Caherdavin councillor Olivia O’Sullivan has her cake and eats it too

Councillor Olivia O'Sullivan joined reporter Alan Jacques for a slice of cake and a chat about life, ambition, and politics. Photo: Alan Jacques.

I RECENTLY sat down with first-time councillor Olivia O’Sullivan for a well-deserved slice of cake as she finished up a successful year as Cathaoirleach of Limerick’s Metropolitan District.

Olivia, a Fine Gael representative for Limerick City North, has worn many different hats, and worn them well, in her working life to date.

The 47-year-old mother-of-two (Edon 9, and Ollie 6), is self-employed and specialises in marketing and communications. But as we sit in Dasco Deli on High Street waiting for our plate of guilt-free midweek decadence to arrive, she gives me a run down of her working life thus far.

“I have worn so many hats. I suppose my background was in media and marketing, but I was working since I was 16. I started my working life in hospitality and worked in loads of hotels, bars, nightclubs, restaurants. I haven’t just popped up last week. I’m working around Limerick for the last 30 years,” she tells me.

“I’ve had my hand in many pies. I’ve worked in things like AST Computers, which was after Wang and before Dell. When Websters Internet Café was opening – the first internet café outside of Dublin – I was working there, and in Aubars and the Newtown Pery, which I ended up managing.

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“Working in AST Computers, I discovered the creative side of computing. I was doing websites, and a lot of teaching for websites. At the time, no schools had internet access so we used to bring secondary school students in to learn about email.

“Then I was working with the Limerick Post, where I worked for three years in production, a brilliant three years. Then I worked in Trinity Rooms and I was the PR and marketing manager there.”

A fearless flair for creativity

It is clear that Olivia is a creative soul, and fearless with it, when it comes to putting herself out there and trying new things.

“I was always creative and never frightened to take on a new challenge. I always loved fashion. I always had some creative outlet. I wrote a fashion page for the Limerick Post and never missed an issue in 14 years,” the Caherdavin woman proudly reveals.

Back in 2005, Cllr O’Sullivan says she was feeling very burned out in her working life and took some personal time out to “hit reset”.

“I reset a lot of things in my life. I spent a year as an adult learner in Limerick College of Further Education in Mulgrave Street, studying art, craft, and design. I was a self-trained graphic designer and I could also write, so I was freelancing in terms of PR. I was working for myself so I went to Limerick College of Further Education just because I had moved back home with my parents and I just felt like I was burned out and needed to just reset a little bit.

“The staff at LCFE kind of set me on a track I didn’t plan to go on. There’s lovely staff up there, I’m mad about them. They got me to do my portfolio for Limerick School of Art and Design, and low and behold I ended up for the next four years doing my degree in Graphic Design.

“I suppose at that stage I had met my husband (Conor O’Brien), my boyfriend at the time, he was a graphic designer as well, and a musician, so he is quite a creative person. That gave me a chance to enjoy that part of myself. I was working while I was in college and had a mortgage and all that.”

A foodie with fervour 

To pluck another string in her bow, Olivia has also played an integral role in setting up Limerick Food Group and the Pigtown Festival in the city.

A foodie through and through, she tells me she is an “eater”, but you wouldn’t think that with her the slim figure.

“Food is one of the big loves of my life. Before the whole running for politics thing, I was getting ready to launch a food tourism business and I was quite far along with it. I was thinking I would pick it up again, but then there was Covid and, with the busyness of Cathaoirleach, I haven’t gone back to it.

“I have given private food tours, I just haven’t launched it as a public business where you can go online and book and all that.

Tea break: A quick stop for some tea tasting at Cahill’s on Wickham Street. Photo: Alan Jacques.

“I’m just really into the food and drinks scene and into all the lovely little interesting businesses. I advocate for them. I get contacted by food journalists if there’s anything happening in Limerick. I am in a position, even though I don’t wear my PR cap as such, I can do an awful lot of PR work. I still would know people and they would know I am around the food circles. It’s good to be able to spread good news, that’s what it is.”

Hugely passionate about Limerick, she admits to feeling protective about her beloved home patch and uses her PR background to always put a positive spin on things.

