Inside the Irish Book Awards

Ever wondered what it’s like to go to a swanky awards dinner and be in with a shout- however remote- of winning something? Read on…

I never had a debs. I can’t remember why (although I seem to remember former Dublin footballer Ger Regan being involved), but for some reason our particular year in school was denied the chance to don the dickie bows and make a show of ourselves.

But God never closes one door without opening a window 22 years later, and nominated for Sports Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards on Thursday, I had that chance.

Except it was a little more difficult than I’d imagined.

The suit was fine- a bit baggy but I’ll put that down to Phil Cahill’s training (despite missing far too much of it lately).

The shirt, however, did a fine impression of the Boston Strangler as I tried to get the top button closed. As well it should- it was a size 15 collar. I take a 16 1/2.

No matter, Black Tie on Westmoreland Street were open late and the ever-helpful Ollie was able to make the switch. I made it out to the RDS in good time.

My date for the evening was poet/gaming feminist genius Sara Maria Griffin. Most of you will remember her as the woman who whipped my ass at the Literary Death Match in Dublin back in September. Since then we’ve been helping each other out as writers should and next year, she will no doubt be nominated herself.

The evening also represented a perfect opportunity for the two of us to do a good cop/bad cop networking routine, with both of us playing the good cop.

The photographers at the entrance paid us scant notice (apparently we were supposed to tell them who we were), and as we entered the impossibly glamourous hall, we met the impossibly glamourous Ciara O’Connor, Gill and MacMillan’s PR manager and far more cultured than any person from Cork should be.

We took our seats, only to rise again for the arrival of our new president, Michael D Higgins. There followed a love-in as Seamus Heaney received yet another lifetime achievement award (it’s not that he doesn’t deserve it, it’s just that other people might too), before we got down to business.

It was only when Sarah asked my if I was nervous that I realised that I actually had something to be nervous about- regardless of me being an unknown, I had a six to one chance of winning. Matters weren’t helped when Fergal Tobin, publishing editor at G&M and the man who gave me the chance to tell our story, came over.

“If you win,” he said conspiratorially, “you’re on your own. Just go up there and say whatever the hell you like”.

Thank God the Sports Book award was one of the first to be given out.

I had thought of writing a just-in-case speech. My opening would be the standard GAA-man-accepting-a-trophy- “tá an-áthas orm an corn seo a ghlacadh”- before a few words to the president as gaeilge too.

Then I wanted to dedicate the award to anyone who felt so let down by our country that they were contemplating leaving it.

I wanted to tell them that thousands of us have already sailed, and we are here to help them.

We don’t have all the answers, but we have ways of finding some of them.

I wanted to say they could go away and when they have done all there is to be done, and when they have won all there is to be won, they could still play a part in making our country great again- perhaps even more so from abroad.

In the end, I wrote nothing.

Ger Cunningham introduced the nominees, and for a few brief seconds the cover of my book and Bob Strong’s photo of me outside the Dubliner in Stockholm flashed up on the big screen.

Tension. Sarah asked if I needed to squeeze her arm. I declined, afraid I’d break it.

Then Nicolas Roche was declared the winner, and I wouldn’t be saying anything.

Later, I went over to where Ronnie Whelan was sitting with Paul Kimmage to get my picture taken with two entirely different kinds of legends.

“Ah, so you’re the other lad who was nominated,” said Ronnie. “Come sit in the loser’s corner for a while”. This from a man with two European Cup winner’s medals.

Was I disappointed? Not as much as I thought I’d be, but disappointed all the same.

Writers - an impossibly smiley breed.

I was the outsider after all, and if it was tough on me, how much harder must it have been for Kimmage? His outstanding first book “Rough Ride” details how he competed with – and in the shadow of –   Roche’s father as a cyclist, only to be undone by his son as a writer?

But as Ger Cunningham said, none of the six sportspeople nominated would be happy coming second, and the truth is I really wanted to win it. I feel our story deserves it- whatever about how I tell it, it’s something we can all be proud of.

Sarah and I schmoozed a little more before making our excuses and geting the hell out of there around midnight.

The long journey home to Stockholm the next day didn’t temper the disappointment either.

It was only this morning when I saw a post from Karl Lambert – the Sundbyberg Express – on the book’s Facebook page that it faded away.

A friend of Karl”s from way back when had posted the following on his wall:

“How ya Karl. Donal from Donegal sitting at Jack’s bar reading a book with you on the cover . Small world hope you on the pigs back. Cheers from mid town :)

I’m no longer disappointed.

So congratulations to Nicolas on winning the award.

I hope winning it made him feel as good as the idea of Donal from Donegal reading my book and our story in a bar in midtown Manhattan made me feel.