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Joseph O’Connor Receives The Irish PEN Award 2012

Writing.ie | News for Readers

By Jane Travers

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Members of the Irish writing and publishing community gathered in the Royal St. George Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire on Friday 10th February for the annual Irish PEN Award dinner. We were there not just for the rather excellent food, but also to join in congratulating Joseph O’Connor on receiving the 2012 Irish PEN Award for a lifetime contribution to Irish literature, sponsored this year by www.writing.ie. O’Connor was joined by his family and his proud agent Carole Blake as he listened to words of the highest praise for his work delivered by An Uachtarán (President of Ireland) Dr. Michael D. Higgins.

The Irish PEN committee were joined by Laura McVeigh, director of PEN International and Frank Geary of English PEN. As is traditional the room hosted an empty chair to represent the 888 writers around the world who, in 2011, were persecuted, hounded, harassed or imprisoned, simply because of what they write.

The atmosphere was buoyant as we heard Dr. Michael D Higgins speak of one of his greatest passions, the rich tradition of Irish literature. As he said of Joseph O’Connor, ‘He is an urban realist who… delves beautifully and imaginatively into a past that defines so much of our national character. He is a talented writer, and a truly courageous one.’ In turn, President Higgins had honorary membership of Irish PEN bestowed on him by Irish PEN (the full text of President Higgins’ speech is below)

Joseph O’Connor’s speech proved to anyone left in any doubt just what a fabulous writer he is:

“It’s a wonderful honour to win this award. But what every writer needs most is a way of detecting when his work is no good. My guide is the late Tommy Cooper, who used to tell a wonderful and wise joke: “I went up to the attic this morning and guess what I found. An old painting and a violin. Lord, I was excited. I took them to the antique dealer and do you know what he said? That’s a genuine Stradivarius and a genuine Picasso! Unfortunately, however, Stradivarius did the painting. And Picasso made the flipping violin.”

To be serious, I am deeply touched to win any award that was won in its time by some of my boyhood heroes in writing: John McGahern and William Trevor, Edna O’Brien and John B Keane. I owe them so very much, and I thank their great spirits. They were writers who understood that all writing is about the reader, and that empathy is at the heart of the story and the word. A writer makes the sheet music, but the reader sings the song. And so to be given this award by Irish PEN, an organisation that campaigns for writers all over the world, is to be reminded of the undying value at the heart of great literature.

We read to know we are not alone. To realise that another human being is real. That we are not doomed to live in the tomb of the self, to the grubbing of individualism, to the lies of materialism, that Ireland’s greatest asset is not the one referred to in the initials of ‘NAMA’ but our capacity to create and imagine.We’re gathered tonight in my childhood town of Dun Laoghaire, by the pier where myself and my sisters and brother spent so many summertime hours.  I was a teenager already in love with reading, full of wild hopes that I might one day write a book of my own. I’d look out at the ships and imagine the people on board. Where were they going? Who did they love?

Every writer knows that trying to write is trying to make a ship sail. You work hard on the planning and the building and the finishing. You freight your story with your hopes. You push it into the water. Some day, maybe, it will reach the harbour of another person. Tonight, thanks to Irish PEN, I feel one of my boyhood ships came home.I thank President Higgins for the warmth of his words and for his presence here this evening. I know that I am far from alone when I say that in a troubled time for so many of us, for our families and our loved ones, it has been a source of hope that we can elect as President of our republic a fellow citizen who inspires such genuine respect and affection, a fellow writer and a friend all his public life to those who were powerless, a President of whom we can be so proud.

My favourite Irish writer, the great John Synge, often walked that waterfront outside, his head full of fire and jet-streams of language. As a boy, I felt his ghost around me, among the gulls and the breezes, and the promises of Teddy’s ice-cream. I finish with my deepest gratitude, and with a line written by a man who loved him, William Yeats, which sums up everything I would want to say on the occasion of winning any award.

“Think where man’s glory begins and ends. And say my glory was I had such friends.”

O’Connor certainly had many friends in the packed room. Guests were seated at tables named after previous Irish PEN Award winners and included many luminaries of Irish literature including Declan Kiberd and his wife Beth, Dermot Bolger (top left talking to Sarah Webb and Martina Devlin) and several members of Aosdana. Writers, from poets Mary O’Donnell and Anne Le Marquand Hartigan (a previous Irish PEN Chair) to fiction writers Marita Conlon McKenna and Clare Dowling, and author Brian Keenan, were joined by Ciaran Carty, whose New Irish Writing competition, then with The Sunday Tribune, gave Joseph O’Connor his first break. Present too were Jane Alger, Director of Dublin UNESCO City of Literature and Sinead Mac Aodha, Director of Ireland Literature exchange.

