Friday 18 April 2014

Our leading literary lights are honoured

Uplifting awards night celebrated the power of the word, writes Literary Editor Madeleine Keane

PERFECT MATCH: Stunning model Ruth Griffin and our very own diarist of the year, if not the century, Barry Egan

'He's just bliss," enthused a radiant Sinead Cusack, "I am a fan forever." The actress, still translucently beautiful in her sixties, was rhapsodising about one of our finest novelists, John Banville, to whom she presented the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award.

The occasion was the eighth annual Bord Gais Energy Awards 2013, which took place on Tuesday evening at the Double Tree by Hilton Hotel.

In its new incarnation, the Burlo (as it will always probably be known) looked very swish and the red carpet ramped up the glamour notch several inches as did the stellar guest list of authors, actresses, academics and artists. Among those attending the black tie ceremony were Sinead O'Connor (her father Sean was shortlisted for an award), Mary Mitchell O'Connor TD, historian Ronan Fanning, Eamon Dunphy, Rhona Teehan, Joe Duffy, Tim Pat Coogan, Niall MacMonagle, Catherine Fulvio and Ross Lewis of Chapter One.

We dined on Burren goats' cheese, chicken supreme and vanilla pannacotta, before RTE presenters Keelin Shanley and John Murray opened proceedings with the latter's Listeners' Choice Award, won by wise and wonderful Michael Harding for his moving memoir Staring At Lakes, which also took the Non-Fiction title of the year. With characteristic grace, Harding noted that it was "a huge privilege to be among so many great writers".

"People think it's easy to write a children's book – you just transcribe Lord of the Rings and get a new name for Gandalf," quipped Eoin Colfer, author of the wildly successful Artemis Fowl series and tasked with presenting the laurels at the younger end of the spectrum.

As they had done a few years previously, this brace of winners made us weep, then swept away the tears with humour. Benji Bennett won the Junior Children's Book for When You were Born – his series was inspired by the death of his little boy Adam and understandably, he was overwhelmed with emotion. But madcap Derek Landy, winning senior in this genre for his skeleton detective Skulduggery Pleasant, made the audience cry with laughter.

It took great personal discipline, but I desisted this year from taking to the podium to remind the Irish book industry that we (that is, my late editor Aengus Fanning and I along with bookseller Derek Hughes) conceived, founded and established these awards over a decade ago. Instead I focused on how the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year Award is such a lucky one, sweeping onto short and long lists of internationally prestigious literary prizes among them the Man Booker, before handing the sapphire glassware to Niamh Boyce for her widely praised The Herbalist.

The familiar features of former President Bill Clinton flashed up on the big screens as he reminded us how at the end of August, "we lost a great spirit, a truly extraordinary man" while writer Andrew O'Hagan noted that "we were all lucky to have lived in the same time and the same place as Seamus Heaney". This exquisitely pitched, poignant tribute to our late, much loved laureate closed with another Hibernian literary legend, Edna O'Brien who spoke simply about "the heart bursting open".

Sports writer David Walsh was a deserving winner for Seven Deadly Sins My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, the prolific and versatile Fintan O'Toole picked up best Irish-published laurel for A History of Ireland in 100 Objects and Paul Howard (aka Ross O'Carroll Kelly) walked away with the Popular Fiction award for Downturn Abbey.

Our own Brendan O'Connor did a typically bold turn – "it may look staid and sensible but we've been drinking for five hours, some of us for seven," he said as he presented Darina Allen with the prize for Cookbook of the Year.

State Pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy gave the crime gong to Louise Philips, Roddy Doyle won Novel of the Year for The Guts and a new award sponsored by went to Billy O'Callaghan for his collection of short stories.

The last words were left to John Banville who was his usual beguiling self, wondering if he was really old enough to be winning such a prize, musing "how can this be, I'm only 43?" before dedicating it to "my family and loved ones".

It as an uplifting end to what is always a life-enhancing evening, when our community of writers, publishers and editors celebrate the joy, beauty and power of the word.

Sunday Independent

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