First Encounters: ‘Sean and I were meant to be together’
In conversation with Frances O’Rourke
Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
Sean Davoren is head butler of London’s Savoy Hotel . He started his career in Claridge’s after graduating from Rockwell Catering College in Co Tipperary. He then worked in Europe and the Middle East before returning to London . From Clarina, near Limerick city, he lives in Harrow , London, with his wife, Norma
I met Norma in Trafalgar Square: she had a beautiful figure, dark curly hair, the most beautiful brown eyes and a great personality. We met through Tommy, my best friend, who was kind of dating Norma. Tommy went back to Ireland take up a position as a lecturer in Rockwell Catering College and they split up. Norma and I loved to dance, went to the Irish dancehalls, kept up a friendship that developed into something more along the way.
It was the late 1970s, I was 19: I’d gone straight from Rockwell to work in Claridge’s. Then I went to Switzerland and did my butlering course. I was away for three years, in private service. For part of that time I worked for a European royal family that was a little bit Downton Abbey – there was a place for everyone and everyone had their place.
Back in London I rang Norma. I knew I was in love with her – we were married within the year.
I’ve been at The Savoy for four years. My job as butler is to make guests feel welcome, valued. People come to places like The Savoy to be pampered and that’s what butlers do. If I tell you the amount of baths I have run in my working life . . . I’m not just going to turn on the taps, I’m going to bring you a selection of oils, make sure the temperature is to your liking, ask if you want music, warm the towels, put petals in the bath or orchids around it.
I have learnt over the years, whatever request that’s made, I will react to. For example, we have a lady who bathed in goats’ milk. She wanted it unpasteurised – so I sent a chauffeur down to Wales. The chauffeur cost £690, the milk, £35. I will always come back with a solution, never come back with the word ‘no’. I looked after David Gest [producer/reality TV star/ex of Liza Minelli] – I mention his name is because he put my name in The Mirror . He asked for zebra milk; I was later to learn it was for the older man who had a younger wife.
I get into my uniform, go on stage, perform. Most people want to be entertained and I’m a bit of an entertainer. But I treasure my family life and normality at home, don’t get caught up in the world I work in.
I wasn’t surprised when Norma set up her agency providing carers for old people. That was always her talent. At home I’m a typical Irishman – my wife looks after me. I slouch on the couch watching sports. That’s my sanity. I’m very lucky to have a woman who understands me, somebody to come home to, a reason for living. I’m still in love with my wife.
Norma Davoren left Ireland in the 1970s to train as a nurse in London and later worked in the hotel business. A mother of five, she now runs her own business, an agency providing carers for old people with dementia. From Killcummin, Co Kerry, she lives with Sean in Harrow, London
I met Sean about 1978, through Tommy, a close friend. I was living in London, came over at 18-and-a-half. Sean was working in Claridge’s. He and Tommy – I was kind of going out with him then – had been in Rockwell Catering College together.
When I met Sean, there was just something about him. I thought, my God, where did he get those eyes? My friends said, Norma, don’t even go there, you’re with Tommy. Then Tommy went back to Ireland to take a job in Rockwell. Myself and Sean were still friends, went to the cinema, and to Irish clubs – we loved dancing. And that’s how we started going out together.
After four or five months, I wanted to go travelling and he was leaving London too, so we broke up. I met him second time around about three years later. Sean rang and we met in a Wimpy bar. I was playing a bit hard to get, but I knew he was for me: he was everything I wanted in a man. He was amazing, so caring, so nice, his hands were spotless and he was a true gentleman, not rough, or pushy. We started going out again in October. After Christmas Sean said, d’you know what, I’m never letting you go again. We got engaged and married in Killarney in 1982.
We had very similar backgrounds, from farming communities in Ireland. He understood me and I understood him. After we got married, we rented a room – it had a single bed and we had use of the kitchen. We were really happy there. When I got pregnant with my first son, I gave up work. We have five children, three sons and two daughters, aged from 21 to 30. They all went to university; the last one graduated at Christmas.
When Sean is doing butler, he’s on stage. He’s Sean when he’s home – likes to be pampered by me. In our house, I’m the boss. I give him a cup of tea in a mug, he doesn’t want fancy cups and saucers, just proper dinners, home made bread, none of this fancy malarkey. He would tell me stories from work, but would never tell me names, never divulge any information. It’s only when someone famous has gone, he might say, so and so was there. He’s not as straitlaced as the butler in Downton Abbey. The people who work for him, especially the girls, say he’s not just a boss, he’s a dad.
Sean and I go home very often, my heart is in Kerry and he’s the same. My dream is to have a little whitewashed cottage with an iron roof there, nothing fancy.
Tommy died many years ago. I often look up at the sky and say ‘Hi Tommy, look what you gave me’. He always said to me that Sean would take care of me very well. Sean and I were meant to be together.
Hotel Meyrick in Galway will host an evening with Sean Davoren on March 28th, hotelmeyrick.ie, 091-564041