BIG READ: The 'French filly' who survived the Nazis and then thrived in Carlow

The 'Queen of Nurney' tells her story

Darren Hassett

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Darren Hassett

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news@carlowlive.ie

Darren Hassett knew that his neighbour Stella Doran, known as the ‘Queen of Nurney’, had an interesting story — but hearing her tell it left him spellbound

It’s not every day I meet the Queen of Nurney,” I say to Stella Doran, as I take my leave from her home in the small Carlow village. We have spent three hours talking about her extraordinary life and the time had flown.

“Come ’ere and I’ll give you a kiss,” she smiles, as I tried to tell her how taken I am with her story – and with this remarkable woman herself.

It’s not just her elegance, or her eloquence in regaling me with the tale of how a Frenchwoman who fled occupied France during World War II ended up living in a farmhouse in Nurney. There’s something else, but it won’t come to me.

Then her daughter, Suzanne Roe, who has sat with us throughout on a dark November evening, comes up with the exact word I’d been reaching for: “Resilience.”

Stella and I are neighbours. Around these parts, they call her “the French filly”. But I’d only ever seen her once before, at a friend’s 30th birthday in the local pub.

Snapshots of her life story came to me through that same friend, Jennifer Roe, who also happens to be her granddaughter.

I heard morsels of how a six-year-old Stella was smuggled in a vehicle from France to England wearing a bulletproof vest and accompanied by her brother, Frank, who was 18 months older.

I was told about her grandfather, Joseph Ford Tomalin, who rose to the top of Vacuum Oil, now Exxon Mobil.

In 1934, he was given a medal for his involvement in the Spirit of Louis, the first solo non-stop transatlantic flight from Long Island, New York to Paris in 1927.

And, of course, there’s her 61-year marriage to the love of her life, Tom Doran. They met at a dance in Carlow Town back in the 1950s.

Pictured above: Sixty-one years later, the happy couple have three children and five grandchildren 

I learned that Tom is an uncle of the peerless Kilkenny-born horse trainer, Willie Mullins. Tom’s sister Maureen is Willie’s mother and Stella is one of his biggest admirers.

After that  birthday party, I couldn’t stop thinking about Stella and I wanted to know more about her life. Eventually I asked Jennifer if Stella might talk to me. Happily, she agreed – and the story that unfolded gripped me from start to finish.

She was born Stella Scholefield  on Valentine’s Day, 1938. Her family had a country house in Vaucresson, a Parisian suburb, and an apartment in central Paris.

Her father, Stanley, was a 6ft 4in Yorkshireman who became well known as a Stade Français cricketer, but his wealth derived from his business as a cloth merchant. As a child Stella was told that her father dressed the King of Spain.

Her mother, Lillian or “Mimi” as she was known, stood  5ft 3in. She didn’t work while they were in France but Stella describes her as a “lady” — a socialite in modern parlance.

Pictured above: Stanley Scholefield, Stella's father, and her mother, Lillian 'Mimi' Tomalin

Mimi dabbled in portrait painting (see the gallery above for samples of her work) and would tell her children about the time she played with a young Prince Rainier III of Monaco.

“My father died of tuberculosis when I was one,” Stella says. “He went up to the mountains to get cured. He was up there for six months, I’d say, but he wouldn't stay up there because he had his business to run.

“He came back down and he didn’t last. Mother never talked about him that much — you could never get anything out of her.”
Mimi’s  parents  were  Joseph Ford Tomalin and Lucy (nee Morston).

“They lived in 115 Avenue Du Roule and we lived 10 minutes away in 10 Rue Bertaux Dumas,” Stella says.

She tells affectionate anecdotes about her early years and leaves no doubt that, for her, family means everything.

She has no recollection of life in Vaucresson, but memories of Paris in the war years have never left her. “To us children, it was great fun. These planes coming — and we'd run out to the balcony and look to see where they were going to fall.

“They could fall on top of us, but we didn't realise. The people that lived in that block of apartments where we lived were all told to go down to the bottom of the building [when the alarms sounded].

“We were on the third floor. Mother said that if the plane hit we’d all be buried so she refused to move.”

Pictured above: Stella Doran and brother, Frank Scholefield, on her wedding day in 1958

She remembers walking in central Paris and seeing blood coming out of a small structure on the street. She recalls her nanny, Yvonne, telling her: “Come on, away from there.”

Joseph was held in a German detainment camp near the border, on the French side. He was kept there for four years. Stella herself also spent time in a camp, along with her mother and brother.

