My day as Downton's Mr Carson- 'I've realised that I'm never going to make it as a butler'
Butlering may seem like it belongs to the era of Downton Abbey, but it’s actually a modern and in-demand profession — as John Brennan discovers when he visits Lismore Castle to see if he has what it takes
Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30
I'm standing outside the walls of Lismore Castle with the spring sunshine pouring down on me and I've realised that I'm never going to make it as a butler. I'd a few inklings up to this point, but one big wobble has just confirmed it.
I'm standing - actually, I'm leaning to one side - desperately trying to balance a precariously poised tray loaded with three ornate silver teapots in my right hand, while simultaneously posing for a photograph. The tray is heavier than it looks and there is clearly a knack to this that I haven't quite grasped. I unashamedly use my ribs to help the tray find some semblance of equilibrium and avoid the embarrassment of dropping everything.
Standing in front of me smiling in encouragement is Denis Nevin. The head butler and manager at Lismore Castle in Waterford, today he is giving me a fleeting glimpse into the world of butlering.
Denis actually carried these same teapots down from the Castle several minutes earlier with an effortless grace. He had guided me from the dining room, through the impressive great banquet hall even holding the door open and allowing me walk out ahead of him. Denis followed me down some steps and led the way across a courtyard, through a smaller room which led out into the garden, walking down yet more steps still and along a wet grassy embankment - all whilst carrying the heavy tray which is currently doing its best to bruise my ribs.
Luckily, I manage not to drop it and as Denis takes the tray off me he remarks that the tray with teapots isn't nearly as difficult as having to hold a tray with a salmon on it - those ones can be quite heavy he admits, with another warm smile.
Previously when conjuring images of butlers, my mind automatically jumped to visions of Batman's loyal manservant Alfred Pennyworth and of course, Downton Abbey's loveable Mr Charles Carson.
I ask Denis what he thinks of Downton Abbey and this brings yet another smile to his face.
"From the little bit I've watched of Downton Abbey I often wonder how they get any work done because they do so much sitting around and chatting," he says. "Those days are gone I think. Where the butler is the head of the household and dominant and all that, here at Lismore it's more of a team.
"There is a lot to butlering - in the old traditional way, a butler would look after one family for maybe all of his life. Here in Lismore it's a different proposition, although we look after the Devonshire family and their extended family, there's quite a few of them. The present Duke is the 12th Duke, he has two sisters and their families and then he himself has a son and two daughters - all of those family members would from time to time come across and stay here for Christmas or Easter and holidays."
This is just one of the many ways that butlering has changed, Denis explains, adding that technology now plays an important role in the modern-day profession. For instance, with many returning guests since Lismore Castle first opened as accommodation in 1981, there is a need for a database to keep all the staff in tune with individual needs. It's an odd juxtaposition this - a gothic castle working in tandem with new technology - especially when Denis reveals that: "We keep the iPad in the pantry."
Of course, it's not only in Lismore that such a unique mix of skills is in demand. Aspiring butlers can train at one of several high-end butlering schools across the UK and Europe. The International Butler Academy in the Netherlands, for example, runs an eight-week course covering everything from etiquette to the use of technology, for the princely sum of €14,000. The British Butler Institute, meanwhile charges just over €6,000 for four weeks' training.
Denis says that some of his former footmen have gone on to work in the United States and the UK. There is also a growing demand for butlers in China, Russia and the Middle East. A skilled butler can earn anything from €50,000 to €150,000 a year.
Money aside, this is a profession that demands such a level of detail and dedication that job satisfaction for the butler is a hugely important factor. It's clear from talking to him that Denis really loves his job.
"We're all very proud of the service we provide here, the castle is spectacular," he says. "I'm sure if people came here and they were self-catering they'd find the magic, but the fact that you've a whole team here to look after your every need is a great bonus. It's mainly family groups who come here and they get complete and utter privacy."
Lismore Castle boasts a total of 18 staff including butlers, footmen, chefs, housekeepers, gardeners and assistants. Among them is Denis' son Tony, who works as a footman alongside colleague Jake. Effectively butlers in the making, they sport matching navy three-piece suits, crisp white shirts and a navy tie with the Devonshire family crest embroidered onto them in yellow. The uniform also comprises white gloves which are sometimes worn when handling plates, glass and silverware.
