CLARE-born journalist, Ann O’Loughlin has seen her debut novel, The Ballroom Café, go to number four on the Amazon Kindle bestseller list, even before its official launch in the UK and Ireland last Thursday.
The Ballroom Café is set at the height of the recession in Ireland in a crumbling mansion, where two elderly sisters, Ella and Roberta O’Callaghan, live alone with their secrets, memories and mutual hatred.
Long estranged by a dark family tragedy, they communicate only by terse notes. But when the sisters are threatened with bankruptcy, Ella defies Roberta’s wishes and takes matters into her own hands, converting the mansion’s old ballroom into a café. Much to Roberta’s displeasure, the café is a hit and the sisters are reluctantly drawn back into village life.
But Ella finds herself reliving painful memories, when Debbie, an American woman searching for her birth mother, begins working at the café. The sisters find themselves caught up in an adoption scandal that dates back to the 1960s and spreads all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Only by overcoming their enmity and facing up to the past can they face the future together – but can they finally put their differences behind them?
The novel’s publication surrounds the official Government-led inquiry into the mistreatment of unmarried mothers and their children in institutional care.
Author, Ann is from Ballymaley, Barefield, and as a Leaving Cert student in Coláiste Muire, she wrote a children’s corner in The Clare Champion and spent a further summer with the newspaper, while studying journalism.
“I was always interested in journalism and I just walked into the [Clare Champion] newsroom. I was gone so long my father was going to report me missing because he couldn’t find me in the town. They were very good to me. I did a children’s corner in for one or two years and then I went on to journalism college.
“When I came in again on placement, I went out with the journalists to courts and to West Clare. I really enjoyed it and learned so much and I had great fun,” Ann said.
“I always wanted to write and I went very happily into journalism. I started off in The Irish Press and then I got a start in the Irish Independent and I was there for 23 years. I’m with the Irish Examiner now in the High Court.
“My father, Patrick, was a great storyteller and my mother, Anne, was very interested in learning and in books. I remember coming home from Barefield National School and she’d be stirring the stew with one hand and holding a Dickens with the other. She was always reading; books were her big thing.
“I have two brothers and two sister and I’m the youngest; we all have the baking skills and the love of reading. We all brought that into our own lives and into the lives of our children.
“I’m going to stay in journalism because I believe it helps me with the writing. There’s a major issue in The Ballroom Café and the next book I’m writing has another major issue in it as well and I feel my journalism informs my writing.
“Sometimes they say you have to look at fiction to look at something that’s difficult to look at – that really is part of our shameful past, that whole illegal forced adoptions to the US.
“There’s a lot of pain out there and a lot of women now who are in their 70s and 80s and are carrying around this burden of pain and shame for decades. It’s time that that is acknowledged and it’s time that everybody said sorry to them.
“It’s a small word but very hard for a Government to say,” Ann said.
The Ballroom Café is published by Black and White Publishing, Scotland and is a Bord Gáis Energy Book of the Month for June on TV3’s IrelandAM.
By Ron Kirwan