I am very grateful for the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award. I was a bit overwhelmed when I heard that I was receiving it. I am so overwhelmed, indeed, that when I was down the country last week I met a fellow I was in school with - a fellow I have to admit that I never really liked - and I breathlessly and immodestly told him all about the award, adding how richly deserved it was, and how many famous writers had won the award previously.
I watched my friend getting tired of all this boasting. The expression on his face darkened. He moved closer to me as he inquired if I was really sure this award was a way to encourage me to write further. Since it was a Lifetime Achievement Award, he said, surely it might be a subtle way of suggesting that I give up writing books now while the going is good - move over and make space for others, and, not to put too fine a point on it, just retire?
I thought about this. I wondered if there would be riots in the street, a large public outcry, a statement from the Government, if I announced that there would be no more books, that I was going to devote my declining years to pure idleness.
What would retiring mean? Well, it would mean that there would be no more mournful novels about my childhood in Enniscorthy; there would be no more plays; no more pretending that I know something about Greek tragedy or the inner thoughts of the Virgin Mary or the intimate lives of young women in the 1950s. There would be no more interviews where I would make an eejit of myself and annoy the quarter of the Irish population - sensitive people all, who seem to dedicate their lives to the writing of crime novels.
As I thought about this, my friend, the one I met, grinned maliciously as he offered me one parting shot. Did I, he asked, remember the time the Christian Brother called me an imbecile?
I did indeed. The Brother in question was one of those types lured down from a remote hill by the smell of raw meat. He took enormous exception to me, and found my inability to distinguish between the modh coinniollach and the modh direach unacceptable. When I wrote 'Tá mé fear' and 'Tá mé Éireannach' - phrases that seemed perfectly reasonable to me - he went into a great rage and said that I was gan dabht not only an imbecile but the biggest imbecile in the whole world. Soon, no day went by without him calling me an imbecile.
At home, there was a lot of talk, but sometimes the talk would stop and there would be silence. While the other members of my family seemed at ease with this, I always became worried. What if the people who were silent never spoke again? What if they all had run out of things to say? We could all sit there in an eternal silence, I thought. I worried about this, and tried, when I could, to break the silence.
This caused trouble, as I often asked a stupid question, or made some vacuous remark. One day, when the silence was calling out to be broken, or so I felt, I asked the entire family what an imbecile was. It was explained gently and slowly to me that an imbecile was someone who was not especially clever, maybe a bit dim, not good in school and not skilled at understanding things as quickly as most others.
Then, to my consternation, I was asked why I needed to know what this particular word meant. I said that I had seen it somewhere. But where? I was asked. When I could not answer, I must have looked guilty. Then, as now, I am a bad liar. Slowly, they managed to drag out of me the news that this Christian Brother, the one lured down from the hills, had called me an imbecile, not once, but many times. Indeed, he often called me the biggest imbecile in the world.
My mother announced that she was going to go down town and get her hair done and then she intended to pounce on this Christian Brother by personally visiting the monastery and demanding that he cease and desist calling me, her son, an imbecile.
It took me a while to gather up the courage to say that, having listened carefully to the definition of an imbecile, I thought that I was one, and I am sure the Christian Brother would confirm this. Thus, I prevented an encounter between my mother and the Brother.
As my friend, the one who raised the subject of retiring and reminded me about the imbecile question, finally turned to depart he said we all had a lot to thank the Irish education system for. Look at how far we have all come, he said. Before he finally walked away, he gave me a look to imply that he was not sure that I did not have bits of that early imbecile still in me.
So, in accepting this award, I would like to thank my friend and the Brother lured down from the hills, as well as my agent, my publisher and everyone else who has assisted me in my arduous journey from imbecile - the biggest in the world - to the writer who has won this award, who, having contemplated retirement, has finally decided that maybe the world will tolerate one or two more books, or even three, if I work hard enough on them and dedicate my time to making them as good as I can.