I notice Denis fix one of the footmen's ties as they prepare for a photograph, and I can't help but be amazed by his attention to every little detail. (He later adjusts my own tie when it's time for me to step in front of the camera.)
Denis has been working at Lismore since 1977. "I was 19 years of age when I came down here - I wasn't long out of school. I didn't intend to get into butlering at all. I came down here for a summer job and worked in the maintenance department doing odd jobs. The 11th Duke and his family would traditionally come here for the entire month of February and bring their butlering staff. In 1978, they were over for the fishing and one of the footmen didn't come, so I was drafted in to just help out in the pantry. I got on very well with the team. I fitted in and I liked it as well, and that's how it all began for me.
"When the family decided to let the Castle a couple of years later, it was then that I was thrown in at the deep end, if you like." Denis says that, in a way, he was forced to "paddle his own canoe", but paddle it he did and nearly 40 years later he is the head butler in one of the most beautiful castles in Ireland.
Rising steeply from the banks of the Blackwater river, Lismore Castle truly is spectacular to look at. There has been a castle on the grounds in some form or another since the 12th century. The grounds have belonged to the Dukes of Devonshire since 1753, and most of the current buildings on the estate were rebuilt during the 19th century by the 6th Duke.
Most of my training takes place in the dining room, which boasts a high ceiling from which a dramatic black and yellow hand-painted chandelier hangs. Breakfast must not be long over, as the aroma of sausages and bacon still gently hang in the air, mingled with the earthy smell of the wood burning in the fireplace. In the centre of the room is a large table which has been laid out for the next meal.
Denis demonstrates how to properly serve guests food. I sit at the dining table, and he approaches me on the left, carrying a freshly baked mixed berry cream pie. There is a large silver spoon and fork presented to me and I am allowed select a portion of the pie which best suits my appetite, all while Denis stands stoic and steady.
Next up, I am walked through how to polish the countless types of cutlery, crockery and glassware the guests use. I learn about the importance of polishing a knife's spine here - I had gone 27 years of my life without knowing that a knife had a spine. I am given a soft white cloth, my fingers are to never make direct contact with the surface of the cutlery. Polishing might seem basic, but it's here I experience my first failing in butler 101. Whilst polishing a wine glass - which I think I'm doing a great job on - I notice Denis is smiling. He jokingly remarks that the FBI would be happy if the glass was given to them as evidence to a crime due to the amount of finger prints I've left on it…
As we talk, he adjusts and readjusts the table cloth constantly. I wonder whether they use a ruler to set the table so perfectly? "Sometimes we'd use string on very long tables, from both ends. You'd start off from the middle and then you'd go to the ends and then you'd line up everything."
The tables will be in demand in the next few days, with garden tours, guest bookings and the West Waterford Festival of Food all arriving. For this year's festival, Lismore Castle is opening for Afternoon Tea for the first time. Those lucky enough to have nabbed tickets for the sold-out event will be treated to the finest array of teas, and a selection of sweet and savoury delicacies crafted by Judit McNally of Ormond Café at the Castle. All with silver service provided by Denis and his team, naturally.
When asked what the most difficult aspect of his job is, Denis says: "I suppose dietary requirements of individual groups would be more difficult for the chef than it would be for us. Some of the more serious ones are nut allergies, so it's a worry for the chef but it's a worry for us also."
The long hours, however, don't seem to bother him. "It's a seven-day job, over the years we've developed sort of a rota system. Generally speaking I'd be in every day. I'd go and meet with the guests, especially in the morning and plan out their day for them. Once a week after that, I'm off for the rest of the day.
"They are long days, they start early - sometimes at about 6.30am and although we'd have a few hours off in the middle of the day, we might still be there at 10.30pm.
"I'm not going to say it's an easy job, because it isn't an easy job - but we're so used to doing these things, meeting these people and looking after them. It's a lovely place to work, there is a sort of relaxed homely atmosphere to the place and once people have settled in here it's a joy."
Coming away from Lismore Castle, I have definitely a new-found appreciation for a profession I thought belonged only in bygone eras, Batman films and period dramas.
The butlers and footmen I met in Lismore castle were dedicated, courteous and steady-handed folk, and very much men of the modern era. As for me, I don't think I'd make a good butler - polite and dedicated I can do, but I'm never picking up a tea tray again.
The West Waterford Festival Of Food is running from April 15-17. For more information on the events included, visit westwaterfordfestivaloffood.com
Photos: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision