Recalling a life full of incident and adventure is a doddle for the engaging and effervescent Sonia Kelly
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.
“I don’t like going on about my age; ageing is an embarrassment.”
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’.
This writer, having recently reviewed the anarchic paean to the vigour and adventure of old-age, has assumed that the heroine, Doris, is based somewhat on the author.
“Not at all,” I’m told categorically. Apparently, Doris is a mere figment of Sonia Kelly’s fertile and creative imagination.
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. Michael now lives ‘around the corner’ in the village of Brackloon.
“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 and the nanny had kept me away from people. She was a Catholic from Dublin. But Kylemore was very good for me. It taught me deportment, elocution and French. People aren’t taught how to speak properly nowadays.”
Sonia spent two years at the internationally renowned north Connemara school before moving back to England due to her father’s illness.
“Then my mother died. My grandmother died. Everyone seemed to be dead. My aunts then became my guardians,” 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. So I was in the ATS, that’s the Auxiliary Territorial Army.”
I ask did she like the army.
“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. Actually, I had been coming to Dublin a good bit, because Michael [brother] was living there. He was colour-blind and rejected for the army. He actually then joined the Finnish volunteers to save it from Russia and was interned in Sweden.”
Fortunately, Sonia had moved to Ireland just before all leave was stopped.
Ironically though it was while in the army that her great love of reading and the seeds of her writing career were germinated.
“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.”
However, deserting did not exactly go down very well with her extended family.
“This was really serious and my family all disowned me, they were all army. Of course, I was hopeless I had never got a stripe.”
After Sonia joined Michael in Dublin, she quickly got sick of the city and decided to get as far away from it as possible.
“So we got the train to Westport. 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. That was another reason for my family to reject me. Then we got a house at Kiladangan. He did fishing. I used to sell the fish. I was a fishwife basically.”
Five children followed – Aluine, Mona, Aengus, Ciaran and Dara. 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 suburbs 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. You know where the hairdresser, William Thomas is now.”
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 1960’s, 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.
“I think it all started off with perhaps biographical or historical stuff. 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.
“I seem to remember writing features for the Irish Press too. On one occasion I went to Hungary and there were two instalments on that. I also wrote for something called Modern Woman and then Ireland’s Eye, Ireland’s Own, the Farmer’s Journal and I wrote for the Divine Word,”
“So were you religious?” I ask.
“No. Absolutely not,” she replies, categorically. “I’m an atheist, but I wrote for them. What the heck!”
At this point, our absorbing and fascinating odyssey through Sonia Kelly’s life is divetted momentarily by the arrival of the photographer. Like me, he had got lost in the wooded maze that surrounds Sonia’s converted Coach House in the grounds of Cloona.
Below, in the main house, it’s business as usual in the iconic health centre. Earlier, while finding my bearings, I had spied tranquil participants in reflective poses.
“It was after the time of the revolution in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama wanted to set up an independent Buddhist retreat here. The Chief Tibetan monk in Ireland used to be cycling around here in his orange robes but then the Irish government refused to allow the Tibetan refugees to come. So I thought I’d invent my own philosophy and establish the health centre”
Sonia’s son Dara, and his late-wife Emer Gaffney took over the operation in the early 1990’s and 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.