SPECIAL DAY Sonia Kelly celebrates reaching a century with her children, Aluine, Ciarán, Dhara, Morna and Aengus at her home in Cloona, Brackloon, Westport.
Author, entrepreneur and long-time Mayo News contributor Sonia Kelly celebrated her 100th birthday on Sunday. To mark the occasion, we are reprinting a 2008 interview (abridged) in which she recalled a life full of incident and adventure.
IT’S the stuff of fairytales. The little white-haired old lady lives way up a tree-lined winding avenue in an old stone house. The gardens are wild and replete with choruses of flowers. Cabals of cats roam the leafy recesses.
Inside the magic front door, there is an Aladdin’s cave chronicling a busy, exotic life.
Sonia Kelly was born in Ceylon at an indeterminate time over eight decades ago. We have just climbed the creaking stairs to her cluttered study-living room. It is lined with books, more books, paintings, drawings-in-progress, newspapers, scrapbooks, colourful bric-a-brac, handwoven throws. On a coffee table, made by her late husband Josie Kelly, lies a copy of her latest creation – the hilarious novel, ‘Doris: Ecstacy for the Elderly’.
But let’s go back to a time: long long ago.
“My father was Harry McMullin and he had a tea plantation. I know the McMullins had an estate in Sligo and that they originally came from northern Ireland. They were an army family. Then my mother was Eileen Holmes and she was from Roscommon. I believe both families, at some stage, had premises in Sligo town,” recalls Sonia.
Tragically both her parents suffered untimely deaths, leaving Sonia – aged 14 – and her only sibling, Michael orphans. “I was sent back from Ceylon to my grandmother in Cirencester [Gloucestershire] when I was just one and brought up by my nanny until I was age eight. My parents then came home from Ceylon and we moved to Connemara, because my father’s partner in the tea business was from Roundstone.”
It was around this time that Sonia’s father got cancer and she was sent – aged around eight – to boarding school in Kylemore Abbey. (“I certainly hated boarding school. I was an extremely shy child.”)
“Then my mother died. My grandmother died. Everyone seemed to be dead,” she says, with a characteristic drollness which disguises her innate sensitivity.
“After I left school I lived with my aunts for a while in Easkey and went working in a riding stable. From there I was conscripted into the army… the Auxiliary Territorial Army.”
Did she like it? “Oh! no how could one like the army? But I did learn to drive. I was maybe 17 or 18. So I deserted after a time.
“When I was in the army, I was a driver and I was assigned to a colonel in Wales. But he was so scared of my driving, he never went out. So I spent a lot of time reading in a garage. In the end, I was sacked. Well I just read everything and of course it helped that there happened to be a convenient book shop across the road.”
When she left, she joined Michael in Dublin and then moved to Mayo. “We stayed with Alec Wallace at the Oldhead Hotel and after meeting Captain Hazel of Islandmore, he introduced me to a fisherman, Josie Kelly.”
It was ‘maybe’ 1939 and Josie was set for a whirlwind romance, a honeymoon on the Aran islands and a packed life with Sonia.
“Michael and I lived on the island, where I met my husband-to-be … Then we got a house at Kiladangan [outside Westport]. He did fishing. I used to sell the fish. I was a fishwife basically.”
Five children followed – Aluine, Morna, Aengus, Ciaran and Dhara. Well, this was in between selling fish, driving a taxi and establishing a knitting and tweed business. Oh! and renovating the ruined Cloona mills in the hilly outskirts of Westport.
“Cloona was more or less a ruin back then. We used to walk by it and think ‘it’s a lovely house’, and could we buy it. Then, at some point my father’s tea estate was sold and I inherited some money. I think it only cost £1,600 – maybe that was in the ’50s.”
As Sonia drove a taxi ‘bringing people in and out to Mass and to the dances’, Joseph or Josie – ‘we called him J’ – repaired Cloona single-handedly.
“He was a fantastic carpenter, he made this table. (She’s pointing at her cluttered coffee table.) So I also sold furniture in Dublin he made and we also had a shop in town.”
Meanwhile, Sonia and J’s honeymoon to the Aran Islands inspired another innovative enterprise: traditional crioses.
“We started making the crioses in the long room in Cloona. We had various local girls employed. I think it was about 18 girls. We sold them in all sorts of places, in Clifden and in Dublin. Then we got wider looms and electric looms and made all sorts of things, jerseys, hats. The hats were quite famous and were exported to America. For some reason they were known as Living Dolls and were featured in glossy magazines.”
She recalls how when Jackie Kennedy came to Ireland in the early 1960s, she was presented with ‘one of our jumpers’ and there was ‘a front page photograph of her in one of the newspapers wearing the jumper’.
For over 20 years, Sonia Kelly was a feature writer and columnist with The Mayo News. “Each week I would do something on Leenane or Ballinrobe, just the general history and then it morphed into the column, which was called Musings.” She was also published in Modern Woman, Ireland’s Eye, Ireland’s Own, the Farmers Journal and elsewhere.
Sonia established the iconic Cloona Health Retreat in 1969. When her son Dhara and his late-wife Emer Gaffney eventually took it over in the early 1990s, Sonia retired to the Coach House.
Although ‘retire’ isn’t a concept that is applicable to the sprightly octogenarian. There are too many books to write, too many paintings to finish, too many dinner parties to cook for, too many games of scrabble to win.
Oh! and way too many cats to feed.
“You know, I never asked for the cats. They just turned up. They just happened. Then these people came over from England and spayed all the cats in Mayo. We wouldn’t just go over to Surrey and spay all their cats.”
Apparently, they missed a few. Sonia Kelly has 20 cats and three kittens. But they have to vie for her attention. As you may have gathered, Sonia Kelly’s a busy woman.
The entire interview, ‘Octogenarian Odyssey’, is available here.