Writing.ie’s Vanessa O’Loughlin, PEN committee member who organised the dinner with Kay Boland (MC for the night), had decided that I was going to be rowdy and had duly placed me on the Friel table, at the back and near the door. Despite Vanessa’s admonishments, authors Ruth Long, Denise Deegan, Siobhan McKenna, (pictured left in blue with Denise Deegan left and Literary Edtior of the Sunday Independent, Madeleine Keane, right) crime writer Niamh O’Connor and our table mates were on our best behaviour. I’m pretty sure I heard some hilarity coming from Sarah Webb’s table though.

Once dinner was over the members and friends of Irish PEN adjourned to the Royal St. George’s elegant Formal Bar where we did one of the things writers do best; we talked. Incessantly. (You thought I was going to say ‘drank’, didn’t you? Well, there might have been some of that too…) With great regret I had to bail at 1am, but I’m sure the conversation continued long after I’d left. I’m already looking forward to next year’s Irish PEN dinner, and next time I think I’ll get a hotel room in the area. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the Irish writing scene.

Full text of President of Ireland, Dr. Michael D Higgins’ speech at the Irish PEN Award dinner 2012

I am absolutely delighted to be here tonight at the Irish PEN award for literature, and I would like to thank Joe Armstrong, the Chair of Irish PEN, for his kind invitation to join you all here this evening.

The work of the writer we honour this evening is replete with themes and issues that go to the heart of personal dignity and human decency. The symbolic empty chair reminds us all that many writers around the world still struggle for the freedom to address those issues and pay a high personal price for their commitment to truth and free speech. As we enjoy our evening, and happily celebrate the achievements of the writer we are honouring, we also remember all our fellow writers for whom PEN continues to hold a torch of concern and solidarity.

Cé gur tír bheag í Éire bhíomar ar thús cadhnaíochta sna réimsí ealaíon agus cultúir i gcónaí. Chuireamar go mór le domhan na litríochta ach go háirithe agus bronnadh Duais Nobel na Litríochta ar scríbhneoirí Éireannacha ceithre huaire.

Many, many more Irish writers have featured, and continue to feature, on prestigious shortlists for literary awards around the world. Tonight, I am truly delighted to be joining you to honour one of those great Irish diplomats of literature, renowned abroad and loved at home as one of our greatest and most popular contemporary writers.

I have always been struck by Joseph O’Connor’s tale of how, in one evening of what he described as ‘dismal hopelessness’, he found himself copying, word for word the text of John McGahern’s short story ‘Sierra Leone’ simply to ease the ache of feeling unable to create a piece of work and put it down on paper. It is a feeling that all born writers will instantly recognise and Joseph O’Connor is truly a born writer.

Since those early days of yearning frustration he has, of course, gone from strength to strength, his brilliant novels winning awards, accolades and praise around the world.

He is a brilliant writer and an accessible one. He is an urban realist who also delves beautifully and imaginatively into a past that defines so much of our national character. He is a talented writer, and a truly courageous one, a writer who takes risks, who tries new things, who is determined to constantly stretch and challenge himself, who never ever takes his great and unique gift for granted.

With the publication of “Star of the Sea” in 2004 Joe both impressed and amazed the literary world. It is generally regarded as the novel that brought Joe to the admiring attention of a very wide and international readership. Described as ‘a missing link in the Irish literary tradition’ this novel reminds us of the searing reality of our national historical experience as Joseph bravely and imaginatively confronts that bleakest of bleak moments in our past to produce a work of astounding brilliance and originality.

Even before that ground breaking piece of work, Joseph had proved himself as a writer who allows us to discover ourselves and, through that discovery, to learn more about ourselves and the situations we must deal with. This talent was evident from his very earliest novels: “Cowboys and Indians” where he so brilliantly and poignantly depicted the final moments of a pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland poised on the brink of change but still trapped in its own past, unaware of the seismic changes to our society and culture that were shortly to come; and “Desperados” where he moved between the decades, and indeed between Ireland and revolutionary Nicaragua, as he explored the necessity to understand our past and to face up to our mistakes in order to deal with current difficulties and sadness. With the apparent ease of the true novelist he forced us into a confrontation with ourselves as he captured the light, the darkness and the shadowed hues of a normal, complex, multi-faceted existence. His involvement with post dictatorship Nicaragua rejected the idealist impulse of his heart.

“Star of the Sea” and “Redemption Falls” represented Joe’s thematic sojourn in the United States after which he returned to Ireland for the focus of his most recent novel. “Ghost Light” not only beautifully tells the story of a doomed love affair between John Millington Synge and Molly Allgood, it also evocatively captures the spirit of a society in crisis in all its political, cultural and social turmoil. In Molly Allgood Joe has surely depicted one of the most compelling female characters in modern literary fiction and her decline and death in the novel is unbearably moving. There is no doubt that Joe O’Connor is one of the brightest stars among a brilliant constellation of contemporary Irish writing.

