"I find men confusing," Madeleine D'Arcy confessed when she was named New Irish Writer of 2009 at the 39th Hennessy X.O Literary Awards in Trinity College on Tuesday. "I have written a few stories and I think they're about me trying to understand the male psyche, and I still don't understand this. I'm mystified by life, not only by men but by women too."
Her winning story, 'Is This Like Scotland?', is something of a rarity, a character-driven story that is not afraid to be funny. Not ha-ha funny, but rueful and ironic as it observes a newly-married couple obviously not suited to each other but only now belatedly beginning to realise what lies ahead.
D'Arcy, who also won the First Fiction Award, worked as a solicitor in London after graduating from UCC but returned to Cork in 1999 with her husband and small son. She began attending workshops with Claire Keegan in 2005. Although her winning story is the first she has published, she has been shortlisted in several competitions and is working on a novel set in Cork and London in the 1980s. "The characters are a disgraceful bunch of punks and confused hippies," she says.
Olive Broderick, who is from Youghal but now lives in Downpatrick, won the Emerging Poetry Award with her poems 'Misconception' and 'Market Forces', and Michael O'Higgins followed up his 2007 First Fiction triumph by winning the Emerging Fiction Award with 'The Migration'. "This story does something I doubt many writers would attempt to do," said novelist Carl Gebler, who judged the awards with poet Paula Meehan and Ciaran Carty, editor of the New Irish Writing page in the Sunday Tribune for the past 21 years. "Without discounting the scale of the offence, it describes a paedophile sympathetically, sensitively, lucidly and intelligently. It shows us a truth that most of us don't want to face: paedophiles are human. As someone who has worked in prisons in the North for 17 years, I believe it's essential, if we want to call ourselves civilized, that work like this is in circulation."
Paula Meehan praised the overall quality of the shortlisted poems, but Olive Broderick's in particular, for "challenging us with their mystery". She likened making a poem to a child at a window pane making a mark with his breath. "It's something we all do as children, and I still do it."
Presenting the awards on behalf of Hennessy Cognac, John Pearson said the company was committed to honouring the achievements of emerging Irish writers. "For the past 39 years writers from all over the island of Ireland have submitted work to the New Irish Writing page hoping to see their carefully chosen and very personal work published in a national paper." New Irish Writing was started in the Irish Press in 1969 and in 1988 moved to the Sunday Tribune where the first winner of the New Irish Writer of the Year Award was Joseph O'Connor, followed in 1990 by Colum McCann. John Boyne, Vona Groarke, Anne Enright, Hugo Hamilton, Marina Carr, Paul Perry, Mary O'Donnell and Philip Ó Ceallaigh are among other writers whose early work appeared there.
Neil Jordan, whose first stories were published in New Irish Writing, was inducted into the Hennessy X.O Hall of Fame by Ciaran Carty, joining Hugo Hamilton, Anne Enright, Frank McGuinness, Pat McCabe, Colum McCann, Joseph O'Connor and Dermot Bolger. The Hall of Fame honours major writers who began their career in New Irish Writing.
The awards were introduced by Ann-Marie O'Connor and extracts from the winning pieces and from Neil Jordan's forthcoming novel Mistaken were read by Amanda Coogan. The attendance at the awards included Hall of Fame authors Patrick McCabe and Hugo Hamilton and former awards judges Micheal O'Siadhail, Mary O'Donnell and John (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) Boyne, whose new children's novel Noah Barleywater Runs Away, due out in October, has been tipped by Screen International as one of the "tastiest un-optioned books of the coming year". Two other New Irish Writing alumni, Joseph O'Connor and Kevin Barry, also have novels due out soon – Ghost Light and The City of Bohane respectively. Also in attendance were Noirín Hegarty, editor of the Sunday Tribune; Olivia Doyle; Paul Lynch; Deirdre Purcell; Michael O'Loughlin, whose daughter Sara was short-listed for First Fiction; Robert O'Byrne; Kevin Power, winner of last year's Emerging Fiction Award; playwright Mark O'Rowe; Catherine Heaney; Anthony Farrell; Kathy Gilfillan; Fiona Ross; Donough Cahill; Margaret Daly; Maria Allstrom and Vitoria Colonna Di Stigliano.