On St Patrick’s Day 1930 there were eleven residents in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. Of those eleven, five were Irish. Herbert Hoover, his wife Lou Henry, their son Allan Henry Hoover and eight staff are recorded occupants of the White House, in the 1930 U.S. Federal Census in April of that year.
The place of birth of five of the staff is recorded as ‘Ireland’. We know that three of them were from north Kerry – Katherine “Kathy” Buckley (44) who was White House Head Chef and her two colleagues, relatives by marriage, Mary (36) and Hannah Heffernan (32) of Moyvane, a village six miles from Listowel.
Kathy Buckley was the daughter of Laurence and Ellen Buckley, Upper William St., Listowel. She was the eldest of eight children, her father was a cooper by trade. He was also a Town Commissioner & founder member of the Listowel Total Abstinence Association and leader of the Temperance Society Band.
Kathy’s path to the White House started in Waterville, Co. Kerry where she was employed in the Butler Arms Hotel as a cook. In 1903 the well-known banker and financier JP Morgan, stayed at the Butler Arms. JP Morgan was an immensely wealthy man, with interests in banking, steel production, and railroads, one of the most powerful men in the United States at that time. With a home also in London, he was visiting the picturesque village of Waterville for a spot of fishing in the nearby famous sea trout waters of Lough Currane. Impressed by the quality of the food in the Hotel, he approached Kathy Buckley, then sous chef, with an invitation to come and work in his family home in Hartford, Connecticut.
Kathy had first to convince her father that this was a good idea. Laurence , an upright member of the community, who described himself (and all of his family) in the 1901 Census of Ireland as ‘Holy Roman Catholic’ was reluctant to allow Kathy to leave a good job in Waterville for the unknown temptations of the United States. However, Laurence had seven more children to consider so permission was given eventually on the understanding the ‘Mr. Morgan’ would arrange for her to return home if she was not happy.
Leaving Queenstown [Cobh] for Boston, in 1906, Kathy arrived in the U.S. and shortly was working in the kitchen brigade as second in line to the French-born head chef in the Morgan family mansion. Here Kathy was trained in the classic dishes of French cuisine and kitchen management. Soon she became an expert on the production of pâtés, soufflés, sauces, soups, elegant fish dishes, and show-stopping desserts as well as the management of the kitchen brigade.
Vincent Carmody, a Listowel local historian, and author and a relation of Kathy’s, tells us that her next step on the ladder was again a lucky break. “Calvin Coolidge, who was a close friend and relative of J.P Morgan Jnr., dined at the Morgans just weeks before taking the oath of office as President of the United States in 1923. Coolidge was also very impressed by Kathy Buckley and invited her to become head of the White House kitchens”.
Kathy retained her place in the White House under subsequent presidents, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. She also arranged employment in the White House for the Heffernan sisters, relatives by marriage. She retired to Listowel in the early 1950s and lived with her sisters Nora and Tessie, who had a small sweet/grocery shop at 24 Upper William Street, next to their old Buckley family home. Kathy died in 1969.
Vincent has a fund of stories relayed to him by Kathy during her retirement, regarding her time in the White House. She also brought home with her from the U.S., mementos, and letters from her life with the Presidents and their families. Vincent has Kathy’s recipe books and menu cards that she collected during her career. “She was always looking for new dishes to serve the Presidents,” he says.
Vincent also has the key to the City of Fort Worth. This key, a gift to Kathy, from President Coolidge to whom it was originally presented on the occasion that he was given the freedom of Fort Worth/Dallas.
The people of Listowel remembered ‘Kathy White House’ as she was known when a plaque was erected in her honour outside her home, in June 2015, celebrating the life of a cook whose culinary talent took her from humble beginnings in north Kerry to the bustling kitchens of the American White House.
Thank you to Vincent Carmody https://listoweloriginals.com/ and Sharon Ni Chonchúir
See Sharon’s interview at https://irishamerica.com/2015/12/kathy-white-house/