We are, of course, living through very difficult days. At my inauguration, I said that our successes in the eyes of so many in the world have been in the cultural and spiritual areas – in our humanitarian, peace-building and human rights work; in our literature, art, drama and song; and in how that drama, song and literature have helped us cope with adversity, soothed the very pain which they describe so well, and opened the space for new possibilities.

When it comes to soothing our collective pain, Joe O’Connor has also done us all great service. Not only is Joe a very distinguished novelist, he is also a wonderful diarist and essayist. In previous years these were catalogued in the published diaries of a hapless young male who was struggling to make sense of life, love and – even more trying – his Irishness. In more recent years, Joe’s reflections on the issues “du jour” have been broadcast to the nation in the form of a radio diary. His preoccupations span the spectrum of life – politics, love, music, family, children, the extraordinarily creative way that Irish people use foul language and the propensity of Irish teenagers to use the word “like” in such a multi-functional manner.

Joe’s radio diaries may be satirical but it is a satire that is used for caring and constructive purposes. Underlying all of Joe’s broadcast reflections is a sense of a man who cares deeply about his country, who feels a profound empathy with his fellow citizens who are struggling through tough times, who values and respects the old decencies that were at the heart of community life in Ireland and who is determined to use his unique creative genius to imagine a future society that we can all be proud of and in which all our children can live, grow and prosper.

As a people and a country we are closing one sad chapter and opening another that we hope will lead to a new version of our Irishness; one that retains all that was best about our past but is founded on a new wisdom born out of disappointment, hurt and adversity, but also driven by a determination not to be paralysed by a cynical fatalism and by a positive commitment, in a spirit of active citizenship, to play our own individual part in renewing the Republic, strengthening the fabric our society and enhancing the quality of our community.

It is a chapter of new possibilities and, as a country, we are fortunate to have contemporary writers of the calibre of Joseph to chart this new chapter; writers who so beautifully and often so poignantly capture those important moments in our national psyche; the parts of our past that are key to our understanding of the society we live in and may wish to change; the complexity and the moral confusion of a rapidly and constantly changing Ireland; and now the fragility of the aftershock and our great national courage as we gather our strength and move forward to a shared and better future.

Ba mhaith liom críoch a chur leis seo agus comhghairdeas a dhéanamh le Seosamh toisc gur roghnaíodh é don dámhachtain cháiliúil seo, ardghradam atá aige anois ar aon dul leis na scríbhneoirí Éireannacha is tábhachtaí agus is cáiliúla dá bhfuil ann. Is gradam é a chuireann Seosamh chun tosaigh mar cheann de na guthanna is tábhachtaí agus is mó tionchair i litríocht chomhaimseartha na hÉireann.

I am honoured to be here tonight to present this award to a writer I have long admired and am especially pleased to do so in the presence of Joe’s wife Anne Marie and his parents Seán and Viola. I wish Joseph every success in the future and look forward to reading more of his very brilliant work.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

The Irish PEN Committee with President of Ireland Dr. Michael D Higgins,

Vanessa O’Loughlin of writing.ie centre left, Award winner Joseph O’Connor centre right.

Previous Irish PEN Award winners include:

1999 John B.Keane, 2000 Brian Friel, 2001 Edna O’Brien, 2002 William Trevor, 2003 John McGahern, 2004 Neil Jordan, 2005 Seamus Heaney, 2006 Jennifer Johnston, 2007 Maeve Binchy, 2008 Thomas Kilroy, 2009 Roddy Doyle, 2010 Brendan Kennelly, and in 2011 Colm Tobín.

Find out how to join Irish PEN as an associate (unpublished) or full member (published) at www.irishpen.com.

(c) Jane Travers February 2012  Photographs by Moya Nolan

Jane Travers is the originator and compiler of Tweet Treats, a collection of 140 character recipes in aid of Medécins sans Frontiéres. She has also written women’s fiction and is working on a paranormal novel for teens. She lives in Kildare with her husband and daughter and is the chief minion of two dogs. You can follow her on Twitter @janetravers or check out www.tweettreats.org

Learn more about her recipe book Tweet Treats in her interview with writing.ie and it’s nomination for a Gourmand Award

Other articles by Jane Travers: Interview YA author Lauren Kate , Damian Corless Sweet Tooth,Dreams do Come True: Maria Duffy

and for Mining Memories  My Mother Wears a Car on the Third Finger of her Left Hand;

Jane is also an expert on using social media to promote books and discusses this in Social Media as an Essential Writing Tool ,

  • The Dark Room: A thrilling new novel from the number one Irish Times bestselling author of Keep Your Eyes on Me
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