A little bit French

Living

HUGUENOT HERITAGE Sonia Kelly’s grandmother Kathleen Perrin (‘Gonga’) with Matt, her Persian cat.

Sonia Kelly

My grandmother, Kathleen Perrin, was a French Huguenot, which is responsible for the French surname. She married a Roscommon land agent called William Eden Holmes and this marriage eventually led to a lot of upset.
Their original home was in Roscommon but that was disrupted when my grandfather, the wicked William Eden, eloped with an English heiress. He left behind a lot of debt and a very distressed mother of five girls and two boys.
(We subsequently got to know a son he had with his new bride. He told us that he had brought with him a lot of debt, so I don’t suppose they were very happy either. Alex Holmes lived in Scotland at the time we knew him. He looked very like one of my own sons.)
Fortunately for her, the family had grown up and the girls had married army officers and lived around the little Cotswold market town of Cirencester in England. When this calamity struck, three of the girls, Marjorie, Kitty and Baby got together to buy her a little house near theirs, which is the reason I got to know my grandmother. In fact, it’s how I came to live with her, as my mother had brought myself and Michael (my brother six years my senior) ‘home’ as they referred to England, from their tea plantation in Ceylon where they lived.
She applied for a professional nanny to look after me, so my grandmother had three, no doubt welcome, paying guests with Nanny, myself and Michael during his school holidays, staying with her for 12 years. There wasn’t really much trace of France in the ensemble, and there wasn’t much affection either, though we certainly had the best of everything. My grandmother had a maid called Phyllis, who did the cooking and housework and so on.
My mother had already returned to Ceylon when disaster struck at home. My grandmother, who was known as ‘Gonga’, had a pet cat called Matt, who I am sure she preferred to me. I used to torture the cat behind the sofa in the sitting room, perhaps sensing this preference of hers. One day the cat leapt up and smashed a China doll which caused a traumatic fury. My brother Michael came to my rescue and while I hid upstairs I could hear him shouting at Gonga, “She’s worth more than a China doll!”
Nanny called her Mirim, short for Madam. In those days, of course, employees never became friends.
There were various family children who visited Gonga over the years. Aunt Baby, my guardian, had two, a boy and girl, and Aunt Marjorie, the richest of them all had three. Aunt Kitty had none. But I went almost entirely devoid of human contact. Nanny only permitted me to have one friend, the son of an army officer, who I have a photo of. He was very nice, and we all liked him.
I suppose I did not get much affection, as that was how it felt, and my brother Michael would have got less, making him feel completely rejected.
My grandmother had one friend called Mrs Smith who was a widow. She called in sometimes, and other times we would go to her house for bridge parties. I played a Chinese game called mah-jong with her daughter Stella.
There were various uncles and aunts who made sure their mother lacked for nothing. She nursed the cat and listened to the radio, which was a comparatively new invention. She lived upstairs and so did Phyllis the maid, whereas Nanny and I had the front room downstairs facing the garden and Michael had the backroom. I was too young to grasp most of what was really going on.
My grandmother died two years after my mother, who had died when I was 14, two years after my father had died. At that point I was introduced to the Catholic boarding school, St Michael’s, in Cirencester. Her death did not bother me much. All I contributed to her was breaking one of her China ornaments. A shepherdess or something.

Author, poet, entrepreneur and regular Mayo News contributor Sonia Kelly, who is now in her late 90s, founded Cloona Health Centre in Westport in 1973.


*An picture of Sonia Kelly's mother appeared incorrectly with the print version of this piece.