“To be quite honest, I don't remember it. Frank says I was too young. We were there for two years. I don’t know why we were put in there, but mother was involved in the Resistance to a certain extent and maybe they knew about her. I know one of her friends was tortured and killed. After we were let out,  we used to go visit my grandfather every now and again. We'd queue up for bread at 5am and bring it to him. It was a big treat for us.

“Lucy was my granny. We called her Mouki; my grandfather nicknamed her that. I must take after her because she was always talking about cows.

“Opposite where Mouki used to live, there was a courthouse, I'd say there were 20 steps up to it — it was a very impressive building.

“One day I was staying with her for some reason; I was probably going to see my grandfather. She closed the shutters and told me to stay away from the windows.

“Next thing we heard a terrible noise going on. Through the slits I could see all these German officers going up the steps to the courthouse. Then they came out and I watched them shooting all the people inside. They were rolling down the steps. I always remembered that.”

In 1944, when Stella was six, she was smuggled out of France in the middle of the night, along with Mimi and Frank. Her memories of leaving are movingly sharp and there is also a sense of regret over what she left behind – or rather, who.

“We were in a very smart part of Paris — I never knew it until I went back with Suzanne. Yvonne was always with us. I used to say she was a nanny, but she did housework and everything.   She didn't want to come with us, she didn't want to leave. I was sad because she loved me and she was really nice.

“She would put my clothes out this chair. And I remember this little jacket, which I called a bolero. She hung it on the chair and I said, ‘When can I wear that? I want to wear that!’

She said: ‘You’ll wear that the night you’re leaving. So I waited and I waited. She came in one night when I was fast asleep and woke me up. She said, ‘Get up, get up, you're going.’

“So she dressed me and I put on my bolero. I don’t really remember the journey. I remember being in a car, going to the boat.”

Suzanne believes her mother’s claustrophobia came from being smuggled out of her own country in a small compartment with very little air.  When they landed in England, the three of them travelled to London and stayed in what remained of the bombed Morton Hotel.

“The night we arrived, the whole side of my bedroom wasn't there. I wouldn’t have liked my children to be in a room with no wall.”

Their next stop was Yorkshire – her father's homeplace. They were welcomed by his wider family and stayed near them. “We had no where else to go, you see, and we stayed in Pudsey for a while with relatives. They were lovely people. After a while, mother managed to get this magnificent house in Harrogate and we were there for a good long time.”

Once the war was over, “mother decided to send me over to school in Paris. I’d say probably it was the worst time in my life. I was 11 when I travelled from Harrogate to London. The night before I left for Paris, I stayed by myself at the Morton Hotel, where we had been years before.

“I thought I was so grown up! I had a little bit of lipstick on me and I thought I was the bee’s knees.”
Stella was in school at Boissy-Saint-Léger until she was 18 and remembers herself as a “useless” pupil.

“My mother sent Granpa Tomalin to call into the school. My grandfather remembered going there and he said, ‘There was Stella - running around and chasing a fella.’

“The last year I was there, because I knew I was leaving, I was a pupil of the year. I learned everything by heart. I thought that maybe I was going to be sent to the Sorbonne university, but they decided no, I wasn’t worth it.

“I went home and got myself a job at the Imperial Nursing Home.  They took me on as a junior. I helped to make beds and things. I was there about a year and half and the matron booked me into Great Ormond Street in London.”

Pictured above: Stella's grandparents, Joseph Ford Tomalin and his wife Lucy ('Mouki') flanked by Stella's grandparents on the Scholefield side

There, Stella would begin her training to become a nurse. She would also meet her lifelong friend, Greta Ryan, from Castledermot, who would play a huge part in the rest of her life.

“I was quite a good nurse, apparently. But we were always being bold — myself and Greta. There'd be five of us going out together and they’d bring me out dancing. I’d never been to a dance before but Greta always took care of me.”

As the friendship grew, she accompanied Greta on what was meant to be a short visit to Castledermot.  “We came on the boat. The sky was as blue and the sea was green. I looked at it and I said it was like a picture postcard. I’d never seen anything so pretty.

“I loved the Ryans. They'd give you anything they had — they were that type of people, they were so kind. Of course there were no foreigners at the time. I went out to the street and they came out of the shops to have a look. I always remember turning around and smiling at them.

 “I loved it straightaway. I fell in love with the Irish in England too, when I was nursing. They were so nice and fun,  not like the English, who were so stiff.

