Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Debut Spotlight: Ann O'Loughlin

This morning it is my pleasure to introduce you to Irish journalist Ann O'Loughlin as part of the blog tour for her debut novel The Ballroom Cafe which is out now as an eBook and is being published in paperback format tomorrow.

A leading journalist in Ireland, Ann worked for over twenty  years with Independent Newspapers, Dublin, Ireland with the Irish Independent and Evening Herald covering every news story under the sun, including crime.

Probably the most exciting time was when she worked and lived in India. 

She always loved writing and in her school days wanted to be a writer. She got diverted in to many happy years in journalism. She now works with the Irish Examiner newspaper, a great newspaper with the old traditional values of accuracy and integrity coupled with top class reporting in a modern age.

The Ballroom Cafe is her first novel. She lives by the sea in Ireland with her husband and two children.

Find Ann on or Twitter @aolwriter

Sisters Ella and Roberta O'Callaghan haven't spoken for decades, torn apart by a dark family secret from their past. They both still live in the family's crumbling Irish mansion, communicating only through the terse and bitter notes they leave for each other in the hallway. But when their way of life is suddenly threatened by bankruptcy, Ella tries to save their home by opening a café in the ballroom – much to Roberta's disgust.

As the café begin to thrive, the sisters are drawn into a new battle when Debbie, an American woman searching for her birth mother, starts working at the Ballroom Café. Debbie has little time left but as she sets out to discover who she really is and what happened to her mother, she is met by silence and lies at the local convent. Determined to discover the truth, she begins to uncover an adoption scandal that will rock both the community and the warring sisters.

When I was growing up in the West of Ireland I often heard my father say “there is a bit of silence in that house.”

Sometimes he referred to the two elderly sisters who had not spoken a word to each other in decades. Rumour had it there had been a big falling out and not a single word had passed between them since.

My mother was convinced they must have been laughing up their sleeves at everybody having a right natter behind the net curtains, where nobody could spy them.

I am not so sure; I liked to think they kept up their impossible silence even through the long winter nights and the summer evenings with glorious sunsets. That thought never left me and I often wondered could I actually write one day about two women who would not exchange one word with each other. How did the silence begin and how was it kept alive were the key questions to be answered.

And so it came to be that when I sat down to write The Ballroom Café, that the two sisters who had stayed in the depths of my imagination for so long came to life. In The Ballroom Café, sisters Ella and Roberta O’Callaghan have not spoken in decades. They only communicate through notes, short sharp, caustic notes slapped down on the hall table. There had to be a mountain of pain behind that decision to enforce a silence between them. When Ella, desperate to stop the bank repossessing their home sets up a café in the old upstairs ballroom, Roberta is furious and the sisters’ relationship is brought sharply in to focus once again. The two sisters carrying on a silent war was a huge inspiration for The Ballroom Café and a very big challenge in writing terms.

The other main inspiration for the book was the stories told of unmarried Irish mothers who lost their babies to forced illegal adoptions to the US. It is only in recent years the mothers, now elderly women have felt able to talk of the burden of shame, pain and loss they have carried inside themselves for years. At the other side of the Atlantic Ocean grown men and women have come forward identified themselves as the “mail order kids” and told stories of far from idyllic childhoods in the US.

What struck me most was the dignity of these mothers who were now looking for answers and how with that same dignity they had lived their lives despite the weight of shame placed on their shoulders by the Catholic Church and society and despite the burden of pain in their hearts. So with these key threads started The Ballroom Café, a place where you can drop by for much more, tea scrumptious cakes whipped up by Ella, gossip courtesy of Muriel Hearty and a lot of humour.  Best to put your feet up, have a cuppa ready on the side and dive in to the story that is The Ballroom Café.


Reaching into the silver jewellery box, she took out the green brooch. Shaped like a pansy flower but coloured inky black-green, her mother grumbled loudly it should have been purple, yellow or even all black. Bernie O’Callaghan wore it once with her dark coat, but it was never accorded another outing.

‘I Like a flower to look like a flower,’ she said, clicking her teeth in annoyance that her husband should have wasted his money on something she could not like. 

Ella loved the Weiss pansy, the green stones glistening and the darker crystals shimmering, outlining perfectly the curved petals of the flower. The centre was black, except for one green crystal shaped like a teardrop.

John  O’Callaghan, when he entered into correspondence with the Weiss jewellers of New York Ciry, also thought the idea of a pansy in varying green hues was both beautiful and different. Mr O’Callaghan ordered two brooches a year, from Weiss, New York. The family-run jewellers were happy to post the small parcel care of Rathsorney post office, so that Bernie O’Callaghan never fully realised the lengths to which her husband would go to show her he loved her. 

In all the years, Ella only wore the brooch once. Intent on keeping it for a special occasion, she lost her moment. The time came when the only significant event in her life was the funeral of her husband. Just before his coffin was taken from the house, she pinned the brooch to the wide collar of her black swing coat. Those who saw Ella that day said she never looked so pale, stylish, heartbroken or so alone.

Even after her parents died, there was a delivery from New York, as if the love of John O’Callaghan for his wife was indestructible. Elle still kept those brooches in the same small cardboard box they arrived in.

Muriel Hearty had run up the avenue, her forehead furrowed; she was stuttering her words. ‘I got it in yesterday and I saw Mr O’Callaghan going down the street. Next thing I was distracted; I should have called out to him. I will never forgive myself.’

Opening up the brown paper and separating the two folds of the lid to reveal the two brooches carefully wrapped in white tissue paper, Ella took out the topaz and orange rhinestone brooch. It would have perfectly matched her mother’s new burnt-orange coat, the one she had bought in Gorey and was saving for her birthday. The brooch, with a circle of smoky topaz and dull yellow stones was highlighted with deep orange rhinestones, which radiated, like shafts of sunlight, from a central topaz. Held to the light, the orange stones sparkled.

It was the other brooch that Ella adored: a simple square of clear stones that, when trapped in the light, threw out the colours of the rainbow. It would have sat so perfectly on the floaty dress her mother had fashioned for the night of the choral recital.

She had felt and anger rise in her, that Muriel Hearty had not stopped her infernal gossiping and run after her father. 

Ella had dispatched a postal order for the amount of the brooches and also wrote to Mr Weiss as to the tragic accident, which meant no further pins would be ordered by the O’Callaghans of Roscarbury Hall.

A month later, Muriel Hearty has rushed up the driveway of Roscarbury, again in an agitated state of excitement. ‘It is another box,’ she shouted.

Even Muriel Hearty had been silenced when Ella ripped it open to reveal not one but two exquisite black brooches.The letter of sympathy attached was graceful and dignified. Ella took out the second brown box and looked at the two brooches. At the tine, Roberta declined to accept her one, and though Ella never wore hers these days, in the first year after the death of her parents, she found comfort in the pin, which was a simple black flower.

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