Debut novelist making mark – at age of 88

Joanne Elliott has lived a fascinating life, from her youth in New York to diplomatic life in Japan and Belfast, and three years spent in Hong Kong, And since the early 1970s, Inishbofin has been a constant after she and her future husband Eric first visited together in 1971, when she cut a dash on a dark January day. JUDY MURPHY learns more.

The first time Joanne Elliott first set foot on Inishbofin island in early 1971, she did so wearing a white leather trousers suit.

New York-born Joanne, now 88, laughs at the memory. She was young and glamourous and her most recent island experience prior to her Bofin trip had been to the fashionable Capri in Italy, where a white leather trouser suit would have raised no eyebrows.

But it wasn’t Bofin apparel, especially in the middle of winter. However, Joanne herself did fit in.

She was visiting with the man who, shortly afterwards would become her husband, while Bofin became their home from home.

Born in New York into a Jewish family with roots in Russia, Ukraine, Latvia and Germany, Joanne knew nothing about Ireland, except for “Yeats and Lady Gregory” when her first husband, Michael Sternberg, was posted to Belfast as US Vice Consul from 1967-69. They moved there with their children, Peter and Robert, and Joanne, a gregarious woman, loved it.

The duties of entertaining dignitaries normally fell to the consul general’s wife, but she was shy and uncomfortable in the role, so that job fell to Joanne. It was just before the Troubles erupted, which meant that lots of US politicians and journalists were visiting and she relished it. She was also invited to different events, including a garden party at Buckingham Palace. No wonder she says it was “a good life”.

Her marriage, however, wasn’t so good and Joanne divorced her husband, moving back to America with her boys and completing her Master’s degree at the University of Maryland.

However, she’d become so fond of Belfast, she decided to return with the boys, but her circumstances second time around were vastly different. Belfast was conservative and she was a single mother. It was tough.

Photo: Joanne Elliott. Photo: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

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