1 August 2019
By Elaine Murphy
In the absence of a state honours system, Cork has been showing the way with one of the best honours schemes in Ireland – according to Manus O’Callaghan organiser of the Cork Person of the Year awards.
Each month over the last 26 years, a person is selected for a Cork Person of the Month award and, at year’s end, the Cork Person of the Year is chosen from these monthly winners by the Chief Executives of Cork City and Cork County Councils. This is one of the few award schemes where the winners come from all sectors of society – community, sport, arts, business or even just a good friend or neighbour. Some winners have high profiles already, whilst others come very much from below the radar. Anyone can nominate anyone to the award judges by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Cork awards also present Honorary Corkperson awards to people from outside Cork (‘not lucky enough to be born in Cork’ is the usual quip from The Lord Mayor and County Mayor who make the presentation) together with an annual Hall of Fame award. The most recent recipient of that Hall of Fame award was Journalist Fergal Keane OBE, the BBC Special Correspondent, while last year’s Honorary Corkman was Ireland Head Rugby Coach Joe Schmidt.
“The Cork Person of the Month and Cork Person of the Year awards scheme was established in 1993 and covers both City and County,” said awards founder and organiser Manus O’Callaghan.
“People are inspired by people and, hopefully, by honouring achievement and celebrating success, others may be inspired to follow. Our award scheme celebrates Cork’s greatest asset – our people,” added O’Callaghan.
President Michael D. Higgins said recently at the Cork awards lunch that “while the title of the award is “Cork Person of the Year,” we know, of course, that the achievements of many previous winners extend far beyond the margins of this great county.”
Past winners include Barry Galvin of the Criminal Assets Bureau, Athlete Sonia O’Sullivan, Adi Roche of Chernobyl Children’s Project International, Roy Keane for his achievements in soccer and Louise O’Neill and her campaign for social justice.
The Person of the Year Gala Awards lunch, where the Cork glitterati meet, is very much the social event of the year. After attending his first awards lunch last year, journalist Fergal Keane wrote “It was the kind of gathering that would have set the rest of the country, especially Dubs, muttering wildly about Cork “cliques” and “clans”. At one point Bishop Buckley was deep in conversation on one side of the table, while Micheál Martin was recalling his school days on the other. Suddenly a waitress arrived and, for reasons that remain obscure, begin to declaim about her recent run of luck at bingo. Pure Cork.” Masters of Ceremonies at the award scheme over the years have included Gay Byrne, Claire Byrne, Pat Kenny, Sean O’Rourke, Miriam O’Callaghan, Ryan Tubridy, Marian Finucane and the late Jerry Ryan.
Cork is not afraid to honour the people who have honoured Cork. Ireland seems afraid to have a national honours scheme in case we would abuse it, or be too like England. We are one of the few European countries that does not recognise our own citizens. We left it to others to recognise Seamus Heaney, Terry Wogan, Bono, Bob Geldof, Peter Sutherland and many more. Are we still not mature enough to organise a Government-backed national awards scheme? Cork will keep its award scheme, which it’s proud of, but thinks Ireland deserves one too. A few years ago the Office of Active Citizenship at the Dept of the Taoiseach did recommend that Ireland establish a national honours system to recognise outstanding contributions to Irish society, but nothing ever came of the recommendation. I do appreciate that people fear cronyism or politicising an award scheme, and no Government should proceed without all-party and full Dail support. Some form of Independent Commission would have to be established to recommend people deserving of these awards. It is important that we celebrate great people, including foreign-nationals who have made a contribution, and have a gender and regional balance. It also provides an important marketing opportunity to promote Ireland and its people both at home and abroad. Ex-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said “Irish people who achieve something significant in their walk of life must go to other jurisdictions to get their awards. This is wrong. An awards system should not be based on a system of monarchy or anything else. It is only an awards system.”
The more gongs the British send across the Irish Sea, the less likely this national awards discussion will go away. Our people have also depended on the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom (Mary Robinson in 2009) and countless people have received the French Legion d’honneur. Our national award scheme should be designed to be very irish in nature and name, but it does need the status and standing of been backed by Government and all the institutions of state as the prime official national award scheme. The General Public could be involved in nominating people who have major achievements and committed themselves to serving and helping Ireland. People who have made us proud at home and abroad.
The writer Alex Haley said “find the good and praise it”. Cork has been doing just that for 26 years and it’s now time Ireland followed that good example. The Cork Person of Month and Year award scheme started on a high in 1993, when the late Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, fresh from signing the Downing St., Peace Agreement, came immediately to Cork to launch this unique award scheme, that has stood the test of time. We intend to continue to “find the good and praise”….the days of spare the rod and spoil the child are well and truly over.