Insider View - on Parties

Lucy & Johnny MaddenLucy Madden begins the new year by sharing a guilty secret - and it is one that will be familiar to many...

My sister and I for years have shared a guilty secret; it may be hard to believe but we hate (and I choose the word carefully) going to parties. Unfortunately friends refuse to believe this strange quirk, (“You’ll love it when you get there/here”) so the occasional invitation still arrives to be greeted by cries of ‘Oh no.’

Since my sibling and I live in different countries, the details of the most recent event is usually conveyed amid wafts of laughter and expressions of sympathy over the telephone and, as she and her elderly man-friend move in more elevated circles, by dint of their work in the entertainment world, than do I, our social experiences are rather different.

Yet the core issues remain the same; neither she nor I can circulate a room issuing witty bon mots, we remain peripherally frozen and usually locked in mutual boredom with others like us. To stand amid a braying crowd and clutching an empty glass, assaulted by noise and space invaders and being asked over and over ‘Have we come far?’, what is there to like about that?

Now that the party season has, thankfully, receded into memory, we have been reflecting on the whole question of party giving and come up with the conclusion that for her, at any rate, the level of hospitality is in inverse proportion to the wealth of the host. She tells me of gatherings that are contained in the narrowest of time strictures, where ‘nibbles’ are the only food on offer, drink appears to be rationed and there is nowhere to sit down.

At New Year’s Eve she is a masochist and goes to an annual event hosted by a well-known director that starts at 10pm, offers crisps for sustenance, gels around the television at midnight and is followed by entertainment that consists of the director’s daughter trilling in the conservatory. This is England, after all.

We have come to the conclusion that partying is for the young and those looking for sexual partners or, if it is going to be any fun at all, must involve large amounts of drink and a complete abandonment of self. Groups of the elderly sipping sherry and exchanging medical symptoms or, as over Christmas, our experiences with the turkey, are not for these grumpy old girls. Give us a radio drama and a pile of ironing and we are far happier.

Old acquaintance nonetheless demands the party season and a grateful hospitality industry rejoices that it does. Our own establishment has relished the get-togethers of others that have gathered under our roof. But this is Ireland and the Irish know how to party.

There is a seam of generosity that exists in Ireland when it comes to having a good time that is generally absent in the land of my birth. Growing up in London my father’s concern about hosting an event concentrated on schemes for terminating it as early as possible. At what time could he reasonably start emptying the ash-trays? Could he switch the lights off? Parties, those rare events, were referred to as ‘kill-offs’; in other words to repay the hospitality of others with as little effort and money as possible.

The preparations were minimal and involved putting tinned pineapple, squares of cheese and glacé cherries onto cocktail sticks. The piáce de résistance was scrambled egg pasted onto circles of fried bread. There might have been a bowl of cheese footballs. We filled up the cigarette boxes. This was the 1960s after all. The most asked question whispered between my parents during the event was ‘When are they going?’. This early indoctrination about social life is hard to shake off.

The irony of this is that to remain in some way in control of a historic house, as for others in similar predicaments, has meant for us to be permanently at the centre of some sort of jamboree. This New Year’s Eve found my son-in-law, he who in a previous incarnation had been the life and soul of many a party, soberly brushing out the grate in the dining room.

When I pointed out the change in his circumstances, how he was now the staff at another’s party, he replied with great conviction that his new role was much the most satisfying and how he preferred not to be part of the pressures of being a guest. And this is the nub of it, the burden of being fun when you are not psychologically so is a tough call and preferably better left to those who are. There are enough of you around.

To be below stairs, polishing glasses or adding the last minute touches to the plates of others, while above the merry roar of a crowd at play expands with the night; to be part of it and yet not part of it, this is happiness


Hilton ParkTogether with her husband Johnny & family, Lucy Madden runs their magnificent 18th century mansion, Hilton Park, Clones, Co Monaghan as a country house which is open to private guests, groups, small weddings and conferences. The restored formal gardens are also open by arrangement. Lucy is a keen organic gardener and also a member of the Irish Food Writers Guild.




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