He sometimes meets faces from the past on his visits to Dublin, browsing in a bookshop perhaps, or reading newspapers in the Royal Irish Automobile Club on Dawson Street. He also continues to work for a few select households in the Kells area. ‘I can still clean the windows on a house this size’, he says, ‘but not on mansions anymore’.
Edward Hayes passed away on Remembrance Sunday, 11th November, 2012.
[i] Coolmore House was substantially reduced, in what sounds remarkably like the big chop at Lisnavagh.
[ii] His mother died in her 80s. His uncles all lived into their 80s too.
[iii] General Solly-Flood was a hero of the Great War and had commanded an infantry brigade at the battle of Salonika.
[iv] A noted landscape gardener, Marguerite Solly-Flood was a friend of my grandparents, Gilbert and Noreen Butler. Her portrait can be found here: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person.php?search=as&occ=37%3BPlants+and+Agriculture&lDate=&page=6&LinkID=mp68605
[v] The last presentation Edward attended was with Miss Lambert of Kilkenny, and Miss Nicholson (Susan Bennett, formerly Pennefather) of Rathsallagh, along with Mrs McCarthy and Mrs Annesley.
[vi] 'When she died, the family fortune died with her and so Grangecon House was sold'.
[vii] In 2008, Edward attended Johnny Alexander’s 80th birthday. ‘Mrs Hall was a personal friend of the Royal family’, he says, ‘and would often go cub-hunting at Windsor and Badminton’.
[viii] When Edward gives me my tea, he apologizes that it’s in a mug. He then recalls how Mary Annesley once had visitors at Hollymount who wanted to go to Lisnavagh. My grandmother duly invited them to tea. Edward says Mary Annesley responded: ‘I hate going to that place. She always gave me tea in a bloody mug. As well as that, the mug will probably be chipped’'. Edward roars with laughter. ‘She was awfully snobby’ he says of Mary Annesley, ‘but she was a very nice lady’. Hollymount is now a stud farm.
[ix] Sheila Blacker was a first cousin of Major McCalmont. Lyons later passed to Lord Gowrie, later Sec to Northern Ireland, who got lost in Ireland trying to find it, much like Josslyn Gore-Booth when he came to inherit Lissadell.
[x] My father was still in the Royal Navy at his point and was always ‘coming and going’. ‘Your grandmother was charming but she was not very tidy’, recalls Edward. ‘Her hair was always flying. She was very handsome when you got near her, a very good looking woman. She had a lovely manner and always met you with a smile, not like some of them’. Major Massy was ‘beautifully dressed’, often in corduroy trousers and a jacket. He could be ‘snotty enough’ but ‘I never had any problems with him’.
[xi] When Edward drove over for his interview, he suggested she might ask the Pennefathers’ for a reference. She peered up over her glasses and said: ‘It’s yourself I want, not a bloody reference’.
[xii] He actually said ‘It started off with the Teddy Boys’ during this but I wonder how that prompted him.
[xiii] He was aided by Betty Scott (who was based in Lisnavagh’s Farm House where the Massys lived), Mrs Smith and Bridie Comfry (the cook).
[xiv] Mimi Weygand of Milford and Mrs Alexander of Kellistown were mentioned in despatches in this regard.
[xv] Edward has a number of photos from his time at Lisnavagh when it was rented out to the Wilkinsons (winter) and Americans (for 3 months in summer). He reckons he was there for eight years, until 1971, and often minded my brother William when he was a boy.