Last night 21st February, Professor Frank McGuinness was awarded the Irish PEN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. It was a truly remarkable evening, with great writers celebrating a great writer. In a touching and emotional speech, twice Booker nominated Sebastian Barry presented him with the award:
PEN Lifetime Achievement Award 2014
By Sebastian Barry
Now let me speak of the loveliest man I know.
Most fierce in his work, most gentle in his life.
This is a Lifetime Achievement Award and it is a lifetime since we first met. 1981. I was toiling up the stairs to the offices of Wolfhound Press in Dublin, wondering what awaited me at the top. There was an editor going to talk to me about two short novels, two very short and very un-commercial novels, that Wolfhound was nevertheless going to publish. I was 26 so I suppose Frank must have been about 28.
In truth, he seemed timeless, authoritative, sure of his words, incisive, kindly, fierce again when I looked like I was about to utter something vague.
The best editor, who wasn’t an editor, I ever had.
He wasn’t an editor as such, because I knew his first play, Factory Girls, had been that well-nigh unreachable thing, a success in the theatre. He hadn’t quite grown into his full Shakespearian self. He was only partially on his way to being that happy union of a slim Falstaff and a rigorous Richard II. He seemed somewhat crouched for flight in those narrow offices. He didn’t seem entirely right where he was, he was just too constrained in the task of having to talk to a young man foolish enough to have written those famished stories. But, but, he made me feel I had somehow done a great thing by writing them. He was so serious three kettles boiled in the back of my head. I was delighted, manumitted, and given my mariner’s ticket, just by the conspiratiorial seriousness of his response.
A lifetime. When you creep, creak up to sixty, you begin to grasp just what that is. A goodly portion of your time on earth, certainly, but also you have gained in yourself a secret catalogue of the remarkable people you have met in your life.
Of all the people, the writers and artists, the actors, the singers, I have been fortunate to encounter, Frank has always abided in me as the fullest example of the gifted man. The stuff of his life burning in him not to cinders and ashes, but to plays, poems, and fiction. The lives of those close to him, the deaths of those close to him, being returned to the cabinet of time not as useless or spent things, but valuables glowing in their gold selves.
Look at the audiences not long after I first met him, in 1983, coming out of his play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Matching Towards the Somme. Frank standing there at the bottom of the stairs in the Peacock, with that extraordinary look in his face, his angel’s smile and his wolf’s grimace signalling in the same instant. The arms going round everyone he knew, as if he half-regretted what he had done to us in the theatre with his ferocious and perfect play, and yet, would be glad to send us back down that beetling cliff, to be rescued again and again by his Learlike self, we, all those falling Gloucesters, blind and friendless.
All the plays… Dolly West’s Kitchen, in which, when the mother Rima dies, the audience feels it like an actual bereavement… Ralph Fiennes given the great grappling hook of an immaculate translation to scale the dark cliff of Oedipus the King… Niall Buggy rising also, though claimed by the grasping morass of family life, in The Hanging Gardens… Years before, my own mother, buffeted and buffeting in The Bird Sanctuary… Carthaginians, The Bread Man, There Came a Gypsy Riding – truly a lifetime’s work, and how wise and right and gracious that Irish PEN has taken such signal note of it.
Plays steeped in a forensic grace. No play of Frank’s really offers the solace of a redemptive gesture, he refuses it, he disdains it and does without – and yet this constitutes the best medicine in them, if fire can be said to be a medicine.
Frank’s seriousness. Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, McGuinness. A bright succession, a wonderful succession.
Frank’s lifetime. How truly it constitutes an admirable, exemplary biography. If all art is trying to find out how a soul may live, perhaps even without any hope of doing so, then Frank has done that mighty thing. You might also think of the great painters, Caravaggio with his dangerous biography, but also, the self portraits of Rembrandt, though they are not portraits really, but novelizations of the self as time sears away at it.
That’s how I think of Frank, the perfect example in my lifetime of the artist and of the man.
To bring everything to a lucid place of truth is perhaps the highest art, because in the pan of truth – sister to absurdity — the last few golden grains of worth are found. Because there is almost nothing, there is everything. Because there is exigency, there is abundance.
Frank’s work. No solacing exit, but nevertheless, the embrace.
To close, to close lovingly. Frank at our dinner table in Wicklow. Since he does not do anything as mundane as drive a car, precise logistical arrangements must be made to get him and Philip from Booterstown to Tinahely. Then they arrive, and even the old house breathes differently. We sit at table, my three children still small.
‘Are you Santa?’ they ask.
Then fiercely, gently, terrifyingly, Frank says:
‘I’m not Santa, I’m Santa’s Little Helper!’
Beloved Frank, thank you for these decades of perfected genius. You are honoured tonight because you are a man steeped irrevocably in honour, the best kind of honour, that accrues to a person who has lived fully, rightly, and written till his human heart was fit to burst, breaking our own hearts betimes but also, in the course of things — yes, I know , you will say, Frank, not so, not so — redeeming us, redeeming us.”
(c) Sebastian Barry
Photographs copyright Ger Holland Photography to see all the pictures from the night visit Writing.ie on Facebook