“I was about 20 at the time.  The day we were supposed to go back, Greta said she didn't want to go. I said I didn’t either. Greta’s mother came up then and said, ‘Why don't you stay then? Ye can stay with me.’ Just like that — and we stayed.  

“I was very busy being bold. I had such good fun and everybody was so kind. I was invited to so many parties. People would say, ‘Did you see the French filly?’ That’s what they called me. I’m still known as that, apparently.”

One fateful night, she and Greta went to The Ritz in Carlow Town. It would change her life. “I went to a dance and it was an ‘excuse me’ dance. You're dancing with a fella and another fella comes over and says ‘excuse me’. That fella has to go and the other fella takes you over.

“I was dancing away with Billy Moore, a friend of Tom’s. He said, ‘Tom, look what I've got.’ And Tom looked across and said, ‘Oh yeah.’

“I went off with some other fella, dancing. The next thing, Tom arrived and said, ‘Excuse me …’ I was furious because I was having fun with the fella I was with — he was a good dancer.

“The only thing about Tom was he had a car — and we needed a lift home. So we decided that, for handiness sake, he could bring us home. It wasn’t that far to go.

“So he brought us home. I actually got very fond of him when I was talking to him in the car. He was very nice. I left my bracelet in the car, deliberately. So he had to come and bring it back to me.

“We used to go all over the place, we were like mad hatters. The boys would race each other to Courtown. We’d go to the pictures in Carlow and then we’d say, ‘Meet ya in Courtown for the dance.’ It was great fun.”

Stella and Tom ended up doing a strong line. The story goes that when she was travelling back to England by boat to see her family, a besotted Tom shouted: “Stella, if you come back, I'll marry you.”

“I was only going for a week,” she smiles now.

The French filly became a Catholic to marry Tom and in 1958 the couple tied the knot at Brompton Oratory in London. “After I got married, I came to Nurney. There was a whole pile of men in the kitchen, working, and I was supposed to be feeding them. That’s how it went on — it was silage workers and all that.”

“Most women would have run,” Suzanne says.

So was living in a farmhouse in Nurney a bit of a culture shock?

“Yes, because there was no water in that house when I arrived, no toilets ... but it was a beautiful house.

“I used to have to go up to the road, up to the cross, turn left and collect the water. Half of it would be gone by the time I got back down to the house. I loved all the people around me, they were all fun. I was my own woman and I wasn’t afraid of anybody. Then I had the children and I love them and  that’s all I wanted really, in the long run.”

She and Tom have three children. Tony, their eldest, is 60, Suzanne is a year younger and John is 54. They’ve also been blessed with five grandchildren – Sylvia, Hazel, Geoffrey, Jennifer and Conor.

“I loved all the people in Ireland.  Life wasn't easy, we hadn't much either and it was kind of tough going for us all. We got on with each other, we supported one another. Suzanne was marvellous, a great support — and still is. We stuck together and got through everything.”

Around eight years ago, mother and daughter went to Paris, along with Suzanne’s best friend, the late Patricia Murphy. Stella hadn’t been in Paris since leaving school at Boissy-Saint-Léger. They walked in the direction of where Stella had grown up, until Suzanne saw her mother pointing up at a building, with tears forming in her eyes.

“That's my apartment,” she said.

To celebrate their 61st wedding anniversary, which falls this month, Stella plans to get “Daddy” — as she calls Tom — to bring her to a restaurant to eat lobster.

“All you want is lobster,” says Suzanne. The French filly may have been smuggled out of Paris, but France will always be a part of her.

After more than six decades  in Nurney and with her family raised, would she mind being called a Carlow woman now? “I don’t mind being a Carlow woman, but I love my French roots,” she says.

She also has fond feelings for her neighbouring county and the charms of Kilkenny city were also not lost on her late mother, Mimi.  

Stella has precious memories of a visit to the Marble City during Mimi’s last sojourn to Ireland before her passing.  Her brother Frank and his family also came over

“It was their last time together as a family,” her Suzanne says. “I remember that as we walked through the streets, they were fascinated by the history of Kilkenny. They were saying how lucky we were to live so close.”

Stella found herself in University Hospital Waterford at one stage and a nurse from Tinryland called her the “Queen of Nurney”.

It was a compliment that typifies how the village and the surrounding area regards her. Stella and Tom continue to live in Nurney, next to the farmhouse where they spent most of their married lives.

Tony looks after the farm these days and lives in “the big house”, as Stella calls it.

She and I are more than neighbours now; we’re good friends.  And it’s not everyone who can say they live close to a queen.

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