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'It's a huge thing for a writer': Donal Ryan and Keelin Shanley among Irish Book Awards winners

“It’s just a privilege,” Eason Novel of the Year winner Donal Ryan told us.
Nov 25th 2020, 8:35 PM 19,729 5

GRAHAM NORTON, PROFESSOR Luke O’Neill and the late Keelin Shanley were among the winning authors at this year’s An Post Irish Book Awards, which were held virtually this evening.

Keelin Shanley’s win, for her memoir A Light That Never Goes Out, was all the more meaningful given the RTÉ presenter was a longtime presenter of the annual awards show. She sadly passed away on 8 February.

Due to the pandemic, the event was streamed on rte.ie/culture.

The year was a good one for debut writers, with Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Dara McAnulty and Sinéad Burke all winning awards. Novel of the Year Award was won by Donal Ryan. 

This year’s awards attracted a record number of votes from the Irish public, its organisers said. The awards first took place in 2006 and have become a major part of the literary calendar in Ireland.

The event showcases writing from new and established writers across 16 categories, including novels and non-fiction, poetry, short stories and the Irish language.

We spoke to some of this year’s winners about the importance of winning their awards – especially in a year like 2020.

Donal Ryan

donal-ryan Source: Clare Keogh

Donal Ryan’s win for his latest novel Strange Flowers was particularly important to him because of the reader voting aspect.

“It’s a lovely award because it’s voted for by readers, it’s fairly unusual in that respect,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“There’s always a horrible part of being on the shortlist and hoping you win. All the books on the Novel of the Year shortlist with me, I’ve read them all – they’re incredible, all fantastic books, and some of the authors are my pals, so there’s an attendant guilt [with winning].”

Ryan said that he himself has read “a lot more this year than I normally would, just having a bit of an escape from the relentless coverage of the pandemic”.

“It’s just great to be able to offer [readers] a tiny diversion to that,” he added of his own novel. “The idea of somebody reading the book, paying for the book first of all, and appreciating it enough to vote for it, it’s just a privilege, a huge thing for a writer.”

He’s been to the awards almost every year since 2012, and said “it feels like the Christmas party for the book world – it’s always great craic”.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa

doireann-ni-ghriofa Source: Clare keogh

Doireann Ní Ghriofa is author of A Ghost In The Throat, which won the Odgers Berndtson Non-Fiction Book of the Year in association with The Business Post.

She told us: “I’m absolutely delighted. I feel like it’s not just a win for me or [my publisher] Tramp Press, who have been extraordinary through the whole process of publishing in the middle of a pandemic, but so much of the book is honouring the often invisible work women do every day and throughout history.

And so I honestly feel like it’s not just my win, so I don’t feel intensely proud on an individual level, but I’d feel very happy a book like this could go on to win such a magnificent and important prize.

Ní Ghríofa said that it feels even more important than usual to have an event like the Irish Book Awards on this year. “We’ve leant on cultural comforts to get us through this time,” she said.

“When I look at something like the book awards, I think how easy it would have been to say ‘postpone it till next year’.” She said that the awards are very important for writers, and it’s “really important to have a lift in the middle of winter”.

“Speaking as a passionate bookworm it’s great for readers too – I’ll often find new books in the shortlists of the awards.”

Old Ireland In Colour

One of the other winning books is Old Ireland In Colour, a book of colourised Irish photographs, written by John Breslin and Sarah-Anne Buckley.

“We can’t get over it,” said Buckley of their win. “That really means the most to us, the reaction we’ve gotten from the public. We’ve gotten emails and messages and really unexpected things that have really shown us that it’s touched a nerve with people. So we’re really thrilled with that. This was just the icing of the cake.”

She said she believed the book connected with people in 2020 because “I think people are very reflective this year and maybe that’s a part of the appeal at the moment”.

“People are thinking of their own family history, what Ireland is today, the past; people are all reflecting and the book is really tapping into it.” She intends to celebrate tonight at home with her husband, and Breslin will be celebrating at home with family too.

Interestingly, due to Covid-19, the pair of authors have never met in person. 

John Breslin said the win was “kind of a shock really – there were so many fantastic authors and books in the category”. 

“I suppose I’ve seen people saying that when you think about the book it is a snapshot of what Ireland and people of Ireland have gone through over time,” he added. “It’s an interesting way to put it. It is a kind of a snapshot of things we’ve overcome.

We are in a difficult time at the moment, and it offers some hope. It also adds a longer perspective in terms of the difficult things we’ve come through and maybe hope we can get through it again.

Keelin Shanley

Conor Ferguson, husband of the late Keelin Shanley, told TheJournal.ie about her win for A Light That Never Goes Out: “It feels great to be honest, because she put a lot of work into the book. She didn’t have a lot of time to complete it in and she just wondered all along whether her story was really worth reading, so I think this is great proof that people really have embraced her story and the work was worthwhile.”

