A book launch is mostly an enjoyable event, similar in many ways to the birth of a new life. Hot from the press, a book, like the fresh faced new arrival, is examined with a forensic eye. Followed by a sigh of relief when all is as it should be. In my case with good reason too! Years ago, I went to a launch as a contributor with three poems included in the publication (which shall be nameless). I opened the book, barely able to contain myself. One of my poems, however, ended rather abruptly, the reason being that the last four lines had been omitted. Note to poets: if the work goes over to a second page (as my poem did), then make sure that the transition is clearly signalled. As the editor (who also shall be nameless) was not to be messed with, I very wisely kept my mouth shut, convincing myself for the duration of the launch that the poem actually read better (it didn’t).
However, I’m delighted to say that there was no need for a contingency editorial revision when I picked up my contributor’s copy of The Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction 2005-2015. The third in the series, this latest offering, looked contemporary and elegant for its debut at The Oak Room at The Mansion House on April 1st last . A plain black cover complements pale gold ink for text. When I say plain black, I should add that there is a sprinkling of colour on the cover, arranged like a starry constellation, a colour very similar to the amber glow of cognac. Rightly so, as Hennessy Cognac have sponsored The Hennessy Literary Awards since 1971 (the longest running literary sponsorship in Ireland or the UK)
Ciaran Carty and Dermot Bolger co-edited the publication. Carty, in his introduction, gives an overview of how the New Irish Writing Page came about in 1968. Back then, the portal to literary opportunity was courtesy of The Irish Press and David Marcus. When The Irish Press, due to difficulties, was forced to go tabloid in 1988, the page was dropped. Meanwhile Carty had initiated a monthly slot in The Sunday Independent (where he was working as a film critic and features editor), similar to the New Irish Writing Page. The page attracted writers such as Dermot Bolger, Philip Casey and a young barrister called Mary McAleese. Bolger, besides his faithful association with the page, is also of one Ireland’s best known writers (his twelfth novel is forthcoming this April).
The New Irish Writing Page found a new home when Vincent Browne invited Carty to edit a slot in The Sunday Tribune for new writing, with David Marcus initially involved as a consultant. The page has been running ever since despite the closure of The Sunday Tribune, a move to The Irish Independent and now this year, to The Irish Times. Carty’s introduction also honours the fact that April, 2015 marks the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the day when Richard Hennessy, in common with other ‘Wild Geese,’ left Cork to join with the army of King Louis XV of France, before eventually settling in the town of Cognac on the river Charente. The rest is history… in terms of literature..and brandy!
The first winner of the overall New Irish Writer of the Year was Joseph 0’Connor with ‘The Last of the Mohicans.’ Since then, a glittering array of writers, achieving national and international acclaim, followed. Writers which include luminaries such as Hugo Hamilton, Mary O’Donnell, Colum McCann, Eoin McNamee, Deirdre Madden, Geraldine Mills, Claire Keegan. Not all of the stories in the current anthology are winners of the award. Carty makes the point that the twenty-five story selection is a personal one, chosen from the 120 published in the past decade. These 120, in turn, were culled from several thousand stories submitted. It’s a fair approach to selection and makes the resulting anthology more varied.
Looking at stories from their stand alone perspective, when they each appear in The New Irish Writing Page, is a different proposition from determining how that same story might ‘fit’ in a body of work. Making ‘the cut’ in any anthology brings in other considerations than just the quality of the work. Stories of similar themes, structure, have to be weighed against each other. Carty sums up his selection process by saying that the stories ‘reflect a spirit of openness and the power of literature to speak to a culture without borders, a society without divisions.’
As a three time nominee for the Awards (Poetry 2004, First fiction 2005, eventually winning the Emerging Fiction category in 2010), I feel very honoured to be among peer practitioners of the art of the short story form. As such, it’s not my place to review but to revisit the pleasure of stories published over the last ten years and ‘housed’ together for the first time. No matter where these stories are set (whether in Ireland or more exotic locations), the writers, for the most part, have lain down where ‘all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.’ I am especially pleased to see one or two inclusions from writers who didn’t win the award but whose stories are personal favourites. It’s also gratifying to see writers who didn’t receive a Hennessy Award go on to achieve success proving that hard graft and discipline will always win out. Not all of the winners (to date) have gone on to publish full length novels or collections. Nevertheless, being included in The New Irish Writing Page is still a tremendous springboard for those who wish to. The writers included in this third anthology are Niamh Boyce, Sara Baume, Alan Jude Moore, Jennifer Farrell, Thomas Martin, John Murphy, Michael 0’Higgins, Colm Keegan, Selina Guinness, Kevin Power, John 0’Donnell, Oona Frawley, Kevin Doyle, Andrew Fox, Pat 0’Connor, Máire T. Robinson, Monica Corish, Carmel McMahon, Brendan McLoughlin, Sean Kenny, Chris Connolly, Elizabeth Brennan, Sean Coffee and yours truly.
(c) Eileen Casey
The Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction 2005-2015 is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here.