Book review: The Ballroom Cafe

High court reporter Ann O’Loughlin sees us at our most distressed moments and is particularly passionate about the plight of children put up for forced adoption, a thread in her first novel. She explains all to Sue Leonard.

Book review: The Ballroom Cafe

Ann O’Loughlin

Black and White Publishing, €11.28; ebook, €0.69

‘Journalism informs my fiction writing’

HIGH court reporter Ann O’Loughlin is passionate about justice and she’s particularly exercised about the knotty issue of the forced adoptions of the past.

“About 2,000 Irish children were sent to America; that’s a conservative estimate,” she says, her distress evident.

“A lot went to unsuitable families, some who had been turned down for adoption within America. One girl went to a family in Ohio, where there was already a child. When she was 18 her parents said, ‘we’re finished with you now. We only wanted you so our daughter could have a playmate.’ They threw her out!”

It bothers Ann that whilst the Magdalene women have now received an apology and compensation, those whose babies were taken away have been largely ignored.

“These were young women who needed help and they were thrown out by their families. Their children were kept in orphanages and they were allowed to care for them until they were two or maybe three.

“It’s only now that these elderly women are prepared to say, ‘this happened to me.’ Some didn’t consent to adoption, let alone their children going to America. I remember hearing one woman on Joe Duffy who had never told her story before. When she told of how her child had been taken from her, her pain was raw.”

A court reporter for most of her journalistic career, Ann adores her job. But there have been times when she’s felt frustrated at not being able to delve into a story.

“I’ve interviewed women who have lost their children, but I’m always working to deadline. All the time they are talking I’m thinking of my first paragraph, my second and my third.

“This happens in the whole area of news,” she says.

“You might be sitting with someone who has just lost a loved one. You want to stay with them, but you have to apologise and leave, to get the story out. You don’t get the opportunity to delve into the background.”

And when, in 2008, Ann left the Irish Independent after 12 years to spend more time with her two, then young, children, she decided to try her hand at fiction writing.

“I sat down and tried all different kinds of writing,” she says. “I started a crime novel, but that didn’t work. I kept writing until I had found my voice.”

Four years later, she had completed The Ballroom Cafe, a sumptuous novel set in a crumbling mansion in County Wicklow, which has two sisters at its heart. Ella and Roberta haven’t spoken for decades, communicating, instead, through terse notes.

But when their bank manager threatens to turn them out, Ella decides to open a cafe in the ballroom. And that’s when Debbie, a young American searching for her birth mother comes into their lives.

It’s a great read, with feisty characters, and a realistic look at a rural community. And the author weaves nostalgia with the painful issues of the past quite beautifully. Secrets gradually emerge, and the book ends with a sense of redemption.

In 2012, when, the novel finished, and an agent secured, Anne joined the Irish Examiner, she decided to keep on with the fiction writing. She’s now 20,000 words short of her second novel. But as a mother of an 18-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter, how does she find the time?

“I get up at 5am, and write until seven when I call the kids for school,” she says.

“I get 1,000 words done. I take the main line train in from Kilcoole, and go through the writing and edit it. I get to the courts at around 10am.

“The job is very busy,” she says.

“And very interesting. I work on a lot of medical negligence cases. They can be very hard, with children horrifically injured at birth. I’m not sure if people find justice; they find a form of justice, but it’s very hard for families to sit there wait for their cases to come up, then to be heard, and maybe not understand if the case is thrown out.

“I cover commercial cases as well. There are 23 High Courts, and it’s the one area where newspapers cooperate. The four of us — the others journalists are from the Irish

Times, the Irish Independent, and an Agency, share out the courts and exchange stories. You could write up 10 stories on a busy day. I rarely get home before 7pm or 8pm.” The skill of shorthand, Ann says, is vital for her job.

She’s grateful for her training at Rathmines School of Journalism, back when it was the only such course in the country.

“It was a big leap at the time,” says Ann. “My sisters went into nursing and teaching.” From college, it was off to the Irish Press as a freelancer.

“You would go in every morning and sit in front of the news desk waiting to be sent off somewhere. If you made a mistake, they would never use you again. It was a terrific grounding in journalism — the best ever.

"It’s a terrible pity that the Irish Press has gone!” Ann had joined the Irish Independent well before the demise of the Irish Press, working as the crime correspondent. She covered the O’Grady kidnap in 1987, working night and day.

Afterwards, she decided to take some leave and travel by rail from London to Hong Kong, passing through a lot of Eastern Europe. And that’s when she met her husband, John.

“He was on the same trip,” she says.

“We met in Moscow and by the time we reached Siberia we had decided to get married. We decided in four days, literally, and we’re coming up to our 25th wedding anniversary.” With a shared love of travel, the couple spent a year in India, back in 1993, first in Delhi, then in Bangalore.

“I worked for the Indian Express; it was strange and fascinating. Their technology was better than ours, but their news sense was like ours was back in the 1950s. In Bangalore, we went to the police commissioner’s office to be briefed.”

Then it was back to the Independent working as senior news reporter, then, after a stint with the Moriarty Tribunal, 12 years as a High Court Reporter.

Ann adores fiction writing. She’s finding the whole process new and utterly exciting. She loves the way her characters talk in her head, and become so real.

“I saw a woman in Greystones who looks exactly like Roberta,” she says. “She had the same handbag even — then I realised, with a jolt, that Roberta isn’t real.” For all that, she’s not ready to jack in the day job.

“I would miss my journalism,” she says. “And I think it informs my fiction writing.

You hear people as you go through your day, and often they’re talking about their pain or suffering. It teaches you empathy and if I lost that immediacy, I think my writing would suffer.

“My fiction will always include an important issue. I don’t sit down and say, ‘I will write about issues,’ but they seem to grab hold of me. I was never a fluffy journalist.

I have to write about something that I’m passionate about. And I am passionate about those children, and the mothers who have been carrying this huge burden.

“The Government Department for Foreign Affairs supplied passports to the children; the least they could say is, ‘sorry’. But they won’t. It’s like the nuns to the Magdalene women. They’ll sit in a convent with them and use the word transparency.

“Everyone wants to be transparent; they’ll do anything except say that they are sorry.”

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