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
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