Butler look after royalty and presidents

Butler look after royalty and presidents

24 June 2020

FRANCIS McBriar has been a butler to four generations of the Royal Family, served US and Irish presidents and Northern Ireland Secretaries of State.

However, he has only one mantra in his mind every time he dons his smart uniform — and that is he treats everyone the same.

The farmer’s son who lives just outside Saintfield with his wife Heather has butlered for 25 years. For those in the know, he’s the man to reach out for if you have a special occasion or dinner event coming up.

Regularly employed by the Earl of Erne at his Fermanagh residence, Crom Castle, Francis was recently featured doing what he does best in the RTE food series, Lords and Ladles.

The 69 year-old was introduced to Hillsborough Castle, the Royal Family’s official residence when they are in Northern Ireland, by the castle’s late and highly regarded former house manager, David Anderson.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without David Anderson, it’s as simple as that,” said Francis.

“We met through First Saintfield Church which David joined when he moved into the area. We were part of a group looking after senior people of the congregation and we would have worked together hosting dinners and bus outings and so on.

“One day David turned to me and said, ‘Francis you are a very adaptable person, you could be a great help to me if you would like to be’.

“I was invited up to Hillsborough Castle to work with him and things just took off from there. I enjoy working with people and always went out with the intention of helping others and to make sure that they enjoyed their day, or their dinner. I also always found it easy to chat away to people.”

At that time, Francis was working as a distribution manager for a group of fashion shops and was the father of three young children with no thoughts of a future career in butlering.

Today, he works mostly at Crom Castle and, closer to home, at Montalto House in Ballynahinch, but also looks after an American family when they travel to the British Isles.

They take Francis wherever they go, sometimes to the Scottish Highlands and hopefully in 

September to their Dorset property.

“I’m hoping that it still happens,” admits Francis, whose work, like many others, has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I really enjoy it and I love to travel. It doesn’t bother me being away from home for maybe several weeks at a time. My family are grown up with families of their own and I think my wife is quite content to see me going out and about as she gets her head showered.”

He and Heather have three children, Robert, Anita and James, and a grandchild, George, who will be one year old soon. A second grandchild is due any day now.

Having, in his words, “looked after” the late Queen Mother, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, their children and Prince Charles’ children, the likes of President Bush, Irish presidents Mary McAleese and Michael D Higgins, Francis admits his disappointment at missing out on meeting Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge.

He said: “It’s been lovely to look after the Royal Family and a few years ago I was invited up to look after Prince William. I was so looking forward to looking after the couple but unfortunately that was the day the Duchess announced she was pregnant with Prince Louis and couldn’t fly over. So I missed that opportunity and would have loved to have met Kate.”

He believes that having served royalty, he can serve anyone and his nerve has never let him down so far. 

“I think perhaps once you have attended to the people at Hillsborough Castle, it takes any nerves away,” said Francis. “You think well if I can serve the Queen, then I can serve anyone. No-one is better than anyone else in my eyes. I just go in and do my best for whoever I’m looking after.”

For most people, the role of butler is quite rare today but in the days of stately and larger homes a bulter was the head male servant in a large household and his job was to manage the work of all the other servants.

Francis agrees that his role is similar to that of the most famous butler in recent times, Carson, from the hit TV series and movie, Downton Abbey.

“The whole point of being a butler is be unobtrusive but close at hand in the background if you are needed. You need to judge when not to overstay your welcome when you are at the table. 

“What happens there, stays there. I suppose I have developed a reputation for being discreet and I try to be. I would never tell others the conversations I hear around the table. As far as I’m concerned, everything is private.

“I treat everyone the same, no matter what their position in life, These people are paying my wages. I believe that nobody is better than anyone else. If they are there at the table, then I’m there to look after them.”

Unlike Carson, who had to extract Lady Mary out of a number of compromising situations, Francis has never come across anyone who was the worst for wear for drink or found in an embarrassing situation.

“I must admit that in the circles I would be in, I’ve never come across anyone over-indulging. My job is really to be able to turn my hand to anything and to look after people. The butler is really in charge of the household. When I go to work at Crom Castle, the Earl tells me ‘Francis, you’re in charge, it’s over to you’.

Working with some of the best chefs around, Francis admits that he’s been treated to some delicious dining experiences through his work.

“I honestly don’t see what I do as work. It’s not work if you love what you do,” he said.