Sunday 4 December 2016

The Irish Book Awards 10th birthday - A decade well-spent celebrating books

The Irish Book Awards have their 10th birthday this month but their roots go back a long way, writes Madeleine Keane

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

WRITE STUFF: Madeleine Keane, left, pictured in 2009 with top Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, right, as she received the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award and renowned Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, centre, at the Irish Book Awards
WRITE STUFF: Madeleine Keane, left, pictured in 2009 with top Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, right, as she received the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award and renowned Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, centre, at the Irish Book Awards

Listening to Edna O'Brien on Tuesday night, in town to talk about her latest novel, I was transported back to one of the most moving moments of my professional life in recent years. The occasion was the Irish Book Awards 2009 and Edna, accepting the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award, declared, "to have Seamus Heaney say what he said and to have it said in this room is something that will stay with me until I kick the bucket".

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As ever, Edna hit on a central truth - this small island of ours has produced an astonishing array of fine writers who've won major global awards for their work - Nobels, Bookers, Oscars, Pulitzers, etc - and while these honours are humbling (to use that word so beloved of award winners), it's vital that we as a nation demonstrate how much we cherish our valiant, indefatigable band of scribes.

The awards in their present form celebrate their 10th birthday this month. But actually their genesis was sown over a quarter of a century ago. Chairing a literary event at the Mansion House last month, I asked author Louise O'Neill about her favourite writers and she mentioned John McGahern. On that same stage in 1990, I sat under Parnell's portrait, one of a panel of judges awarding the Hughes Novel of the Year to John McGahern for Amongst Women. Time moved on, and we were a year or so into a new millennium when Derek Hughes of the eponymous book chain and Aengus Fanning, late editor of this paper, conceived the Hughes & Hughes Novel of the Year Award. And in December 2002 over canapes and wine in Dublin Castle, few were surprised when master of ceremonies Gay Byrne announced the award's inaugural winner - John McGahern for his beautiful novel That They May Face the Rising Sun.

"Books need lovers" declared this unassuming, delightful man and we were off. It continued in this format with Colum McCann and Ronan Bennett both worthy winners.

But we were restless for more: in 2006, the awards were expanded with the addition of two more categories - children and non-fiction - and it became even more of an occasion with over 100 literary luminaries gathering for dinner at the Royal Irish Yacht Club, an apt locale as is turned out - John Banville won for The Sea, with Kate Thompson and Brian Dillon getting gongs for children and non-fiction respectively.

Thus the Irish Book Awards were born. On board came Alastair Giles, who put the British Book Awards on the map, and a 70-strong band of experts across the industry was formed to create the Irish Literary Academy. More genres including sports, popular fiction and the Lifetime Achievement Award were added - the latter given posthumously to John McGahern, accepted by his widow Madeline, at a wonderful evening in Trinity's Dining Hall.

The following year the baby was getting so big we had to move to the Mansion House. There early to greet our guest of honour, Bertie Ahern, fulfilling one of his final engagements as Taoiseach, I browsed the guest list and observing the big names attending - Harper Collins UK, Random Century, Pan Macmillan - I knew the awards were here to stay. And they've gotten bigger and better with every year. The gala dinner's move to the elegant RDS Library coincided with the awards being televised by RTE. Michael D Higgins, our freshly-minted Uachtarain at one of his first public engagements gave the Lifetime Achievement Award to Seamus Heaney, and another ex-president joined us by video link - Bill Clinton telling a rapt audience he loved the bard's work so much he called his dog Seamus.

More categories were added, online voting was introduced and the most significant moment of all was the happy marriage with Bord Gais Energy, who came on board as headline sponsors and without whom we couldn't have developed so much, so quickly. Genuinely interested in books, they have been the awards' staunchest supporters. The union even provided a home: the shortlists are now launched every autumn in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Of the many moments down the decade, some resonate in the memory. In 2008, the now late, but ever lovely Anita Notaro winning the public vote for Take A Look At Me Now, her fictional take on middle-class prostitution, telling us that so many candles had been lit for her that several churches in Dublin had probably gone on fire; and Anne Enright, receiving her laurel for The Gathering, declaring a win on home turf felt every bit as sweet as the Booker; Alice Taylor, who picked up a prize for The Parish in 2009 informing us with quiet dignity, "The Poor Clares said they couldn't email but they would pray for me instead."

That same evening Benji Bennett moved the audience to tears telling us how his prize-winning children's book Before You Sleep was inspired by the short life and death of his young son Adam. Paul Howard, who wins frequently, sometimes morphs into his alter ego Ross O'Carroll-Kelly, thanking Mom, Dad, the 'Rock and God. The inception of this paper's Newcomer of the Year Award in 2011 was also a great boost, won that year by Belinda McKeon and the next by Donal Ryan: his first literary prize, he's since gone on to be feted internationally.

So very happy 10th birthday Irish Book Awards. I look forward immensely to your teenage years, and beyond.

Sunday Independent

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