Dining 1990s-style: €1,000 wines, copious courses and butlers by the dozen

A book published in 1996 gave insights as to how the great and good of Ireland entertained

Irish fashion designer Sybil Connolly at her Dublin fashion house in 1965. The key to entertaining was “staff”, she said. Photograph: Getty Images

Irish fashion designer Sybil Connolly at her Dublin fashion house in 1965. The key to entertaining was “staff”, she said. Photograph: Getty Images

 

A friend once gave me a pocket mirror with a vintage photograph of people wearing party hats, and the words “She was a hostess with the mostess” on it. Being modest, I put it on display on my mantelpiece at once, where it still is. 

We all like to think (well, I do) that when it comes to entertaining at home, we do a good job of it. What a “good job” translates as is something different to everyone, but the bottom line probably is: your guests turn up (eventually), you talk, eat and drink, and (eventually) everyone leaves, having had an excellent time. 

Recently, my eye alighted on a secondhand book in Charlie Byrne’s in Galway, the title of which made me take it off the shelf. Hosts and Hostesses: The Art of Irish Hospitality, by Consuelo O’Connor, was published in 1996, by a press unfamiliar to me, the Hannon Press. O’Connor, a long-standing trustee of the Alfred Beit Foundation, interviewed 35 people for the book. Her access was enviable: high-profile people from the professions of law, media, church, arts, State, education, and business all talked to her.

Among those she interviewed were the provost of Trinity College, Thomas Mitchell; the abbot of Glenstal, Dom Christopher Dillon; TD Mary O’Rourke; senior counsel Patrick Connolly; broadcaster Marian Finucane; Lord and Lady Rosse of Birr Castle; Gerry McMahon, chief of staff of the Defence Forces; couturier Sybil Connolly; and Patrick Culligan, then just retired as Garda commissioner.

Enda Kenny, then minister for tourism and trade, wrote the foreword, so it even had an imprimatur from the government. However, I’m not quite sure what Kenny meant when he wrote that the book would “undoubtedly help any visitor to get the most from a visit to Ireland”. Did he think tourists might turn up at the various doorsteps of those profiled in the book, hoping to crash their dinner parties?

It’s clear O’Connor would have made an excellent journalist, because she managed to coax all sorts of fascinating anecdotes out of her interviewees, who were remarkably open with her. It’s almost impossible to think of an equivalent book being published today. Public figures are so much more aware of their public image and, in some cases, requests for interviews first go through a third party, such as a PR company.

But things were different back in 1996, before the internet, and social media, and all those new-fangled digital things. So here is what I learned about the art of Irish hospitality, 1996-style, from people you may or may not have heard of.

Sybil Connolly
Fashion designer
At the time, Connolly was one of the few people whose private residence was on Merrion Square; a gorgeous, large Georgian house. For Connolly, entertaining was all dependent on staff. 

“If you’re understaffed you’re worrying all the time and you can’t enjoy yourself – it’s awful. I’d rather have more than less.” One of her two permanent staff members at that time was a “houseman” called James, whom she had employed for over 30 years. I get the impression Connolly would have loved Downton Abbey. “When he was 14, he started in a house in the country as a pantry boy and he rose up to be a footman. I’m lucky to have someone who is so well trained. You see, there just aren’t people who are trained any more,” she said.

The other member of her live-in staff was a resident cook, whose name we don’t learn. (Neither do we learn James’s surname.)

Connolly had more or less given up on hosting afternoon tea by the time O’Connor came calling with her notebook, because, “They died with the arrival of the cocktail hour. Nowadays, I think women are much more conscious of their figures. They are slimming and they don’t really want tea.”

But the parties Connolly did host sounded beautiful, as well they might, between the resident cook and the resident houseman waiting tables. She filled her “great Waterford bowl” centrepiece with lily of the valley. “And when the salmon are running, I serve it on an old Beleek china dish.”

