A slice of cake with opera

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - BONDINGS -

Au­drey Whe­lan and her singer grand­daugh­ter Karla Tracey work at her Vic­to­rian-themed tea rooms, writes An­drea Smith

KARLA Tracey’s mum Norma mar­ried at 19 as did her grand­mother Au­drey, and while she’s that age her­self now and has been dat­ing boyfriend Gary for three years, the pretty young so­prano in­sists that there’s no way she in­tends to make it a hat-trick.

Grow­ing up with such young par­ents and grand­par­ents was bril­liant, she says, even though some of her friends’ par­ents were ac­tu­ally at school with Au­drey, who was only 39 when she was born. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Karla. “I had a won­der­ful up­bring­ing.”

Au­drey and Karla say that they’re “two brats” when they get to­gether and are al­ways mess­ing around. They sus­pect they prob­a­bly drive poor Norma mad as they “carry on a bit when we’re to­gether”. “Mam is the most prac­ti­cal per­son and she grounds us both,” says Karla. “She kind of has a sen­si­ble ex­te­rior, but she is such a laugh when she gets go­ing. My dad Paul is hi­lar­i­ous and so gen­er­ous, and both of my par­ents are very hard-work­ing. My brother Joshua (14), sis­ter Ruby (nine) and I are so lucky to have them as par­ents.”

Ark­low has played a huge role in the fam­ily’s story, as Au­drey (now 59) grew up on the Main Street and now runs her Vic­to­rian tea rooms there. She came third in a fam­ily of six girls and three boys. Her dad, Paddy O’con­nell, was a farmer and her mum Ann had a hair­dress­ing sa­lon. The ex­tended O’con­nell fam­ily were great busi­ness peo­ple, with all sorts of in­ter­ests on Main Street, in­clud­ing bak­eries, shops and an un­der­tak­ers.

Af­ter school, Au­drey also worked at hair­dress­ing, and mar­ried farm labourer Nor­man Whe­lan. They have two chil­dren, Daniel and Norma, who are in their late 30s. “All I wanted was to get mar­ried and be­come a mother,” says Au­drey, who is also grand­mother to Daniel and his wife April’s chil­dren, Max (five) and Robyn (three).

When Karla came along, Au­drey was “be­sot­ted” with her el­dest grand- daugh­ter, whose mu­si­cal prow­ess was ev­i­dent from an early age. “My own mother was a great singer, but we were all crows,” she laughs. “Karla was a real lit­tle lady and you could bring her any­where. I al­ways en­cour­aged her to sing, which I think gave her con­fi­dence from an early age.”

Karla says Au­drey also taught her to be en­tre­pre­neur­ial, so she or­gan­ised a Christ­mas CD as a tran­si­tion year mini-pro­ject at school, St Mary’s in Ark­low. Mind you, she was mor­ti­fied when Au­drey got her a slot singing at the lo­cal Tesco to pro­mote the CD. “All the boys from the CBS came down and I thought I was go­ing to die,” she laughs. “Granny kept push­ing me out to sing and I was with­er­ing. She doesn’t care what peo­ple think — in a good way — and she taught me that it doesn’t mat­ter what other peo­ple think of you as long as you’re happy.”

Karla at­tended In­no­va­tions The­atre School from the age of six and went to mu­si­cal the­atre and clas­si­cal singing lessons with Denise Bren­nan at seven. She did all her grade ex­ams and had lots of lovely roles in shows. At 17 she be­gan train­ing in opera with Mairead Buicke in Dublin. She is now do­ing a BA in Mu­sic Per­for­mance at the Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic and Art at DIT.

Karla knows that by pur­su­ing a ca­reer in opera, she will end up trav­el­ling and prob­a­bly liv­ing abroad, but she’s up for the chal­lenge. “I know that Mam and Granny don’t re­ally want me to go, but as much as I love home, the world is so big and I want to see it,” she says. “Ah, I do want her to go be­cause she has to fly,” says Au­drey, who is in­or­di­nately proud of her tal­ented grand­daugh­ter.

Karla has just landed the lead so­prano role in DIT’S forth­com­ing pro­duc­tion of L’heure es­pag­nole, and also works part-time in Au­drey’s busi­ness, Vic­to­rian Tea Times.

The con­cept came about be­cause Au­drey loves food and cook­ing and pre­vi­ously ran a cafe. She is also a huge fan of Down­ton Abbey, and was en­chanted at the scenes of af­ter­noon tea be­ing served in the draw­ing room. “It looked so el­e­gant,” she says.

Mind you, Karla and Norma ini­tially thought she had taken a “no­tion” when she de­clared her in­ten­tion of open­ing the tea rooms. Hus­band Nor­man was very much in­volved in dec­o­rat­ing the place, which opened in March 2018, and has pe­riod fur­ni­ture, em­bossed wall­pa­pered walls, plush vel­vet couches and or­nate can­de­labra.

Guests pre-book for af­ter­noon tea and re­ceive a truly im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, com­bin­ing fab­u­lous food with flounc­ing Vic­to­rian en­sem­bles. They’re at­tended to by staff in pe­riod cos­tume — and in­deed can dress up them­selves if they wish as there is a wide range of cos­tumes to choose from — and the gor­geous af­ter­noon tea is served on crisp linen table­cloths with silver tea pots, fine hand-painted china and bone-han­dled but­ter knives. It’s per­fect for spe­cial oc­ca­sions; fam­ily gath­er­ings, birth­day par­ties, al­ter­na­tive hen par­ties, team bond­ings days or just for a lovely ex­pe­ri­ence.

“We have such fun work­ing to­gether, and ev­ery­one who comes in al­ways has such a lovely time,” says Karla, adding that she and her granny are very close and work­ing to­gether is a re­ally spe­cial ex­pe­ri­ence.


Au­drey Whe­lan and grand­daugh­ter Karla Tracey. Photo: Damien Eagers

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