Hennessy 2019 nominees: First Fiction, Emerging Poetry, Emerging Fiction

Introducing the writers up for the influential literary awards in their 51st year

Fiction and poetry are stateless pursuits. Whether on the page or through the spoken word they reach beyond frontiers, and even time. Their world dwells in the imagination, another dimension of reality, a territory where we see everything afresh. “We never know where we are but somewhere else,” Derek Walcott told me once.

Ever since David Marcus had the brainwave in 1968 of creating a platform in The Irish Press where promising first-time or emerging writers could be introduced to readers throughout Ireland the New Irish Writing Page has been a visiting place for generations who believe in the power of literature to enrich our lives.

Marcus came from a Jewish family which found sanctuary in Ireland from the pogroms ravaging Europe at the turn of the last century. He grew up in Cork where as a student in 1946 he founded a literary quarterly Irish Writing, which published Samuel Beckett before Waiting for Godot was written and when the author was virtually unknown outside France. With money running out Marcus was obliged to emigrate to London in 1954 but on his return, at a time in the 1960s when literary journals for which Dublin was once renowned were either dead or dying, his idea of embedding a weekly literary page in a national newspaper (“that would cost nothing to print and nothing to buy”) revitalised writing in Ireland.

The impact of The New Irish Writing Page, launched with Beckett’s encouragement, was dramatically enhanced in 1971 when Marcus persuaded Hennessy Cognac to sponsor annual literary awards for the best work published each year. The company’s founder Richard Hennessy had been one of the Wild Geese who left Cork to join the army of King Louis XV in France and eventually settled in the small town of Cognac in 1765 where he produced a beautiful aromatic amber drink that would become synonymous with brandy through the world.


From the start Marcus ensured that New Irish Writing would be outward looking rather than local by persuading each year two different established authors to act as judges, beginning with Elizabeth Bowen and William Trevor, followed by Brian Friel and James Plunkett and then Seán Ó Faoláin and Kingsley Amis with Edna O’Brien and VS Pritchett in 1974.

That tradition has continued right to this day with the choice of Martina Evans and Eoin McNamee as judges for the 2019 Hennessy Awards. Over the 51 years of New Irish Writing and 48 years of Hennessy sponsorship involving first the Irish Press, then the Sunday Tribune and the Irish Independent and now since 2015 with The Irish Times it has fostered many of the writers who now dominate literature in Ireland. It has also served as a focal point for writers who have left Ireland, the gathering place for a literary diaspora. It’s significant that among the nominees for the 2019 awards in First Fiction, Emerging Fiction and Emerging Poetry announced in Ticket this morning are several contenders who will be travelling from as far away as New South Wales, Denmark, Brussels, Berlin and London – just as some of those from nearer were in fact born elsewhere.

This has always been the case with New Irish Writing. Sebastian Barry was famously surviving in an attic in Paris on a pittance he earned working in a language school when he received a letter from Marcus in 1979 accepting for publication his first story, The Beast.

After the page was dropped by the Irish Press in 1988, and reborn under my editorship in the Sunday Tribune, with Marcus as a consultant, one of my first pleasures was to ring up Joe O’Connor in London and accept his first story The Last of the Mohicans, which went on to win the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award and later developed as O’Connor’s debut novel, Cowboys and Indians.

The following year Colum McCann was working in the US when his first story, Tresses, landed on my desk. He too, like O’Connor, won a New Irish Writer of the Year Awards. He jumped with joy into a swimming pool he was cleaning in Texas when his mother rang to tell him of his triumph.

Mike McCormack, who will become the 18th member of the Hennessy Hall of Fame on Thursday, follows a somewhat similar path. Although born in London, he spent much of his childhood with his grandparents on their farm in Louisburgh, Co Mayo, a place he immortalised in his 2016 novel Solar Bones, which won the €100,000 International Dublin Literary Award and the £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize. He likes to claim that the public library in Louisburgh provided the inspiration that led to him becoming a writer.

The difficulties McCormack encountered in trying to find a publisher for Solar Bones is a cautionary tale on the perils of labelling writers. Years ago I remember Marcus taking exception to being called a Jewish Irish writer. “I’m a Jew who happens to be Irish and writes books,” he said. McCormack’s earlier books Crowe’s Requiem, Notes From a Coma and Forensic Songs, forever exploring new forms of fiction, caused him to be branded as an “experimental” writer, which can be the kiss of death in publishing. To label a writer is to precondition how they and their work are perceived. John McGahern once told me he would consider it an insult to be called an “Irish” writer or a “Catholic” writer. Like Marcus, he too wanted to be regarded simply as a writer. As Brexit and Trump have shown, labelling is not just manipulative, it breeds demagogues.

McCormack follows Bernard MacLaverty, Vona Groarke, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Paula Meehan, Deirdre Madden, John Boyne, Dermot Healy, Sebastian Barry, Neil Jordan, Hugo Hamilton, Anne Enright, Frank McGuinness, Colum McCann, Patrick McCabe, O’Connor and Dermot Bolger as a member of the Hennessy Hall of Fame, which was initiated in 2003 to celebrate writers first published in New Irish Writing who went on to become established literary figures.