“I would always be very positive. I see things through that kind of a lens. I’d be very protective. I played rugby for a couple of years with Young Munster. It was brilliant. Myself and my husband, we were playing tag rugby as a social thing and we got pulled into training in Young Munster.

“I played with the women’s team for a couple of years and we won the All-Ireland Shield and I was PRO with the Women’s Committee, and ended up being club PRO for Young Munster, so I have a big volunteerism side of me.

“I would have been very protective at the time around the controversy about George Hook and comments he made about Limerick. I was on the Young Munster Twitter at that time, in that room in Dublin when he was making those comments. I used to live tweet matches at one stage, so I have done a lot of different things. I have worn lots of random hats,” she confesses.

With that, our cake arrives. It looks absolutely delicious and far too decadent for a man with high cholesterol. I suggest I probably should skip it, but I am assured there is nothing “unhealthy” in this traditional Filipino chiffon cake.

“This cake is far healthier than all other cakes because it is made of ube, which is yams, it’s like sweet potato,” Olivia explains.

I have a real sweet tooth on me, so it doesn’t take much convincing. You can see why Olivia brings food journalists on tours of the city’s best eateries. She knows her stuff and this light and fluffy cake is simply divine. To sour the taste ever so slightly though, I move the conversation onto politics.

Deep Caherdavin roots

I remind Cllr O’Sullivan of meeting her in the council chamber in City Hall not long before she put her name forward in the last local elections, and I tell her I was surprised to see her in such a stifling setting.

“I pretended I was waiting for someone because I was trying to figure out what happens at these meetings which I knew nothing of at the time,” she admits.

“There’s a Fine Gael branch in Caherdavin and they approached me. Some of my mother’s friends were on it and they were looking for someone to run because Cormac Hurley had stepped down.

“There had been no one on the Council from Caherdavin from 2014 to 2019. Sadly, if you don’t have someone from your area, you are forgotten about if there isn’t someone at the table making your case all the time. So they asked me about running and I said no,” she says laughing.

‘Did you?’ I ask in disbelief.

“I did of course. Michael Hourigan was living down the way, so I had him talking to me as well. But then I started to reconsider.

“I’m from Caherdavin. I grew up there. My parents were the first of their generation that moved in there. My husband is from Caherdavin, strangely enough, and I am raising young kids there. My parents are ageing there. My mother-in-law is living there. My sister-in-law is raising her family. My brother is raising his family. We are very invested in the community. All my family are there so I am already invested. So then I started to think, why not?

“And once I started thinking that, I started thinking why shouldn’t I do it? Maybe I don’t have to look like the typical councillor that you imagine. Maybe you can be different, maybe a woman can do it, and be younger.

“Actually, one thing I love in politics is how they describe me as young all the time. It’s great. It’s the only place they describe me as young. But you start to think, why not? I can do this.”

Four years into her first term as councillor, I am keen to know how she has found the experience so far.

”This year has been very enjoyable. I was a new councillor in 2019 and we were only six months in the job when Covid hit and it was not an enjoyable time. Now, it was not an enjoyable time for most people  in their jobs, but being a new councillor and thinking you were getting into a job where you are around people all the time, to be at home on your computer with meetings online all the time, a complaints line on the phone — people became very interested in their local areas when they could only stay within two to five kilometres.

“But I am in the job to help people so I didn’t mind that, but everyone was under so much pressure and feeling the anxiety of Covid. That would be pushed onto us as councillors then in what we were dealing with and none of the balance in the job was there.

“We were only in the door, and we had two years of that, and to be honest with you, at that time I thought I wouldn’t run again. I thought if this is the job, it isn’t a pleasant experience, but then we came out of Covid and we were around people again and more meetings, and I said okay, this is more like the job.

“You need the balance of being able to bring in people from community and acknowledge the work. You need the good stuff to be happening to be able to balance out some of the more negative stuff of the job.”

Olivia confesses that she had no ambition coming into her new role as a local representative. Taking the reins as Cathaoirleach of the Metropolitan District was not something she had even considered.

