The Hennessy Literary Awards this year is celebrating a double landmark in Irish culture: the 50th anniversary of the launch of the New Irish Writing Page by David Marcus and the 50th anniversary of the establishment in Belfast of The Honest Ulsterman literary journal by James Simmons.
Back in 1968 there were virtually no outlets in Ireland for aspiring writers. David Marcus had emigrated to London in 1954 after his pioneering literary quarterly, Irish Writing – which had published Samuel Beckett before Waiting for Godot was written and when the author was virtually unknown – ran out of funds. Several other journals such as The Bell, Envoy, The Irish Bookman, the Dublin Magazine and The Kilkenny Magazine were either dead or dying.
On returning to Dublin, Marcus had the brainwave of a weekly page for both new and established writers in a national newspaper, something that, as he said, "would cost nothing to print and nothing to buy". Tim Pat Coogan, editor of The Irish Press, shared his vision and the New Irish Writing Page was launched on April 20th, 1968 with a short story by John McGahern and poems by Austin Clarke and Brendan Kennelly.
A month later the poet James Simmons published the first issue of The Honest Ulsterman, which drew for its contributors on a remarkable group of young writers including Bernard MacLaverty, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Franks Ormsby, Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, who were brought together at Queen's University by the English poet Philip Hobsbaum.
Sponsored from 1971 onwards by the Hennessy Awards, the New Irish Writing Page, edited since 1988 by Ciaran Carty, went on to launch many of the writers who now dominate Irish literature, among them Sebastian Barry, Neil Jordan, Pat McCabe, Deirdre Madden, Dermot Bolger, Anne Enright, John Boyne, Colum McCann, Joseph O’Connor, Paula Meehan, Vona Groarke and Sarah Baume. In 2003, the Hennessy Hall of Fame Award was introduced to honour these writers.
Today The Irish Times, home to New Irish Writing since 2015, is proud to announce 18 exciting new writers who have been shortlisted for the 2018 Hennessy Awards for stories and poems published last year in the New Irish Writing pages.
The winners, who will be judged by Marina Carr – herself winner of a Hennessy First Fiction Award in 1994 – and the Welsh novelist and poet Niall Griffiths, will be announced at the awards ceremony at the King's Inns in Dublin on March 21st, along with this year's Hall of Fame author, Bernard MacLaverty, the renowned short story writer and novelist whose early work was first published in New Irish Writing and also in The Honest Ulsterman.
WALKING A TIGHTROPE WITH BERNARD MACLAVERTY
"I'm tangled with nerves at the moment," Bernard MacLaverty is telling me over lunch in Belfast in the summer of 1980. His first novel Lamb had just been published simultaneously by Blackstaff Press in Belfast and Jonathan Cape in London. He'd caught an early morning flight from London after a reading at the ICA the previous evening. "But I've to be back teaching class on the Isle of Islay on Monday morning," he says.
I remember MacLaverty as a big-shouldered man, with square features and strong hands. A black jacket accentuated his dark looks. “Days like these,” he laughs, jabbing at his oxtail tongue salad, “when somebody buys you a lunch, are the days when you can’t eat.”
He'd moved three years before with his young family to the Isle of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland beyond the Mull of Kintyre, fleeing the violence in the North to teach at a comprehensive school. Soon after, his first collection of stories, Secrets, published in 1977, won the Scottish Arts Council Award.
He grew up in a big Victorian house in Belfast, the son of a commercial artist who did huge cinema posters and later went into advertising. “I remember being in Cushendall for my holidays as a wee fellow and looking over at the Paps of Jura, never thinking that some day I’d be sitting there looking back at Cushendall,” he says.
In his fiction it’s as if he never left Ireland. All his novels are rooted there in his own experiences but reimagined like parallel lives. “You write about what you know but it’s not your own story,” he says. “You feed off early memories for the whole of your writing life.”
