I got back from a long-overdue holiday on Sunday, at four in the morning. A few hours sleep and then it was time to get the bus to Belfast. I reckoned on a couple of hours snooze on the bus, but the sun was blazing through the glass and made me feel lucid. It felt like the beginning of something.
I hadn’t bothered looking up maps; I was sure the first person on the street would know the John Hewitt bar. Bad mistake. They were all as big a stranger as myself. The shops were all closed (I thought the Sunday closing only applied to big stores) and the only people in the city centre were tourists. But a security guard at last pointed me in the right direction.
The shortlist was kept secret. Each person on the shortlist knew they were on it (obviously), but the names were not published or posted anywhere. I didn’t see any familiar faces when I came into Hewitt’s. It was too early for a pint, so I ordered a coffee.
The fellow beside me at the bar looked pretty ordinary. Given that one-in-three of the tewnty-four people in the pub must be on the shortlist, it was a reasonable question to ask. “I am indeed,” he said. “Are you on it yourself?”
We had a small chat, but seeing as I was there on my own, and he apparently had no-one with him, it became quite a long chat. He was a big fan of Brian Moore (he pronounced it Breen, which I understand is how the writer preferred it), and had read 17 of his novels. Brian Moore, he told me, was greatly under-rated these days, and there was bound to be a resurgence of interest in his work. The enthusiasm came out in his voice as he recommended me what to read.
And what about the judge, Richard Baush, I asked. “I’ve only read two of his books,” he answered apologetically. “But I really like his stuff. Great short stories.”
Now I had read nothing by Brian Moore and less by Richard Bausch. If there was any justice this guy would win and not me. But I was pretty sure neither of us would win anything. It was a gut feeling.
The shortlist was read out name by name. Then the third place was announced: Korrena Bailey from Monaghan. This was one of her first pieces of writing. She’s far left in the photograph. Second place was Sheena Wilkinson. Both had just finished the MA in creative writing at Queens. The competition was open to all in Ireland, but I would imagine it got more attention up north, especially through the work of the host organisation, the Creative Writers Network. By all accounts they are a great resource, providing a much-needed hub for writers across Northern Ireland.
Then Richard Bausch called out the winner, Hugo Kelly, the man I’d been talking to for the last hour. Sometimes the right person wins.
Hugo has won a number of competitions, including the George Moore short story competition no less than three times. He’s been shortlisted for Fish, the Francis MacManus, and several other places that either I forget or that he didn’t mention. I’d love to read some of his work, I think a collection is long overdue and hopefully this win will change that.
I emailed him a few weeks later asking if there had been any repercussions or developments. “Yeah” he replied, “the phone was hopping with calls from literary agents.” It took me a few seconds to realise he was being ironic.