“For me, that’s a huge honour, one that I would never have imagined. It’s really proud for my parents now and all my family members, my aunts, I have loads of them out in Doon and Dromcollogher, and they see it and they know I have never been in that side of things, and they always tell me how proud they are.”

Was it a demanding year? I ask, as I savour the last morsels of my mouth-watering cake.

“Very demanding. There’s cathaoirleachs in all the districts, but in the Metro area in Limerick City we have 21 councillors, so there’s a huge amount of work. Behind the scenes there are briefings and workshops all the time. It’s just insane trying to fit them all in. There’s an awful lot behind the scenes that people don’t see at all.

“What’s happened for me in the last year is, I have done very little of my own work, as the Council has taken over. Being a councillor is not a full time role but it can become full time and is not remunerated as such.

“It is not a full time professional salary, it is seen as a part time thing that you do on top of something else but in a lot of cases, city councillors struggle with that. There’s a huge number of meetings in the city. I think the Metro area is so demanding. It’s full time. There’s no other way.”

Having her cake and eating it too: Olivia chats over traditional Filipino chiffon cake from Dasco Deli on High Street. Photo: Alan Jacques.

Olivia deems becoming Cathaoirleach, and getting elected in the first place, as her two high points of her fledgling political journey to date.

“When you peel it right back, getting elected means that many people put a number one on a piece of paper beside my name. I think it was 880 number ones — when you think about that, it’s huge. It is a really big deal that people put their faith in you like that, so getting elected is huge.

“Becoming Cathaoirleach was bigger than my ambition in the time I was running for election. But when you are in the door, we have these discussions as women councillors quite a bit. I think we haven’t had enough women in these roles. I was number eight in the Limerick City chair in over 800 years. I mean when you let the dust settle on that, it’s a really big deal.

“But do you know something, when I break it down in basic terms, it’s a really big deal to me, but to my daughter and my nieces it’s not a big deal at all. They’ve seen it. The whole ‘can’t see can’t be’, that’s a pretty motivating factor for me. Any girls that are in my life and live around me, it was completely normal that I was up on a poster and it’s completely normal that I am a councillor and completely normal that I am Cathaoirleach, and that’s the way it should be.

A toxic landscape in modern political life

Olivia says that it’s hard to motivate anyone into a life of politics, but especially women, describing the current landscape in the role as “unattractive”.

“I get invited into schools to talk to transition year students and all they see is the media picture of what politics is and that’s a real negative picture. The reality is, the statistics are there that negative headlines are what drives click bait, negative headlines are what is selling at the moment and negative headlines are what the media are putting out. It was always that way in print media but you are able to provide a balance in print media, you still have all the sport and all the positive stuff.

“It’s just gotten way worse now with social media. When it comes to the toxic comments, I have learned to park it. In the beginning, it was a culture shock. It is way worse than you could imagine when you get in at the beginning. You just can’t understand how people would speak like that. Now, not to my face, but I would never speak to anyone the way I see some people making comments. But you, unfortunately, quickly get used to that and you quickly get used to ignoring it. It’s not nice. It’s just part of the job until they are able to regulate social media because that’s where the majority of it is.

“These people don’t see any of the other work, but they only see what’s online or what’s in the news. A lot of them aren’t even people. A lot of them are bots so I just put a lot of it down to that kind of thing. So yeah, the next year should be interesting with a local election at the end of it.”

Before we take our leave and Olivia takes me around the city to show me some of her favourite haunts for coffee, craft beers, fine wines, and tasty eats. I ask if she will run again in next year’s local elections or has she more hats to try on.

“I am going to run again,” she unequivocally confirms.

“The role thankfully since we came out of Covid is a bit more normal again and we’re around more people again. I like meeting people and it is nice being able to help people.

“My mother is a nurse and it’s a vocation, but that caring role, I was never going to be that, but I do get this role and how rewarding it is to be helping people. It’s only in a small way sometimes, but it doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s just to be in someone’s corner and that can make a big difference to them.”

So as it luck would have it, it seems that, for Olivia at least, you can have your cake and eat it too.