It’s perhaps easy to take New Irish Writing for granted. In all the time of my editorship Maurice Hennessy stood by us and never missed attending the awards, but it has often been a struggle to keep it going, first when it was dropped by the Irish Press and again when the Sunday Tribune was forced to close in 2011. It was rescued then when Frank Coughlin, Declan Carlyle and Geoff Lyons stepped in to bring it to the Irish Independent. Four years later, Fintan O’Toole brought us to our present home in The Irish Times.

Through all the ups and downs Anthony Glavin and Dermot Bolger provided and continue to provide selfless back-up and support in doing justice to over 3,000 stories and poems submitted every year. The wonderful reward has been in seeing new talent emerge month after month, year after year. No doubt there are other challenges to come but whatever happens, to misquote Beckett, New Irish Writing will go on.


(Prize: Hennessy trophy and €1,500)

Serena lives in Galway and has an MA in Writing from NUI Galway. She was shortlisted for the Cúirt 2017 New Writing Prize and is working on her first novel for young adults. “Death will touch all our lives,” she says. “For me, it happened at a young age. This is my attempt to make sense of it. There is immortality in the written world and with this story I hope to honour the memory of my brother and how special he was.”

Eamon is from Bettystown, Co Meath, and works as a digital sports reporter in Dublin. He holds a master’s in writing from NUI Galway. “My story was loosely based on a friend’s work experience and times I spent in a Burger King in Dublin. Fast-food places have their own tics and customs, and aspirations seem to me to hang in the air; people swaying between dreams and their own destruction and the world’s.”

David was born in Birmingham. Having a Kerry-born father and a Cork-born mother, every childhood summer was spent in Ireland. He is a national school teacher and lives in west Cork with his wife and three children. “I have always been a compulsive reader and I believe that reading is the key to writing. Different minds see the world in different way. In writing, I try to catch a glimpse of that other way of seeing things.”

Lauren is a screenwriter. She was born in Sydney, Australia, lives in Dublin and is doing an MA in Creative Writing at UCD. She was shortlisted for the 2018 Cúirt New Writing Prize. “I’m interested in stories of good people behaving badly, about how small, trivial choices have enormous repercussions. Hence this dark little story about an infants’ teacher who puts her own desires before a child’s wellbeing.”

Jamie, who lives in Dublin with his family, is a 24-year-old content writer. He has worked in several countries, including Spain, France and Israel. He won last year’s Kanturk Flash Fiction Award. “I write because I don’t think my head is big enough to safely contain all the stories it carries – not just stories, but puzzles and dreams, odd remembered images crying out for attention. They must be released, through the medium of writing, into the world and the wild.”

Daire is from Skerries, Co Dublin, and lives in London with his wife and two small boys. “This my attempt to figure out what it means to be a good dad. As a short story writer, I wanted to squeeze the entire journey of that relationship into a brief moment of someone’s life – or to fail as entertainingly as possible, at least.”


(Prize: Hennessy trophy and €1,500)

Ilyana is an Irish-Canadian poet based in Limerick. She won the British Psychological Society’s 2017 poetry competition and also featured in the Poetry Ireland 2017 Mix Tape. “These poems describe the complicated or ambiguous grieving process that family members of those with Alzheimer’s disease often experience. My grandmother, Maureen Keohane, was a poet herself, so in a way I hope that my own poetry keeps her memory and her passion for writing alive.”

James taught at St Eunan’s College, Letterkenny and has been published in Skylight 47, Cyphers and NorthWest Words. He was highly commended in the 2016 Patrick Kavanagh Competition and recently published his first collection. You can’t blame the water was inspired by Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, a masterpiece of nature writing. “The Franklin poem is the third of three I wrote as 2018 was the 60th anniversary of her death and her work in the structure of DNA was significantly overlooked and indeed “stolen”.”

Siobhán is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at UCD. She has performed her poetry and created spoken word projects at Southbank Centre, London, University of Vienna and Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh. “I am inspired by the desire to give voice, often with humour, to a joyful reintegration of the sensual with the sacred; a desire to language and reclaim an older, intuitive wisdom intimately linked with the rhythms and cycles of Earth and the body, especially the female body.”

Jennifer has been published in The Stinging Fly, Mslexia and The Penny Dreadful among others. She was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions series in 2015 and was highly commended in the 2016 Patrick Kavanagh competition. “Most often I’m moved to write about things that metaphorically ‘keep me awake at night’. And quite literally Monsters was written while I was in an insomniac state, trying to settle my then one-year-old and four-year-old only to realise I was – in my self – unsettled.”

Laura lives in Cork and is a past Hennessy Award and Forward Prize nominee. She has published in Southward, Banshee and THE SHOp and won the Penguin/RTÉ Guide short story competition. She recently submitted a creative writing PhD at UCC. “Mum and Jasper was inspired by my mother’s daily garden ritual – how the act of noticing something new is an act of revitalisation. My writing is often concerned with the natural world, with hidden lives or small wonders that snag my attention. And birds – flitting through both poetry and fiction.”

