War veteran who fought at the battle of Arnhem and in later life promoted ecumenism
Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30
Col William Harvey-Kelly, who died on July 11 at the age of 91, was the scion of a landed Westmeath family who played a small but significant part in one of the last great battles of World War II.
Born in London in 1924 he spent the first three years of his life in Quetta (now Pakistan), where his father Charles was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Army and his mother Sybil was a medical doctor. In 1927, when he was three, the family bought Clonhugh, an imposing Victorian mansion built by Lord Greville near Multyfarnham, Co Westmeath.
Harvey-Kelly grew up with ponies, fishing, shooting and hunting and went to school at the nearby Wilson's Hospital before being sent, at the age of 8, to Castle Park School in Dublin.
Harvey-Kelly was still a schoolboy at Wellington public school in England when the war broke out in 1939. But after completing his education and reading law at Oxford for a year, he joined the Irish Guards at the age of 19, in October 1943.
He later served as a platoon commander in the 3rd Battalion of the Irish Guards and took part, with the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards under Lieutenant Col Joe Vandeleur, in what was known as known as 'Operation Market Garden' in the weeks after D-Day. The action of the Irish Guards at Nijmegan in Holland, close to the Battle of Arnhem, was later commemorated in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far.
At a battle in Sourdeval his unit was cut off from the main army and came under heavy fire from a Panzer division 'lurking' in nearby woods. Lieutenant William Harvey-Kelly, as he was then, managed to bring his men back to safety while many of his friends were killed and he was the only officer left in the unit.
"This was a time of heavy fighting for the Irish Guards and Col William saw much frontline action and many of his guardsmen and fellow officers lost their lives" his funeral service in Killucan, Co Westmeath, was told by fellow Irish Guards man Ian Robertson.
In October 1944 he was wounded in the right shoulder and evacuated back to Britain but returned to his unit in Germany in 1945 for the final operations of the war. He was later awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Order of Leopold for his exploits in Belgium and Holland.
After the war, his father advised him to stay in the army rather than return to Oxford to pursue his studies. It was not a surprising choice, as his grand-uncle HD Harvey-Kelly of the Royal Irish Rifles was the first British Army pilot to land in France during World War I and was killed in an aerial battle in 1917. HD brother Charles Harvey-Kelly was Military Governor of Jerusalem the same year.
He later served with the Irish Guards in Palestine and Egypt. He married his wife Picia in 1956 and they had three children, Caroline, Francesca and Hugh.
During his army days, he was a keen polo player at Windsor, playing with Prince Philip and the youthful Prince Charles, among others.
He rose to the rank of regimental Colonel in the Irish Guards, retiring from British army in 1968. In 1972 he and the family returned to Westmeath to take over the running of Clonhugh and its farm from his father, who was now in his 80s.
As well as becoming Joint Master of the Westmeath Foxhounds, with his brother Denis, he was a keen fisherman on nearby Lough Owel where he kept a 'leaky' GP14 sailing boat. He was also a keen hunter and his daughter said that during the shooting season "no snipe could rest easy on the bogs around Clonhugh".
Col William Harvey-Kelly was also involved in the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin and worked closely with the Jesuit priest Father Michael Hurley promoting closer links between the Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterians churches, at a time when attending a church of a different faith was not as accepted as it is today.
Along with Frank Robinson he helped revive the Irish Guards Association in Dublin, for which he was awarded an MBE. He was particularly pleased with the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland, something he never believed would happen in his lifetime and he told reporters at the time that it was clear sign that the rift between the two states had been healed at last.
On the 50th anniversary of the ending of World War II he revisited the towns and villages liberated by the Irish Guards in 1944 and 1945 and met people who recalled the bloody battles around Arnhem at the time.
The Harvey-Kelly family sold Clonhugh in 1984 because of difficult farming conditions, "not to mention the leaky roof" and moved to the nearby village of Killucan, where he continued to pursue his interest in country sports, bridge and family gathering.
Col. William Harvey Kelly died at St Camillus nursing home on July 11. His coffin, draped in the regimental flag of the Irish Guards, arrived at Mount Jerome cemetery to the strains of The Minstrel Boy.