The Great Irish Author

If ever there was a Eurovision Contest for the country with the most talented and acclaimed writers Ireland would win hands down. But then again Eurovision was always our thing wasn’t it? At least until Dustin the Turkey got in the way! However, while our credibility in the Eurovision continues to wane, our reputation for producing world class writers, journalists and poets continues to soar. Why is it that a craggy country on the edge of the Atlantic has such an epic writing tradition?

As with most philosophical questions it’s best to go back to the very beginning when seeking answers and for us it’s the Celts. Our ancestors’ illustrious and intricate style of writing known as Ogham was the cornerstone from where our love-affair with writing began. Of course we also have the British to thank for the wondrous writers our tiny nation has produced. Writing provided an escapism for us as we fought our way through the Famine, religious suppression and various wars.  And most importantly, we survived all these tribulations, so writing is also a symbol of survival for the Irish people.

When it comes to the crème de la crème of Irish authors the list is endless, but one is worth a mention. Yeats, Ireland’s most celebrated poet, was not only a gifted wordsmith, but a hopeless romantic which I’m sure many of us unlucky in love can relate to. After spending the majority of his life in unrequited love with philanthropist Maud Gonne, he has her to thank for some of his greatest literary works, most notably his dream-like poem “He wishes for cloths in Heaven”.

While Yeats and other writers such as Beckett, Shaw and Joyce are undoubtedly the ringleaders of the Irish Mob of writers, post-independent Ireland didn’t fail in producing a plethora of fantastic writers either! Just because we had gotten political freedom, there were still more issues than ever to put pen to paper about. Think of John B. Keane putting the spotlight on rural life in 1950’s Ireland and poets Derek Mahon and Nobel Laureate Heaney expressing the conflict in Northern Ireland through the art of writing. Even more recently the Recession was the mainspring for Donal Ryan’s Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Spinning Heart.

However let’s not get mistaken in thinking that the Pantheon of Irish Writer’s is solely made up of testosterone. While some women have girl crushes on Beyoncé, I happen to be infatuated with the deceased Irish author Maeve Binchy who undoubtedly paved the way for women writers in Ireland today. Her book’s Circle of Friends and Light a Penny Candle are must- read coming of age books for young women even in the 21st Century. Chick lit novelists such as Cecelia Ahern and Cathy Kelly have Ms Binchy to thank for their success.

Ireland’s history of great writer’s is a bestseller story in itself. With modern writers like Joseph O’ Connor and Marian Keyes flying the Irish writing flag it’s safe to say the next chapter of our story is in good hands.

Wishing On A Star- Emma Hannigan

In a candid interview I chat with author and self-proclaimed “cancer vixen” Emma Hannigan about battling the disease an extraordinary nine times

There definitely seems to be something in the water of seaside town Bray. With comedian Dara O’ Briain, presenter Laura Whitmore, and Olympic Gold medallist Katie Taylor all hailing from the satellite town, it certainly has star quality credentials. Author Emma Hannigan can surely be added to this list of well-known Bray off-spring. Having purchased her first books and met her husband there, Emma is now rearing her own children in the Wicklow town. Heart-warming and truly inspiring, an endless flow of endearing dialogue flows from the author’s mouth.

“I lived in Bray and that’s where the first Dubray Bookshop originated. It was called the Bray Bookshop. It was an amazing bookshop and my mum was a Montessori teacher. Both myself and my older brother were able to write at the age of three. We got a book every week. My Mum instilled it in me, you blame your mum for everything I suppose”, laughs the author

In 2005, Emma’s seemingly picture perfect lifestyle was rocked with the news that she possessed a rare gene, BrCa1, which made her 85% more likely of developing breast cancer and had a 50% chance of developing ovarian cancer. Instead of viewing this information as a negative, reflecting ten years on, Emma knows that had she not known about this gene she probably wouldn’t be alive today. “I feel that knowledge is power. So I always saw it as a positive thing that I knew I had it. I know now for a fact had I not been diagnosed with that gene and if I hadn’t reacted when I had I wouldn’t be here now”

It was perhaps Emma’s steady educational background that allowed her to view this potentially fatal news in a positive light and in 2006 she took the brave step in having a double mastectomy to prevent the manifestation of cancer. However these precautionary steps didn’t prevent Emma from falling victim to breast cancer in 2007 and a whopping eight times thereafter. Still in her early thirties at this time, I ask Emma did she ever say “Why me?”

“No I’ve never said that. It was one in 3, it’s now one in 2 people who will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. You know it’s not that unusual, it is unusual to have cancer 9 times, I’ll give you that” As in every aspect of her life Emma viewed the situation as a positive and was practical in her approach to tackling the disease.

“My prognosis was always positive, the doctors were always very clear about that. I’ve been very fortunate in that every radiation and chemo session that I’ve had has worked and eradicated the cancer that was there at the time. I’ve had recurrences and that is due to the gene, but I know that I’m very lucky that the new treatments are working on me”

Although she is not a “guinea pig” for new drugs, Emma is aware of how important these new clinical practices are in building cancer research and removing the deadly stigma that is attached to the disease. “I suppose I’m at the forefront of this new age of cancer in that it can be a chronic illness rather than a disease that will kill you and I’m very much the proof of that. I was born at the right time I think”

Emma owes her survival to modern medicine and doctors “I don’t have special powers; there isn’t a reason why I survived. It’s not that I’m better at it than somebody else, it’s that the treatments are getting better all the time”

It was this time spent in hospital undergoing gruelling chemotherapy and radiation sessions that Emma turned to writing as a form of solace. With best friend, author Cathy Kelly guiding her towards the names of various publishers, Emma received two book deals within ten days, avoiding the usual strenuous process that many authors face when trying to grab their first book deal .

“I didn’t quite understand how difficult it is to get published. My heart goes out to those struggling with it and I’m sure they want to batter me right now. I don’t know, I’m not a religious person but I do believe that things happen for a reason and I do believe that people watch over us. Somebody good up there is minding me”

In 2011 Emma wrote Talk to the Headscarf, a memoir documenting her own battle with cancer. Written in her signature heart-felt and humorous style, Emma admits that it was a cathartic, yet surreal experience.

“I found it really odd to write. I’d written two fiction books at this stage and then to have to write something that was fact rather than fiction, it’s very hard not to let your mind wander and think it would be great if she went off to Paris in the next chapter” says the author heartedly.

“There was definitely a sense of when I was writing parts of it and thinking ‘Jesus imagine if that happened to you!’ and it had happened to me. Bloody hell, if somebody told me all of these things were going to happen, I’d have never believed them. And you do forget. So I suppose it was a way of getting it all out. I don’t really look back as a person, I always look forward. It’s really weird writing something that actually happened to you. You block out a lot of things I think”

In remission, Emma is now a full-time author and as our conversation comes to a close she lets us in on some trusted advice her father gave to her which she believes should be applied to writing

“The main thing I would say is to be honest and write from who you are. A thing my dad said to me years ago which was one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was if you are going to lie you have to have a brilliant memory. If you try and be Marian Keyes, you might be quite good at it for one book but if you try and continue, it’s very difficult and it’s very exhausting, so be yourself”

Emma’s latest book The Secrets We Share is available in all good book stores April 9th.