Audrey lives in Australia. Her poetry has recently appeared in the Moth, Crannóg, among others. She was nominated for the Forward Prize and chosen for Best New British and Irish Poets 2018. “It’s the alchemy of poetry that I really enjoy – starting with nothing more than an emotion or thought and converting it into first an image, then raw words and finally a poem that I hope will resonate and linger in the reader’s mind.”

Anne lives in Mayo. She has been published in Crannóg and Boyne Berries and shortlisted in the RTÉ Francis MacManus short story competition. “I really enjoyed writing these poems, they tumbled out of my head and landed almost fully formed. Writing is my playground. I experiment, take risks and run wild across the page, always hoping that my poems will resonate with the reader.”


(Prize: Hennessy trophy and €1,500)

Trisha lives and works in Dublin. She won the 2013 RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland short story competition and was shortlisted for the Bord Gáis short story of the year award. “I write more out of need than inspiration. I am more myself when I spend time in a room with the door closed. I write hoping one day I’ll feel good enough. I write to find out what happens next, and later wonder who on Earth wrote this?”

Colin grew up in Galway. In 2017, he won the RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story Award. He lives in Belgium and is writing his first novel. “My story started with images; embers coursing through night trees, ice-cream on a lip. I was lathered to my bed with high fever and realised I should tell the story like a braid of glimpses. So, there’s the writing elixir: swirl your nausea with a drop of euphoria.”

Anne is currently living in Denmark, where she is working on her first collection while reading for a PhD in creative writing with Lancaster University. She won the 2016 Bath Short Story Award. Her work has been published in anthologies and magazines. “Writing short stories is like laying a trail in a deep dark forest. Not a trail of crumbs, but of words that I hope will, one day, lead me home.”

Neil’s work has been published in the Fish Anthology 2017 and The Honest Ulsterman. He has an MA in creative writing from UCD. He divides his time between Berlin and Dublin and also works as a translator and teacher. “Waste Disposal was inspired by the pursuit of sensation to escape feeling: a vision of a world dying from pollution: human relationships as transactions: Eros and Thanatos: an excerpt from Joe Orton’s diaries.”

Michelle lives in Galway and was highly commended in the 2017 Colm Tóibín Short Story Award. She won the 2016 Short Fiction Journal Competition. “On the varied paths of grief I’ve taken, ritual and duty and doing the right thing by the dead and dying have always formed the first steps. This was something I came to understand at that time, and it emerged in the writing of the story.”

Helen was born in Ireland but lives in Geneva. Her stories have won several prizes and have been published by, among others, the Sunday Business Post. “Many of my writing ideas come from things I hear, need or experience. However, occasionally my brain will pluck an arbitrary moment from life and show me a world within it. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s very exciting. The most vivid stories come from those moments.”


(Prize: Hennessy trophy and additional €2,500)

Will be chosen by the judges from the three category winners


Martina Evans is the author of 11 books of prose and poetry. She lives in London with her daughter Liadain but grew up in Co Cork in a country pub, shop and petrol station and is the youngest of 10 children. She was shortlisted for a Hennessy poetry award in 1992. “I was a radiographer working in London,” she recalls. “You flew me over for a fabulous day at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham along with my then husband and it was like a fairy tale and caused quite a stir at the Whittington Hospital X-Ray department. They didn’t know that I wrote poetry until I had to ask for special leave to go to Dublin.” Her first novel Midnight Feast won a Betty Trask Award in 1995 and her third novel No Drinking No Dancing No Doctors won an Arts Council England Award in 1999. Her collection Facing the Public was a TLS Book of the Year in 2009 and won the Premio Ciampi International Prize for Poetry in 2011. Burnfort, Las Vegas (Anvil Press, 2015) was shortlisted for The Irish Times Poetry Now Award in 2015. The Windows of Graceland, New and Selected Poems was published by Carcanet in 2016. She is a Royal Literary Fund advisory fellow and reviews for The Irish Times.

Eoin McNamee was born in Kilkeel, Co Down, in 1961 and now lives in Sligo. His first poem was published in New Irish Writing in 1988 and also his first story Love in History, which was included in his debut collection The Last of Deeds, published by Dermot Bolger’s Raven Arts Press that same year and shortlisted for The Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize. The following year he won the Macaulay Fellowship for Irish Literature. He studied law at Trinity College Dublin as his father did and his daughter is now doing. His novel The Vogue, published by Faber last autumn, is named after the local cinema where he grew up and inspired by the wartime period when nearby Greencastle was a base for American airmen. John Banville praised the way “he writes about violence with a dreamy poetic intensity”. His novels revolve around murder and retribution among them Resurrection Man (the Shankill Butchers), The Ultras (the killing of Robert Nairac) and Orchid Blue (the last hanging in Ireland). He wrote the screen version of Resurrection Man and also scripted Michael Winterbottom’s crime film I Want You as well as writing for the TV series An Bronntanus, Red Rock and Hinterland. He wrote the Navigator trilogy for children and has also written under the pseudonym John Creed.