“James, this is your new cook—Do you think you’ll like her?” “Yes,” the four-year-old boy replied, “I will if she doesn’t give me rice pudding.” Maggie Jane, the new culinary captain at the Moyola Park mansion of the Chichester-Clark family in Northern Ireland, would make no such mistake—James was fed a rice-pudding-free diet.
At the same time—1928—but 3,000 miles away in America, Ed Burns made a rare find, a box of very old letters on an upstairs closet floor at Aunt Josie’s house. A childless widow who had just passed away, Josie’s house in Ohio was being emptied out for auction, the letters narrowly escaping the flames of a bonfire.
A peasant farm girl, Maggie Jane had trained in Belfast to satisfy the aristocratic appetites
of the Northern Irish gentry, honing her culinary skills for six years at another wealthy family’s estate before coming to Moyola Park. As head cook, she was in the upper echelon of a vast hierarchy of helpers—a butler who handled the wines, three keepers for pheasant hunts, and
a wide array of gardeners, valets, nurses, nannies, and maids.
The nine letters that my father found at Aunt Josie’s were soon supplemented when a second cache of nine letters was discovered under a hay mound as a barn was being torn down. The collection of letters were written from 1792 to 1827 to James Burns in America by his parents, brother Alexander, and an uncle in Ireland.
At Moyola Park, Maggie Jane both served and was served. While she personally prepared the food for the gentry, her head kitchen maid cooked for her. She remembers well. “And a fourth house maid used to do our room, put in our hot water bottles at night if we wanted, and turned down our beds.”
A steady stream of houseguests and visitors arrived to be wined and dined at Moyola Park, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Maggie Jane would sneak out of the kitchen
to peek through a screen at the gentry’s grand entry to the dining hall, a parade led by Commander Chichester-Clark escorting Lady Marion on his arm.
Once all were seated, it was Maggie Jane’s job to satisfy the gentry’s refined and inquisitive palates. “We used to start maybe with oysters. We would have hors d’oeuvres, paté de foie gras, and caviar. They used to go in greatly for lobsters and crabs and then America dishes like Chicken Maryland with corn fritters and fried bananas. Yes, they were terribly fond of rich food.”
And then there was the Swiss chalet in the Alps where the Chichester-Clarks’ entourage wintered for three months. “Only the head servants went there with them—the butler,
I as the head cook, the head house maid, the governess and all. We brought in peasant girls
to do the other work. In the mornings the bakeries would leave hot rolls on the window sill for breakfast. We went out every day riding in a horse sleigh. The crown prince and princess of Sweden and others would come to the chalet, and I cooked for them all. We had a lovely time.”
But then came the war. Soon after the London blitz began, the German Luftwaffe bombed Belfast, obliterating factories and shipyards, destroying 56,000 homes, and killing a thousand people. Young no-rice-pudding James Chichester-Clark, now a soldier, was severely wounded during the landing at Anzio. After the war, he turned to politics, becoming Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. And when Belfast burned again when riots spun out of control in 1969, he called in the British Army, marking the start of three decades of Northern Ireland’s terrorist Troubles.
There is a tie-in between our two stories. I tracked the 1790s Burns family letters back to
a small rural unit called Brackley in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, finding several Burns families still on the land. And at one wee cottage I discovered Maggie Jane and her sister Emma, known locally as the “Burns girls.” Both in their eighties, Maggie Jane was nearly deaf, Emma blind—“But between the two of us we can see and hear just fine,” they chortled.
Wishing to see if we were related, I read off some names from the 1790s letter. But Maggie Jane only knew that their father and grandfather had lived there on their farm. I asked the grandfather’s name. Emma said, “Alexander Burns, born early 1800s.” The last letter written by my ancestor’s brother named his son as “Alexander Burns, born 1816.” Bingo, I had found my Irish Downton Abbey.
James F. Burns, a native Ohioan, is a retired professor at the University of Florida.