Lord and Lady Rosse
of Birr Castle

Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl of Rosse: recalled his parents’ lavish dinner parties at Birr Castle, with suckling pig and Chateau d’Yquem. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl of Rosse: recalled his parents’ lavish dinner parties at Birr Castle, with suckling pig and Chateau d’Yquem. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Lord Rosse grew up in Birr Castle, and recounted his memories of how his parents entertained: extraordinary recollections which read as if they were something out of a Victorian novel. “Dinners went on and on with perhaps 10 to 12 courses. There were superb dishes like suckling pig and floating angels dispensed on plates of solid silver. There was an endless succession of wines, ending up with perhaps Chateau d’Yquem [at least €1,000 a bottle, depending on the vintage]. There were footmen in livery.”

When Lord Rosse and his wife Alison took over the castle, like many other guardians of old family estates, they took in a number of paying guests to help with costs, as well as hosting a number of working lunches and dinners. 

Lady Rosse was clear to O’Connor about what was expected of the paying overnight guest to Birr. Up to four couples could be accommodated in “great luxury”. But it was preferred if you didn’t arrive until just before dinner. There followed cocktails, a tour of the house, and dinner. Dinners showcased produce from the estate. Watercress cheese (a cheese new to me, but it sounds intriguing). Artichokes with butter. Venison from their deer. “Jumbals”, little biscuits with rosewater, an Elizabethan recipe. And homemade sloe gin, which was only offered to “special visitors”.

 In the mornings, as a paying guest, you viewed the gardens, and were then expected to “take yourself off”, as O’Connor noted. “I would hope they would go off, but that is the difficulty,” Lady Rosse said. “I forget they are there. Then I come down to the hall and ask myself, ‘who is that person sitting there reading a newspaper?’ You really have to spend time with the guests and that is the trouble.”

Holger Baehr
Businessman
O’Connor included a few people in her book who were not Irish, but living in Ireland “because I thought the outsider’s view would be interesting”. One of these was German businessman Baehr, then living at period house Jamestown Court near Mullingar, who commuted to London for work.

Baehr never used electric light, “but has a large number a candles in each of the reception rooms. He also has large, roaring fires.” He had staff. Lots of staff. A florist who came especially from Dublin, a live-in cook and a daily help. Staff, I am now convinced, is the only way to host a dinner party. He liked to host dinners for 12, and buffet suppers; the last one had been for 170 people, which is not bad going, considering he had only been in Ireland four years by then, and knew nobody on arrival. 

Baehr hosted dinners at Jamestown twice a week, always making sure the “Champagne was to their liking”. But the “key event in this social diary is a lawn meet of the Westmeath Hunt. I am pro-hunting and I think far too few houses actually entertain the hunt.” Frankly, I don’t know how Baehr ever found the time to do any work, as the schedule for hunt day alone involved: hosting 50 riders at 10am for port and sandwiches, plus scores of followers, bystanders and neighbours; afternoon tea for the 50 riders; and then dinner in the evening for 12 “country friends and house guests” visiting from abroad.

Desmond Guinness at Leixlip Castle: “Introductions are so important; they help get things going.” Photograph: Eric Luke
Desmond Guinness at Leixlip Castle: “Introductions are so important; they help get things going.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Desmond Guinness
Founder of the Georgian Society
Guinness told O’Connor he liked to hold dinner parties for up to 30, and that the mix of guests was important. He wanted “beauty in the females and wit in the males”. I don’t know what happened when beautiful, witty women showed up.

Like Connolly, Guinness was all about the staff. His resident cook was Eileen Byrne, who had been at Leixlip Castle for 30 years by then. He was also hot on making sure everyone was introduced to each other, and if you have 30 people around a dining table, chances are, as a guest, you’re meeting some of them for the first time. 

“Introductions are so important; they help get things going,” he said. “I try to give some information on the guests. Mr X runs a typing school in Nicaragua and this is Mrs Y who comes from New York and is writing a book on needlework.”

I only wish Guinness had given more examples of the kind of fascinating guests he hosted. Personally, I have never met anyone running a typing school in Nicaragua, nor anyone writing a book on needlework, let alone one from New York. I wonder if they were seated together?

Consuelo O’Connor (centre) with Desmond Guinness and Penny Guinness. Her access was enviable: high-profile people from the professions of law, media, church, arts, State, education, and business all talked to her. Photograph: Eric Luke
Consuelo O’Connor (centre) with Desmond Guinness and Penny Guinness. Her access was enviable: high-profile people from the professions of law, media, church, arts, State, education, and business all talked to her. Photograph: Eric Luke

Marian Finucane
Broadcaster
Do you know Finucane once ran a guesthouse in Mullingar with her husband, where they often gave “very splendid dinners” for up to 18 people? And she originally trained as an architect? No, me neither. 

Finucane told O’Connor that she expected their dinner guests to “sing for their supper”. They have had many a session, she says. “We encourage others, and, with enough drink taken, I might even sing myself too.” Sadly, she doesn’t tell us what her dinner party song is.

The drink-driving laws had recently been implemented, and when asked about them, Finucane says, “I wouldn’t tell somebody that they couldn’t have a drink, but I would be conscious of it. If I saw somebody drinking an awful lot, I would slip out, go and check the bedrooms and see that the beds are changed.” They could accommodate up 10 people, “depending on relationships”. Now, that’s hospitality. A party, plus a bed for the night.

Philomena Delaney
Calor Kosangas Housewife of the Year 1995
Yes, there was a time, not so long ago – the 1990s – when Irish women competed for what O’Connor describes as the “prestigious” title of Housewife of the Year. In 1995, the winner was Delaney. Unknown to her, she had been entered in the competition by a neighbour, who hoped Delaney, if she won, would give the gas cooker prize to her (she did). 

“At the initial interview, I admitted openly that I had never seen the competition on television, that I felt you had to be a superwoman to win, to have lots of children, even perhaps a few adopted ones, and also maybe run a B&B,” she told O’Connor.

Delaney’s favourite form of entertaining was dinner parties for eight, which took 10 hours’ preparation. “I serve a four-course meal which usually includes a sorbet, and I always produce a few desserts – usually three.” She tested all her recipes on her husband Maurice, who gave her marks out of 10 for each. She told O’Connor that she was “a kind of perfectionist really, and I like attention to detail. Anyone can slap up just any old meal, but I love formality and a sense of occasion.”

Delaney also kept a record of what she wore to her own parties, who she entertained, what they ate, how long the parties took to prepare, and the drinks she served, in a book called The Dinner Party Planner. That would surely be a fascinating piece of social history by itself.

When the Calor Kosangas Housewife of the Year in turn went out to dinner, she had expectations of how things should be. “It’s a terrible thing to say but if somebody invites you they should be organised. Children should be in bed so you don’t hear from them. I usually have a babysitter until the children are asleep.” What drove her “wild” was being invited for 8pm, and not sitting down until 9.30pm.  

Although almost as bad a social faux pas in her opinion was a hostess doing the washing-up while the guests were still there. (Full disclosure: I am sometimes guilty of this.) “She actually proceeded to wash all of the dishes. She even Brilloed the cooker! I was fascinated,” she told O’Connor. “I just couldn’t believe it and thought, ‘why is she doing this?’ I mean, she could have done all that the next day.”

But maybe that hostess (like me) had to go to work in the morning, and couldn’t face coming home to dinner-party washing-up the following evening. The moral of the story is, I guess I’d never have been a contender for Housewife of the Year.

Mix ups, drunked gropes and fine wines

Minerva Mason: the former owner of Ballynahinch Castle with her husband Raymond, and Florida resident, was hosting an outdoor lunch in their US home at which president Anwar Sadat of Egypt, US president Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger and two ambassadors were due to attend. A gust of wind blew away the place name cards. “Well, I had a black man who worked in the garden and I had him put on a white jacket to help us that day. He came up to me and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, I just put the place cards back wherever,’!”

Jim Reynolds, garden designer: “I have had drunken guests who were molesting others. It can lead to a bit of embarrassment. Occasionally I would put them to bed if they were at the stage where you could put them to bed. I find people are generally good in a situation like that. If somebody is being really obnoxious, several people will get together and say, ‘Look Jim, we have to get rid of so and so.’ Yes, I would most certainly take steps to remove them.”

Robert O’Byrne, writer: “I grew up in the Middle East and our houseboys always made curries. They’re very good and then I do a pistachio ice-cream because people get terribly excited over this but it’s very easy.” He told O’Connor that while he personally didn’t outlay much money on wine as a host, that a guest of others, he was “perfectly thrilled to drink delicious wine” when served by friends who could afford it.

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