Gillies Macbain

Posted by Sue Leonard on Saturday 28th March 2020

Gillies Macbain lives in a castle in Tipperary – or at least in the tower of one, since Cranagh castle itself burnt down. He bought his first, crumbling pile – a mansion in County Monaghan when he was in his mid-twenties, blowing his entire inheritance. Yet when he first settled in Ireland in 1964, a 21-year-old with little to his name, he worked below stairs, as a footman and butler in some of Ireland’s finest houses.

“It was still a kind of post-revolutionary society, and these people who employed me were still, in their own eyes, socially significant,” he says, when we meet in Dublin on one of the wettest most blustery days in the year. “But politically, they were washed up and powerless.”

It was a rackety existence. When Gillies wasn’t waiting on the high born of the land, he was seeking out a bohemian society in Dublin – but he was good at his job. One employer offered to help him secure a post at Buckingham Palace, but withdrew the offer, when Gillie’s life- and gossip about his employers appeared in a newspaper after he had drunkenly blabbed to an English gossip columnist during The Horseshow Ball.

We’re discussing the last footman, Gillies’s memoir of his years in service, and his subsequent struggles to survive until he married a rich woman. Beautifully written, it’s an entertaining and informative read, shining a light on an Ireland long gone. But the author wasn’t happy when a sixteen-year-old, doing work experience with his publisher described the book as history.

“History?” He is clearly appalled. “And on the Luas, recently, I was looking at this pretty girl, because you have to rest your eyes somewhere. She noticed me looking at her and she got up and offered me her seat. That was wake up day.”

Despite some missing front teeth, Gillies still retains good looks. He has thick well-cut white hair and a patrician air, and one can well imagine how women found him attractive in his youth. He writes of many of the women he has loved and includes an anecdote of a much older married woman who seduced him, and later led him to believe he had fathered her firstborn.

Whilst its full of rich anecdotes, the narrative leaves many avenues unexplored. Gillies mentions an unusual childhood and writes that he had no family left in England, but he doesn’t explain the circumstances. He quotes Gareth Browne saying he gave the best parties in Ireland but doesn’t write about attending any of them. He mentions a brief meeting with Mick Jagger and Marian Faithful – the duo who appear on the book’s cover – but he doesn’t give us any insights.

Gleaning information proves tricky. He speaks extremely slowly and is often evasive. He says, “While I’m talking to you all these stories are flashing through my head,” but unfortunately, they stay right there. When I ask about one house he worked in, where the mother-in-law lived in the basement, he says, “That’s not my story to tell.” He expresses concern that our talk might go down long alleyways, then takes me down them anyway.

A pedant about language – the entire book is written in the lower case because the author considers capitals unnecessarily conservative and perverse, he spends valuable time telling me about the history of reading. It’s extremely frustrating.

I think I’m getting somewhere when we discuss his sojourn in Castle Leslie, where, during the making of a doomed film he is promoted from sandwich boy to lead actor.

“I was the stand in for the leading man who had seen the light and departed,” he says. “But everyone laughed at me for not going for a top salary but agreeing to stay on £20 cash to be paid each Friday.” He laughs. “When it all fell apart and they got back to London with their precious contracts, their cheques bounced.”

I ask how the role was possible when he wasn’t a professional actor, and before he can reply, we’re interrupted by a bearded eccentric who asks him if he’s a famous poet. He hangs around us, oblivious to our rebuttal, until, exasperated, Gillies hands him an invitation to his book-launch and he goes on his way. We start chatting again, but then the man pops up like a schoolchild on speed, asking if the launch includes a prodigious amount of free alcohol.

“It will be the usual cheap glass of wine,” Gillies says, witheringly.

My allotted time, more than up, I hand Gillies over to the photographer, but stay around. By this time, the publisher has appeared with a stunning finished copy of the book; has bought a round of whiskey in celebration and has disappeared.

My second effort at an interview proves more productive. Pulling out endless photographs and documents Gillies tells me something more about his life. His parents met before the Second World War and married the day before it broke out. His father, a doctor, went away, and the couple later divorced. Unqualified, his mother secured a job in The Bishop’s Palace in Lincoln, which became the lodging place for the girls at a teacher’s training college. Her son went too, which was fine when he was four years old, but a little difficult when he was a teenager.

“I was 15 to their 18 to 21 and I was the only man in sight.”

He attended boarding school from the age of ten, but when he was 17 his mother died, and he was sent to a lunatic asylum. He’s vague about the reason for this – vague too, about his only meeting with his father. He first came to Ireland in 1963 – living free, for a while, in a Cistercian monastery, and returned the following year hoping to attend Trinity College, but he didn’t get in.

“What drives the story on is my decision, when an opportunity opens up, to go for it,” he says. Those included helping set up Snaffles Restaurant, some incidental farming, some time as a shop steward, and a great deal of time on the dole.

His first love was a fifteen-year old redhead whom he calls Claudia Kenny. She returned his love, until she grew up a little. He married his first wife, Octavia, with little or no courtship, but the union wasn’t to last. The book ends with a fire destroying the house in County Monaghan.

When, in 1995, that other fire broke out in Tipperary, his diaries were burnt along with the castle.

“It was calm, with the slight pinkiness of dawn, and 30 years’ worth of my diaries were floating down into the wood as black flecks of paper.”

If he’s hard to draw out on his childhood, other family details prove impossible to glean. He mentions seven or eight children, then talks of four daughters, one deceased. Later, he mentions a son. Patrick is a vicar in England with such a sensible life that Gillies, jokingly, says of him, “There’s a black sheep in every family.”

He now lives alone with a springer spaniel but is on good terms with his latest wife. It’s not clear whether he’s had two wives, or three. But he’s keen to point out that all biographies are fiction.

The book has been long coming. He was first asked about his intention to write a memoir in his first year as a footman, something he found a bit odd.

“I was going around the table at the time, holding a dish of mashed potato, and I couldn’t move until the guest took his helping. I didn’t see my life as a career which I would come to the end of and sit down and write about it,” he says. “I saw it as a narrative, and I saw going to Ireland as a new chapter.”

It’s one that continues today. A citizen and catholic convert who loves the freedom here, he’s now relinquished his English passport. He’s simply never looked back.

the last footman by Gillies Macbain. The Lilliput Press: €20.

Published in The Irish Examiner on 8th January 2020.

© Sue J Leonard. 2020

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