In this strangest of years, Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan has been named Novel of the Year at tonight’s An Post Irish Book Awards, while Home Stretch by Graham Norton won Popular Fiction Book of the Year. In a year in which our freedom of movement has been so curtailed, both plots turn on the central character’s ability to make a fresh start abroad before returning.
The awards ceremony, long the social highlight of the literary calendar, had to be reimagined this year because of the pandemic. While nominees, publishers and booksellers were unable to gather in a Dublin hotel, audiences worldwide were for the first time able to watch the ceremony hosted by Evelyn O’Rourke stream live on the RTÉ website. Having transported us to other worlds with their books in this terrible year, it feels bittersweet that the winners must now celebrate at home.
As the tide seems to be turning against the scorning of experts and the subversion of facts, it feels timely that Never Mind the Boll***s, Here’s the Science by Luke O’Neill, professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, has been named Popular Non-Fiction Book of the Year.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa is 2020’s Non-Fiction Book of the Year, the powerful weaving of the poet’s own story with that of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, the composer of Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, which Declanm Kiberd called the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the 18th century. A perhaps unlikely bestseller, it is also another remarkable success for its small publisher, Tramp Press, which although only founded in 2014, has won Irish Book of the Year twice in three years for Notes too Self by Emilie Pine and Solar Bones by Mike McCormack.
The Irish Book Awards are also a happy hunting ground for Ryan. His debut, The Spinning Heart, was voted Newcomer and Book of the Year in 2012; The Thing about December (2013); All We Shall Know (2016); and From a Low and Quiet Sea (2018) have all been shortlisted for Novel of the Year; and A Slanting of the Sun won Short Story of the Year in 2015.
“I’m really grateful to people who took the trouble to vote for Strange Flowers,” Ryan said. “That’s the great thing about these awards – the winners are decided by readers, and readers are the reason we write.
“Strange Flowers is a very personal book about love, loss, family and identity, set in my heartland and home. It’s a privilege and an honour for me to have a readership for something that means so much to me, and to have it endorsed by readers in this wonderful way.
“Books, like all art, offer an escape route, however temporary, from the relentlessness of this year of fear and isolation, and I’m happy to have been able to offer some tiny break in the clouds for my readers.”
Ní Ghríofa said: “This award feels like a victory not only for me, but for Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, and for the lives of so many women whose stories often go unwritten. A Ghost in the Throat is the story of a quest and a haunting, in which one woman digs into the past, seeking the story of a woman who lived centuries before her.
“In such a hard year, these awards are a shining light, a celebration of publishers, booksellers, authors, and most especially readers, and the books they have taken to their hearts – and I’m so grateful that A Ghost in the Throat is among them. This book wouldn’t exist were it not for Tramp Press. I’ll always be grateful to Sarah, Lisa, and Laura for picking it from their slush pile, for believing in it, for publishing it so beautifully, with help from Fiachra and Marsha and Peter.”
That Dara McAnulty has been named as Newcomer of the Year should come as no surprise. The debut author of Diary of a Young Naturalist may still be only 16 years old, but he is already an awards veteran at this stage, having become the youngest ever winner of both the Wainwright Prize for UK nature writing and the RSPB Medal. He was also the youngest to be long-listed for the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction and to be shortlisted for the 2020 Books Are My Bag Readers’ Awards.
Louise O’Neill is hardly a newcomer, having won Newcomer of the Year in 2014 for her debut Only Ever Yours and Book of the Year in 2015 for Asking for It, but to win Crime Fiction Book of the Year for After the Silence, her first crime novel, from such an experienced and talented shortlist is some achievement.
Champagne Football by Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan, their damning exposé of John Delaney’s costly reign at the FAI, deservedly won Sports Book of the Year.
John Treacy, chairperson of the awards, said: “On behalf of the board of the Irish Book Awards, I’d like to congratulate all of the winning authors. Their work represents the very best of Irish writing and in a difficult year their books have brought readers great comfort and inspiration. Let’s also consider Irish booksellers who have suffered greatly during the lockdowns and carried on regardless.
“Ireland is blessed with many wonderful bookshops, chains and independents, so this Christmas, I would urge readers to visit their local bookshops. Irish writers, Irish readers, Irish bookshops – there’s an alliance we can all get behind.”
More than 143,000 votes were cast by the public to select the winners in each category, up 25 per cent on 2019. Voting is now open for the An Post Irish Book of the Year at anpostirishbookawards.ie. The winner will be announced during the awards show presented by Miriam O Callaghan on RTÉ One on December 10th, at 10.15pm.
Debbie Byrne, managing director of An Post Retail, said: “This year more than ever has reminded us of the great enjoyment and benefits reading offers. Throughout the year, we have been very proud to be able to support independent Irish booksellers as they moved their business online, we look forward to continuing this support in the run-up to Christmas. We hope that every Christmas stocking across the country will contain a book.”
Peter Woods, head of RTÉ Radio 1, said: “The response from our listeners to the An Post Irish Book Awards and to our RTÉ Radio 1 Listeners’ Choice Award has been really positive again this year. In a difficult year in which Keelin passed away, I am really happy that our listeners voted for A Light That Never Goes Out, as are my colleagues in RTÉ who knew and loved Keelin.”
The full list of winners
Novel of the Year
Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan (Doubleday Ireland)
Non-Fiction Book of the Year
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)
Popular Fiction Book of the Year
Home Stretch by Graham Norton (Coronet)
Popular Non-Fiction Book of the Year
Never Mind the Boll***s, Here's the Science by Luke O'Neill (Gill Books)
Newcomer of the Year
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty, illustrated by Barry Falls (Little Toller Books)
Sports Book of the Year
Champagne Football by Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan (Sandycove)
Crime Fiction Book of the Year
After the Silence by Louise O'Neill (Quercus)
Teen & Young Adult Book of the Year
Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan, illustrated by Karen Vaughan (Little Island Books)
Children's Book of the Year – Senior
Break the Mould by Sinéad Burke, illustrated by Natalie Byrne (Wren & Rook)
Children's Book of the Year – Junior
The Great Irish Farm Book by Darragh McCullough, illustrated by Sally Caulwell (Gill Books)
Cookbook of the Year
Neven Maguire's Midweek Meals in Minutes by Neven Maguire (Gill Books)
Irish Language Book of the Year
Cnámh by Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde (Éabhlóid)
Best Irish-Published Book of the Year
Old Ireland in Colour by John Breslin and Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley (Merrion Press)
RTÉ Radio 1 Listeners' Choice Award
A Light That Never Goes Out by Keelin Shanley (Gill Books)
Irish Poem of the Year
In the Museum of Misremembered Things by Linda McKenna (In the Museum of Misremembered Things published by Doire Press)
Short Story of the Year Award
I Ate It All And I Really Thought I Wouldn't by Caoilinn Hughes (LitHub)