George Bernard Shaw had a prayer answered in the months before his death when the Irish government intervened to find him an “Eliza Doolittle the Second” as a housemaid who could adapt to his high life, newly declassified files reveal.
Documents show the Nobel laureate asked Ireland’s ambassador to London in 1950 if he could assist in locating an “Irish domestic” for Shaw’s English home in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire.
His previous parlour maid had just been “married from the house” and officials fretted to find a replacement from Shaw’s own country who would be “adaptable to an English, nay Shavian, way of life”.
An eager Miss M Mooney at the then department of external affairs in Dublin relished the role of finding the playwright what he was seeking – to her mind, someone just like the protagonist of his famed Pygmalion, the poverty-stricken flower seller Eliza Doolittle, who was coached for polite society.
Mooney took out an advertisement in The Irish Times and the Evening Mail and set up a “formidable” interview panel at the government department’s headquarters on St Stephen’s Green.
The initial advertisement for an “experienced house parlour maid for single elderly gentleman” in an “attractive country residence” drew precisely no replies, so it was decided to include Shaw’s name in follow-up ads “as some sort of attraction”.
Pay was £3 a week and the fare from Ireland was to be covered.
Responses started coming in. Mooney called on “one of the bloodstock Kerrs who lives at their racing stables in Clonee” and a Mrs Louis Magee, “wife of Captain Magee of the Irish show jumping team”, to join her on the interview team.
“We made a formidable trio behind my desk: they so ravishingly beautiful and myself so competent – the effect of competency being given by the fact that all three phones on my desk kept ringing during the interviews,” she noted.
A handful of hopefuls cross-examined for the post were assured it would “be a very pleasant one”, the files show.
“You would live in an attractive country residence. Mr Shaw spends most of his time out of doors reading and writing, and the housekeeper is also the cook. The duties would not be too hard, there is good time off and, of course, there is always something of interest happening in the home of such a famous writer.”
The successful candidate was free to go on “outings” every Wednesday afternoon and every second Sunday. She would also have two hours every day to herself.
A woman aged 30-40 was deemed most suitable as a “sense of responsibility” and “discrimination” was needed to screen visitors and telephone callers.
The contest was whittled down to two women. Margaret Griffith was a “very nice, quiet girl, small and clean” but the interviewers felt she would be “quite unable to cope with the Shaw household”.
The unanimous decision was that Patricia Dicker, from Richmond Hill, Upper Dargle Road, Bray, Co Wicklow, was “an answer to Mr Shaw’s prayer”. Indeed, she was an “Eliza Doolittle the Second” who “seems a very adaptable young woman”.
“She is a tall, dark girl of arresting appearance, well built, with a fine speaking voice and every sign of character,” raved Mooney in a dispatch back to the embassy in London.
“We discussed every aspect of the position and she quite understands that it will entail early rising, plenty of housework, answering the phone, dealing with callers, waiting at the table, and, principally, adapting herself to life with an elderly man of definite tastes.”
Mr Shaw died at home, aged 94, just a couple of months after Dicker’s appointment.
About seven months after Shaw’s death, the department of external affairs moved to distance itself from the appointment. The files show that Dicker’s mother had complained about her daughter being ordered to stay on at the house “even after his death”.
An official notes in the files that the mother was told “this department had absolutely no official connection with the appointment” and that it was “merely doing a personal favour for GBS”.
“In my view any claims she has on GBS’s estate do not arise until after we had finished with the matter,” the official wrote.