Presentation of the Irish PEN Award for Literature

Remarks by President Michael D. Higgins at the presentation of the Irish PEN Award for Literature to Joseph O’Connor, Friday, 10th February, 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am absolutely delighted to be here tonight at the Irish Pen award for literature, and I would like to thank Joe Armstrong, the Chair of Irish PEN, for his kind invitation to join you all here this evening.

The work of the writer we honour this evening is replete with themes and issues that go to the heart of personal dignity and human decency. The symbolic empty chair reminds us all that many writers around the world still struggle for the freedom to address those issues and pay a high personal price for their commitment to truth and free speech. As we enjoy our evening, and happily celebrate the achievements of the writer we are honouring, we also remember all our fellow writers for whom PEN continues to hold a torch of concern and solidarity.

Cé gur tír bheag í Éire bhíomar ar thús cadhnaíochta sna réimsí ealaíon agus cultúir i gcónaí. Chuireamar go mór le domhan na litríochta ach go háirithe agus bronnadh Duais Nobel na Litríochta ar scríbhneoirí Éireannacha ceithre huaire.

Many, many more Irish writers have featured, and continue to feature, on prestigious shortlists for literary awards around the world. Tonight, I am truly delighted to be joining you to honour one of those great Irish diplomats of literature, renowned abroad and loved at home as one of our greatest and most popular contemporary writers.

I have always been struck by Joseph O’Connor’s tale of how, in one evening of what he described as ‘dismal hopelessness’, he found himself copying, word for word the text of John McGahern’s short story ‘Sierra Leone’ simply to ease the ache of feeling unable to create a piece of work and put it down on paper. It is a feeling that all born writers will instantly recognise and Joseph O’Connor is truly a born writer.

Since those early days of yearning frustration he has, of course, gone from strength to strength, his brilliant novels winning awards, accolades and praise around the world.

He is a brilliant writer and an accessible one. He is an urban realist who also delves beautifully and imaginatively into a past that defines so much of our national character. He is a talented writer, and a truly courageous one, a writer who takes risks, who tries new things, who is determined to constantly stretch and challenge himself, who never ever takes his great and unique gift for granted.

With the publication of “Star of the Sea” in 2004 Joe both impressed and amazed the literary world. It is generally regarded as the novel that brought Joe to the admiring attention a very wide and international readership. Described as ‘a missing link in the Irish literary tradition’ this novel reminds us of the searing reality of our national historical experience as Joseph bravely and imaginatively confronts that bleakest of bleak moments in our past to produce a work of astounding brilliance and originality.

Even before that ground breaking piece of work, Joseph had proved himself as a writer who allows us to discover ourselves and, through that discovery, to learn more about ourselves and the situations we must deal with. This talent was evident from his very earliest novels: “Cowboys and Indians” where he so brilliantly and poignantly depicted the final moments of a pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland poised on the brink of change but still trapped in its own past, unaware of the seismic changes to our society and culture that were shortly to come; and “Desperados” where he moved between the decades, and indeed between Ireland and revolutionary Nicaragua, as he explored the necessity to understand our past and to face up to our mistakes in order to deal with current difficulties and sadness. With the apparent ease of the true novelist he forced us into a confrontation with ourselves as he captured the light, the darkness and the shadowed hues of a normal, complex, multi-faceted existence. His involvement with post dictatorship Nicaragua rejected the idealist impulse of his heart.

“Star of the Sea” and “Redemption Falls” represented Joe’s thematic sojourn in the United States after which he returned to Ireland for the focus of his most recent novel. “Ghost Light” not only beautifully tells the story of a doomed love affair between John Millington Synge and Molly Allgood, it also evocatively captures the spirit of a society in crisis in all its political, cultural and social turmoil. In Molly Allgood Joe has surely depicted one of the most compelling female characters in modern literary fiction and her decline and death in the novel is unbearably moving. There is no doubt that Joe O’Connor is one of the brightest stars among a brilliant constellation of contemporary Irish writing.

We are, of course, living through very difficult days. At my inauguration, I said that our successes in the eyes of so many in the world have been in the cultural and spiritual areas – in our humanitarian, peace-building and human rights work; in our literature, art, drama and song; and in how that drama, song and literature have helped us cope with adversity, soothed the very pain which they describe so well, and opened the space for new possibilities.

When it comes to soothing our collective pain, Joe O’Connor has also done us all great service. Not only is Joe a very distinguished novelist, he is also a wonderful diarist and essayist. In previous years these were catalogued in the published diaries of a hapless young male who was struggling to make sense of life, love and – even more trying – his Irishness. In more recent years, Joe’s reflections on the issues “du jour” have been broadcast to the nation in the form of a radio diary. His preoccupations span the spectrum of life – politics, love, music, family, children, the extraordinarily creative way that Irish people use foul language and the propensity of Irish teenagers to use the word “like” in such a multi-functional manner.

Joe’s radio diaries may be satirical but it is a satire that is used for caring and constructive purposes. Underlying all of Joe’s broadcast reflections is a sense of a man who cares deeply about his country, who feels a profound empathy with his fellow citizens who are struggling through tough times, who values and respects the old decencies that were at the heart of community life in Ireland and who is determined to use his unique creative genius to imagine a future society that we can all be proud of and in which all our children can live, grow and prosper.

As a people and a country we are closing one sad chapter and opening another that we hope will lead to a new version of our Irishness; one that retains all that was best about our past but is founded on a new wisdom born out of disappointment, hurt and adversity, but also driven by a determination not to be paralysed by a cynical fatalism and by a positive commitment, in a spirit of active citizenship, to play our own individual part in renewing the Republic, strengthening the fabric our society and enhancing the quality of our community.

It is a chapter of new possibilities and, as a country, we are fortunate to have contemporary writers of the calibre of Joseph to chart this new chapter; writers who so beautifully and often so poignantly capture those important moments in our national psyche; the parts of our past that are key to our understanding of the society we live in and may wish to change; the complexity and the moral confusion of a rapidly and constantly changing Ireland; and now the fragility of the aftershock and our great national courage as we gather our strength and move forward to a shared and better future.

Ba mhaith liom críoch a chur leis seo agus comhghairdeas a dhéanamh le Seosamh toisc gur roghnaíodh é don dámhachtain cháiliúil seo, ardghradam atá aige anois ar aon dul leis na scríbhneoirí Éireannacha is tábhachtaí agus is cáiliúla dá bhfuil ann. Is gradam é a chuireann Seosamh chun tosaigh mar cheann de na guthanna is tábhachtaí agus is mó tionchair i litríocht chomhaimseartha na hÉireann.

I am honoured to be here tonight to present this award to a writer I have long admired and am especially pleased to do so in the presence of Joe’s wife Anne Marie and his parents Seán and Viola. I wish Joseph every success in the future and look forward to reading more of his very brilliant work.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.