He added: “It’s hard coming up to Christmas and all; it’s great having a bit of a lift for me and the kids, a bit of extra excitement. Keelin loved the book awards. It probably did cross her mind what would the book awards be like this year.”

He said that Shanley would be “really chuffed and honoured that her book got this recognition from the people that really matter – the general public”.

She loved presenting the book awards, and would “always wangle me a ticket”, said Ferguson. Regarding the fact that the awards are online this year, Ferguson said ”Keelin embraced novelty, she liked new challenges, so I think she probably would have jumped at it”. 

“She would have found it really interesting,” he added of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I think she definitely would have loved covering that story.”

Ferguson said that Keelin didn’t like to get “bogged down in self pity”, and that her positivity came through in the book. “It’s been incredibly well received,” he said. “Even those of us who are familiar with the story found new things in it.”

He said he hopes that people get her message of positivity, “that it is worth hoping for something”. The book has really helped him and their children, Lucy and Ben, during a year where they have experienced the grief of Keelin’s loss.

Working on the book – he wrote a chapter of it – helped give him a focus, he said: “It wasn’t just me feeling sorry for myself, it was about me looking back on my life and looking back for a reason. It helped me to step back from own feelings in a way.”

“Keelin didn’t want to tell people how to live their lives, ever, but in this book she’s given me and the kids an indication of what’s a practical way to live your life – aim forward, and to focus on the positive things rather than get mired on the negative things. Not to say we are impermeable to emotion, there are good days and bad days. But I think at least we know where she stood on it.”

He said the family will celebrate at home together tonight. 

The winners

REPRO_FREE_IrishBookAwards_04 Winner Sinéad Burke

  • RTÉ Radio 1 Listeners’ Choice Award

A Light That Never Goes Out – Keelin Shanley (Gill Books)

  • Bord Gáis Energy Sports Book of the Year

Champagne Football – Mark Tighe & Paul Rowan (Sandycove)

  • Bookselling Ireland Cookbook of the Year

Neven Maguire’s Midweek Meals in Minutes – Neven Maguire (Gill Books)

  • Irish Independent Crime Fiction Book of the Year

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After the Silence – Louise O’Neill (Quercus)

  • Odgers Berndtson Non-Fiction Book of the Year in association with The Business Post

A Ghost in the Throat – Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)

  • TheJournal.ie Best Irish-Published Book of the Year

Old Ireland in Colour – John Breslin & Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley (Merrion Press)

  • Love Leabhar Gaeilge Irish Language Book of the Year

Cnámh – Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde (Éabhlóid)

  • Dept51@Eason Teen & Young Adult Book of the Year

Savage Her Reply – Deirdre Sullivan, illustrated by Karen Vaughan (Little Island Books)

  • Specsavers Children’s Book of the Year – Senior

Break the Mould – Sinéad Burke, illustrated by Natalie Byrne (Hachette Children’s Books – Imprint: Wren & Rook)

  • Specsavers Children’s Book of the Year – Junior

The Great Irish Farm Book – Darragh McCullough, illustrated by Sally Caulwell (Gill Books)

  • Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year

Diary of a Young Naturalist – Dara McAnulty, illustrated by Barry Falls (Little Toller Books)

  • National Book Tokens Popular Fiction Book of the Year

Home Stretch – Graham Norton (Coronet, Hodder & Stoughton)

  • Listowel Writers’ Week Irish Poem of the Year

In the Museum of Misremembered Things – Linda McKenna (In the Museum of Misremembered Things published by Doire Press)

  • Writing.ie Short Story of the Year Award

I Ate It All And I Really Thought I Wouldn’t – Caoilinn Hughes (LitHub)

  • Ireland AM Popular Non-Fiction Book of the Year

Never Mind the Boll***s, Here’s the Science – Luke O’Neill (Gill Books)

  • Eason Novel of the Year

Strange Flowers – Donal Ryan (Doubleday Ireland)

Commenting on this year’s winners, John Treacy, Chairperson of the An Post Irish Book 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.”

Debbie Byrne, Managing Director of An Post Retail, congratulate all the winning authors, illustrators, poets and publishers on behalf of An Post. “This year more than ever has reminded us of the great enjoyment and benefits reading offers,” she said. 

“We hope that every Christmas stocking across the country will contain a book!”

Peter Woods, Head of RTÉ Radio 1, said that the response from listeners to the An Post Irish Book Awards and to the 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. Thanks to our five RTÉ Radio 1 presenters who selected such great books and congratulations to all the winners.

Read more about the nominated books

Here were our features on the nominated books in our sponsored Best Irish Published Book Of The Year category:

This year, over 143,000 votes were cast by the public to select the winners in each category, up 25% on 2019, and readers everywhere are now being invited to vote for their overall ‘An Post Irish Book of the Year’.

The winner will be announced during a television show on RTÉ One on Thursday, 10 December and all voters are also in with a chance of winning €100 worth of National Book Tokens.

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Aoife Barry

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