Lamb has echoes of a real-life scandal. A young Christian Brother, disillusioned and demoralised by the institutionalised brutality of a west of Ireland Borstal [youth detention centre], runs away to London with one of his charges, a 12 year-old with epilepsy. His impulse of kindness is doomed from the start. The manhunt closes in. There is nowhere left to hide, but there can be no turning back.
“I didn’t write the case up,” he says. “I did no research. I’ve never been to an Irish Borstal. The whole thing is from my head. I tried to think out how anyone could contemplate killing a child out of love.”
The theme of child abuse has since become commonplace, but in 1980 it was daringly original. With a lesser writer Lamb might easily have slipped into mawkish sentimentality or prurient sensationalism. But MacLaverty negotiates the delicate tightrope between the two pitfalls in 152 tightly written pages, compressing an intensity of feeling that becomes almost unbearable to read, particularly in the harrowing inevitability of the final chapter. "That's what I like to do," he says, "to walk the tightrope."
He walked the tightrope again in 1983 with Cal, a love story set during the worst of the North's violence in which an unemployed youth who was a driver in a killing is obsessed by the victim's wife. MacLaverty adapted both novels as acclaimed films, with Liam Neeson as the Brother and then Helen Mirren as the wife.
There was a 14-year gap (bridged by two collections of stories) between Cal and his Booker-shortlisted Grace Notes (1997), in which a woman composer, struggling make her mark in a male-dominated field, returns to the North for the funeral of her father. There was an even longer gap of 16 years between his fourth novel The Anatomy School (2001), a light-hearted rite-of-passage about his youth as a medical laboratory technician looking after corpses at Queen's University, and his 2017 novel Midwinter Break, arguably his masterpiece, a minutely observed honest study of an elderly couple facing up to their past and what's left of their lives in the course of a weekend away together in Amsterdam.
But for 74-year-old MacLaverty, life is for living as much as writing. He's always been family man, married for nearly 50 years and with four grown-up children and eight grandchildren. He's also found time since The Anatomy Lesson for two other collections of stories, Bye-Child, a Bafta-nominated short film of a poem by his friend Seamus Heaney, which he directed in 2003, as well as a short opera for Scottish Opera.
The evening after he receives his Hennessy Hall of Fame award he will be back in Glasgow for the premiere of a short opera which he has based on the end of Grace Notes, where the composer is present and sick with nerves at the performance of her first major work broadcast round the world.
"Scottish Opera are putting on Richard Strauss' Ariadne von Naxos," he says. "But Strauss cut his orchestra by 10, leaving five brass and five string players unemployed. So my piece, composed by Sam Bordoli and using the 10 players and a soprano, will be performed to a promenade audience before the main event."
It’ll be his first time hearing it.
“I cannot read music so I have to await the performance.”
THE HENNESY LITERARY AWARDS JUDGES
Marina Carr grew up in a house in Co Offaly that was full of books, her father a playwright and her mother a school principal who wrote poetry. She won a Hennessy First Fiction Award in 1994 and made her debut as a playwright at the Abbey Theatre with The Mai, the first in a trilogy of plays set in the midlands and inspired by Euripides and Sophocles. Her adaptation of Anna Karenina premiered at the Abbey Theatre in December 2016, and in 2017 she won one the world's most lucrative literary honours, the Windham-Campbell Prize, worth $165,000. She is a lecturer in Dublin City University's School of English.
Niall Griffiths, unlike Carr, grew up in a house in Liverpool largely without books. "But it was nevertheless filled with stories, of ghosts and wars, and love of the old countries. I write to recapture the shivering wonder I felt as the old people around me recounted these tales, each one of them absolutely true, of course." He lived for a while in Australia but his family came home because his mother was homesick. At 15 he was sent on an Outward Bound course in Snowdonia, studied English at Aberystwyth University and has lived ever since in north Wales, which he made his own with his debut novel Grits, a story of addicts and drifters; Stump (which won the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year), and more recently A Great Shooting Star. Red Roar, his first collection of poems, was published in 2015. His talent for revealing character though vernacular dialogue has been likened to a cross between Irvine Welsh and Roddy Doyle.