Ann O’Loughlin digs deep into the sins of Ireland’s past for her novels’ source material. She tells Colette Sheridan that her job as a legal reporter means she sees injustice every day.
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OPENING an old leather suit case that belonged to the mother she never knew, “Emma flushed with surprise to see the neatly packed contents: a silk nightgown rolled so it did not crease, a soft brush and comb, a small bottle of perfume help upright between powder-blue silk slippers and a small vanity bag for make-up.”
There are beautiful clothes there too including ruched linen skirts with tiny pleats and a white blouse with a lace insert.
Designed by Sybil Connolly in the 1950s (whose most famous client was Jacqueline Kennedy), the couture is an important detail in journalist and author, Ann O’Loughlin’s second novel which gives an insight in to Ireland’s history of incarcerating ostracised members of society in asylums or institutions.
Emma is clearing out the contents of her estranged father’s house in Parnell Square in Dublin in 1984.
Her father was a judge, a cold man who dedicated himself to the law.
When his neglected and lonely wife, Grace, gave birth following an affair with an Indian doctor, the judge and a conniving aunt, sent her to an asylum.
The doctor, Vikram, was told that Grace died in childbirth. Heartbroken, he returned to India. Grace was told her baby had died.
The case and its contents, which had been locked away in the fictional Our Lady’s Asylum, Knockavanagh in Co Wicklow, is Emma’s only link to her mother.
She finds a note among the items, written by Grace to Vikram in 1954.
Grace writes that she is going to be sent away to recuperate but doesn’t know where.
“Please don’t give up on me. Please make contact, please find me,” are her poignant words.
But Vikram never received the letter that Grace put together from her note.
Through Grace’s diaries, Emma uncovers a mystery about her mother that she had never suspected.
Meanwhile, Vikram is planning a visit to Ireland with his beloved niece, Rosa, who knows all about her uncle’s long lost love. Vikram wants to visit Grace’s grave.
A legal affairs journalist with the Irish Examiner, O’Loughlin’s debut novel, The Ballroom Café, was the first work of fiction to come out of Ireland that focused on the forced illegal adoption of young children in Irish orphanages to the US.
Its eBook sales were in excess of a staggering 230,000 copies.
Now, O’Loughlin wants to shine a light on psychiatric ‘care’ in Ireland in less enlightened times.
By 1966, Ireland was incarcerating a higher proportion of its people in mental hospitals than anywhere else in the world.
Many were not mentally ill but were locked up for what O’Loughlin believes were familial, social and political reasons.
“The asylums were very important to the towns they were in,” says O’Loughlin.
“They gave employment and they were used to solve problems, problems for families and society. We have acknowledged what happened in the Magdalene laundries and we’ve acknowledged sexual abuse in institutions.
"Really, it is time someone stood up and said that people were wronged in the asylums which were State institutions. A lot of people were put in them by their families. I call these people ‘the unclaimed.’
“They lost the best years of their lives. My character, Grace, was only about 20 when she was left to languish in an asylum. It must have been awful.
"The thing is that these people became institutionalised and even when they were discharged back into the community, they didn’t really know how to live their lives.”
It was, says O’Loughlin, common practice for the belongings of those committed to asylums to be taken from them and thrown into the attics of the buildings.
The author was keen to include the Sybil Connolly clothes as they suggests Grace’ elegance and beauty before she was forced to put on a regulation flannelette night dress when she was signed into the asylum.
“When you’re writing about an asylum, you need something else to bring the story alive. I wanted to show all of Grace, what kind of woman she was before she went to the asylum.
"She had a life. We can often forget that people in institutions had lives beforehand.”
In her day job, O’Loughlin sees all human life.
“I’m in the High Court covering a lot of medical negligence cases. You see families suffering a lot because of injustices. I’m interested in ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”
The day job sometimes informs O’Loughlin’s fictional work.
Originally from Barefield in Co Clare, O’Loughlin has been working as a journalist since 1982. She studied journalism at Rathmines College.
“I feel I got diverted very nicely into journalism. I always wanted to be a writer and had been published in New Irish Writing in the Irish Press.
"My family wanted me to be a teacher but I wanted to do something in relation to writing.
"That’s how I ended up in journalism. I love it and have done for all these years. I’ve always written short stories and now that my children have got older, I have more time to go back to the fiction writing.
“I get up at 5am and do two hours. Then everyone gets up and I go off to work.
"The train to work (from Co Wicklow) takes about an hour and I sometimes edit my writing during that time. I like the discipline of getting up early.”
But O’Loughlin isn’t sure if she’d like to be a full time novelist.
“It’s a very lonely thing. When I get up early in the morning, the dog doesn’t even welcome me.
"I just sit there and wrestle, word by word, paragraph by paragraph and page by page. I like doing it in those time blocks.”
A fan of William Trevor and Jennifer Johnston, O’Loughlin is a resourceful writer who taps into her own experiences to give her work colour.
Some of The Judge’s Wife is set in India where O’Loughlin and her husband lived for a year in 1993/4.
“I was working for Independent newspapers and went out to India to cover President Mary Robinson’s visit there. I stayed there for a year’s sabbatical.
"I worked for the Indian Express newspaper, first of all in Delhi. I liked the look of Bangalore in south India so we moved there.
"I think if we had stayed in Delhi, we’d have become very much part of the embassy set. You could be a social butterfly there if you wanted to be.
“In Bangalore, we made Indian friends and had a really authentic experience of living in that city.
"Newspaper-wise, it was extraordinary. The reporters were like reporters back in Ireland in the 1950s when they used to go to Garda headquarters to be briefed.
"In Bangalore, you had to go to the police HQ for briefings. But in India at the time, newspapers were way ahead of us with regard to technology.”
O’Loughlin has no plans to give up her day job. She has already written a sizeable chunk of her next novel but won’t say what it’s about, adding that not even her publishers are privy to that information.
To date, she has written about an unforgiving society, particularly regarding unmarried mothers.
“Society has thankfully changed. Women are now trying to have it all.
"I don’t feel like that — but I’m glad if it looks like that,” says this versatile writer.
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