WAR ERA Sonia Kelly during her time with the Auxiliary Territorial Service in World War II.
Towards the end of the 1930s I went back to England to apply for a job in a riding stable owned by Mrs Nancy Tilly. The job had been arranged by my aunt Kitty de Freville, and the stable was in the village of Box, near Cirencester, where the de Frevilles lived.
Lodgings had been included in the deal, and I booked into the house of Mrs Sparrow. It was very pleasant, as was the job (mostly). The work was chiefly giving riding lessons and going on hunts.
On the latter occasions, I was often allocated a large horse called Talisman, which had a distinct mind of his own. We might be galloping up to an obstacle with the intention of jumping it when he would stop suddenly, so that I proceeded across and he remained where he was. I managed to hang onto the job though – until I received my calling up papers.
I was not a fan of soldiering and would have preferred to join the land army, which was a company of women employed to replace the farmers who had been conscripted. But as my relations were mostly army officers, this was severely frowned upon, and I was obliged to join the ATS, or the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s artillery. I was sent training to Woolwich, where Aunt Baby’s husband, Robert, was colonel in charge of artillery.
I was a very unenthusiastic soldier, constantly in trouble for not polishing the brass fittings on our uniform to the required degree of brightness. I must have been as bad a socialite as a soldier, because I was always a wallflower at the weekly dances, which were arranged to entertain the troops. Eventually I was partnered on two evenings by a sergeant. On the third evening I faced the ultimate disillusion as he sailed by me with a new partner, calling as he passed by, “You should dance this one.”
Dancing aside, those times were very scary, as on most moonlit nights the bombers came over and we took refuge in the billet cellar.
During that time, my brother Michael reappeared in a flat in Dublin. He had gone to Finland with a group of people, the Finnish Volunteers, to help the Finns with their war against Russia. But peace was declared the day they landed, so the group dispersed throughout Scandinavia, where they were interned waiting to be repatriated.
I spent my leave visiting Michael, but on the way back I was arrested by the military police and was questioned for ages without being told what my crime was, which was very alarming. I only recently discovered what it was about from Michael: Some of the Volunteers were spies. (Never him though.)
After four years, I felt I had done enough involuntary service, and I decided to go AWOL on my next visit to Ireland.
We lived in this flat in Mount Street which was situated above a brothel for about a year. Soon we were sick of city life and decided to go as far away from Dublin as we could. So we got on the train at Heuston Station and went as far as it was going, which was Westport, where we got off and where I’ve been ever since.
The fourth in a series of articles in which Sonia Kelly, who is now in her 90s, looks back on her childhood and life. An author, poet and entrepreneur, Sonia founded Cloona Health Centre in Westport in l973.