Love and light... Emma’s legacy

The trib­ute to Emma Han­ni­gan at the Irish Book Awards re­flected a writer’s life of grit, grace and laugh­ter, writes Emily Houri­can

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News -

IWONDER would Emma Han­ni­gan have been sur­prised at the award, given to her fam­ily, in recog­ni­tion of her writ­ing, at the Irish Book Awards last week? I hope not. I hope she knew how much she meant to peo­ple; to her read­ers and the peo­ple who knew her and miss her and who —some of us, any­way — still talk to her a bit in our heads.

She would have been pleased, of course she would — recog­ni­tion is al­ways nice. But I can’t imag­ine she would have been too ex­cited. I doubt she cared all that much about awards. From what I could see, it was writ­ing Emma loved — I re­mem­ber her telling me: “Writ­ing is my ther­apy; some peo­ple find God, I found books.” Writ­ing, and be­ing read.

I re­mem­ber do­ing a panel dis­cus­sion with Emma once, in the Smock Al­ley theatre — it was, if I’m cor­rect, on writ­ing and moth­er­hood and how (if!) the two go to­gether — and I asked her be­fore­hand if she was ner­vous. I asked be­cause I was. And she said, not in the slight­est, that she loved meet­ing peo­ple and talk­ing to them, and meet­ing read­ers was the best of all.

Sure enough, out there in front of the au­di­ence, Emma was com­pletely nat­u­ral. By which I mean, com­pletely her­self — funny and bright and charm­ing, but also com­pletely un­sen­ti­men­tal about the re­al­i­ties of life as a writer, and a mother, with can­cer.

That to­tal lack of sen­ti­men­tal­ity, or any kind of self-pity, makes me think Emma might have laughed a lit­tle at us — at me, any­way — if she had watched the tributes to her that were screened at the awards.

I, and a few more of Emma’s friends, talked about her, and about what she meant to us. Each of us said the same thing, in com­pletely dif­fer­ent words: that she was the bravest per­son we knew, with a very par­tic­u­lar kind of grit and tenac­ity that came wrapped in sparkle and mirth and charm, and that didn’t ever give way, even un­der enor­mous pres­sure.

Some­times, it takes a bit of dis­tance to see how truly un­usual some­one is. Emma has been gone nearly nine months now, and there is no doubt in my mind — she was a very un­usual per­son. She had the gift of courage. And the gift of grace, both phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal.

Emma told me once “Life is pre­cious. Ev­ery­body has ad­ver­sity, you’ve got to take it as it comes, but by God you’ve got to grab the good times and the fun, and fo­cus on it and en­joy things.” Any­one can say that — lots of peo­ple do, or stuff very like it. But Emma lived it. And that’s what’s so un­usual.

There is now a re­search schol­ar­ship in her name. The €133,000 raised in the weeks im­me­di­ately be­fore Emma died, along with an­other €39,000 raised af­ter­wards, has been put to­wards re­search into the breast can­cer that killed her. The Emma Han­ni­gan Breast Can­cer Re­search Fel­low­ship has been awarded to Dr Damir Vares­lija at the Royal Col­lege of Sur­geons, who met Emma in Fe­bru­ary 2016.

The main fo­cus of Damir’s re­search is into metastatic breast can­cer, mean­ing can­cer that has spread to other parts of the body; the sin­gle big­gest cause of mor­tal­ity in breast can­cer. Which means, we hope, that an­other woman, many other women, and their fam­i­lies, will be spared what Emma and her fam­ily went through. That’s some legacy. Much more than most of us could hope for.

Thanks to Emma, more women talk about what hap­pens to them, men­tally and phys­i­cally, when they have can­cer. They are less ashamed. They don’t feel the same need to pre­tend noth­ing has changed, be­cause they have her as an ex­am­ple. She told me once that she would hap­pily have stood naked in St Stephen’s Green if she thought it would do any good — by which she meant, en­cour­age women to know that can­cer may be what they have. It is not what they are.

In re­cent times, sev­eral peo­ple close to me have been di­ag­nosed with can­cer — of course they have, more than 100 peo­ple a day in this coun­try are di­ag­nosed, over 40,500 new cases a year — and I try to be for them what Emma was for me: stead­fast, pos­i­tive, en­cour­ag­ing; a source of light, with plenty of very dark jokes thrown in.

I have a cou­ple of new catch­phrases thanks to Emma.

One of them is, ‘‘There’s no point in fight­ing to be well, fight­ing to live, and then be­ing a mis­er­able cow”. I say that one to my­self on days when I am feel­ing par­tic­u­larly ratty and stressed; go­ing around ag­grieved and ir­ri­ta­ble and count­ing woes in­stead of bless­ings.

Her voice pops into my head, and so far, it hasn’t let me down. Once it’s there, in my head, I stop moan­ing or stress­ing, and go for a walk or a run, or I smile at my chil­dren and sug­gest we do some­thing fun, in­stead of nag­ging them about home­work and pick­ing up shoes. Ac­cord­ing to the well­ness folk, we all need a mantra. I think that’s mine.

The other catch­phrase is ‘‘love and light’’. I think a lot of peo­ple are us­ing that now. I see it on so­cial me­dia, friends of Emma’s sign­ing off from a post, or read­ers com­ment­ing on some­thing to do with her work. It al­ways makes me smile. It’s so her.

Love and light, Emma. We miss you.

‘Her voice pops into my head, and so far, it hasn’t let me down’

TURKEY and ham was the fes­tive fare dished up last week at the An Post Irish Book Awards. To some it might seem a tad early but the last Tues­day in Novem­ber has un­of­fi­cially crept into the cal­en­dar as the Irish book in­dus­try’s Christ­mas party. And what a swell party it was.

Mas­sive ex­cite­ment at­tended our new head­line spon­sors, An Post. With his cus­tom­ary elan, CEO David McRed­mond has hit the ground run­ning, pour­ing his pas­sion for books along with his con­sid­er­able drive, into our beloved awards. So the at­mos­phere was high, the glam­our quo­tient off the scale, and the goody bags gen­er­ous and imag­i­na­tive.

I was very proud to see my erst­while school friend Liz Nu­gent pick up two prizes — Crime, cour­tesy of our sis­ter pa­per, the Irish In­de­pend

ent; and Ryan Tubridy Show Lis­ten­ers’ Choice — for her darkly de­li­cious sliver of Cote d’Azur noir Skin Deep. She told the au­di­ence if she hadn’t won she’d have stormed out, knocked over the ta­ble and kicked Gra­ham Nor­ton.

De­spite not win­ning, the lat­ter was his ebul­lient, charm­ing self, ob­serv­ing “it’s in­cred­i­ble to see how im­por­tant books are in Ire­land”.

Much has been made of the big swathe of fe­male win­ners: among oth­ers, Cora Staunton (with Mary White) took Sport for Game Changer; Lynn Ruane was the emo­tional win­ner of the On­side Non-Fic­tion award for her stark mem­oir

Peo­ple Like Me; Sarah Webb re­ceived a richly de­served laurel in the chil­dren’s se­nior cat­e­gory for Blaz­ing a Trail; and young Sally Rooney waltzed away with the ul­ti­mate ac­co­lade, Ea­son Book Club Novel of the Year, for Nor­mal Peo­ple.

“Thank good­ness we got the curly blow-dries,” said Emer McLysaght who, along with co-au­thor Sarah Breen, picked up the Spec­savers Pop­u­lar Fic­tion tro­phy for their se­cond novel, The Im­por­tance of Be­ing Ais­ling.

But let’s not for­get the men. I en­joyed a glass of cham­pagne be­fore din­ner with two dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sors, Luke O’Neill and Diarmaid Fer­riter, both short­listed re­spec­tively for their fine books Hu­manol­ogy and On The Edge. John

Connell (“I’m a builder’s son and a farmer’s son”) was a pop­u­lar win­ner for The Cow Book; Light­houses of Ire­land by Roger O’Reilly picked up the plau­dit for Best Irish Pub­lished and Brian Con­aghan won Teen Book of the Year for The Weight of a Thou­sand Feath­ers.

An ap­pro­pri­ately lyri­cal trib­ute was paid to poet Thomas Kin­sella who was awarded the Bob Hughes Life­time Achieve­ment Award for his great body of work.

A pal­pa­ble sad­ness per­me­ated the room as TV pre­sen­ter Elaine Crow­ley, pay­ing trib­ute be­fore the pre­sen­ta­tion of An Post’s Spe­cial Award to the fam­ily of the late Emma Han­ni­gan, re­called how her friend’s legacy was “laugh­ter and hap­pi­ness”. An ex­cep­tion­ally brave woman, who used her dy­ing days to raise money for can­cer re­search, the late, much-loved Emma was a shin­ing ex­am­ple of the good­ness of writ­ers.

Fi­nally, it was a great priv­i­lege to present our own New­comer of the Year Award to UCD aca­demic Em­i­lie Pine for her out­stand­ing col­lec­tion of es­says, Notes To Self, from the im­print of Tramp Press, which is mak­ing huge waves in pub­lish­ing.

Pine quipped: “I can rec­om­mend be­com­ing a new­comer in your 40s,” be­fore re­mind­ing us that, “love is the foun­da­tion of our hu­man­ity”.

From left: Mary O’Sul­li­van, ‘Sun­day In­de­pen­dent’ Liv­ing ed­i­tor, and So­phie White, LIFE colum­nist; Pop­u­lar Non-Fic­tion Book of the Year win­ner John Connell and his wife Viv; ‘Sun­day In­de­pen­dent’ Ed­i­tor Cor­mac Bourke with New­comer of the Year Em­i­lie Pine and ‘Sun­day In­de­pen­dent’ Lit­er­ary Ed­i­tor Madeleine Keane; Man Booker Prize win­ner Anna Burns and De­clan Heeney; and Ryan Tubridy and Book Club Novel of the Year win­ner Sally Rooney. Pho­tos: David Conachy

Clock­wise from above: Elaine Crow­ley, Gra­ham Nor­ton and Holly White; Cather­ine Doyle and Louise O’Neill; Keelin Shan­ley and Dara O Bri­ain; Paul Howard, De­clan Lynch and John Boyne; Neven Maguire and ‘Sun­day In­de­pen­dent’ Ed­i­tor Cor­mac Bourke; Brian Con­aghan and Liz Nu­gent; and David O’Cal­laghan and Cecelia Ah­ern

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