Ann Ireland: In Tribute

By | August 30, 2018 at 10:26 am | No comments | News

Ann Ireland: In Tribute

The late Ann Ireland was president of PEN Canada from 1998 to 1999. She wrote five critically acclaimed novels and taught creative writing at The Chang School at Ryerson University from 1991 until her death on August 23, 2018. One colleague at The Chang School remembered her as “kind, capable and unflappable” and the dean described her a “revered instructor and co-ordinator” who “helped countless students find their voices and harness their creativity.” Ireland won the Seal First Novel award for her 1985 book, A Certain Mr. Takahashi.  Subsequent novels were shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award, the Governor General’s literary prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction prize. Former PEN Canada presidents Nino Ricci, Katherine Govier and Sandra Martin have sent us the following tributes.


Nino Ricci

President, 1995-1996

From the moment I met Ann Ireland I wanted to know her better. That was a feeling that never left me in the many years of our friendship, because Ann was that rarest sort of individual, someone you never quite felt you’d got enough of. I would run her into at a party or on the street after not having seen her for months and, without preliminaries, find myself in the middle of the sort of conversation you wished every conversation could be, so rich with possibilities it seemed it could go on for hour or days without exhausting them. More months would go by, while Ann was squirrelled away in her home across the park from mine writing her novels or was spending time with her luckier, more intimate friends or was off in one of her alternative lives in New York or Berkeley or San Miguel, and then I’d see her again and it was as if only moments had passed, and the conversation would carry on.

Ann was not, however, someone who craved the limelight, and when she was approached to be PEN president her response was the one that many of us have had when similarly approached: why me? In Ann’s case this was not a question of shirking but of a habitual humility. It was exactly her humility, though, and the deep humanity that underlay it, that most suited her to the job, because it spoke to what is really at the core of PEN’s work, the concern of one individual for another. Not someone to put herself out on her own account, she never shied away from speaking up on behalf of those prevented from speaking up for themselves. That she was always keenly aware of the very personal side of PEN’s work, in all its thorniness and complexity, came out brilliantly in her novel Exile, which with its disarming honesty and humour steered away from easy answers and so granted its characters the dignity of being fully human.

In the ideal retirement community my wife and I are constantly imagining, a place that gathers up all the people we’d most like to run into on a daily basis, Ann was always at the top of the list. I suspect she was at the top of many such lists, as I suspect there were many people, like me, who never lost the feeling of wanting to know her better. We have her books, at least, to keep the conversation with her going, from her ground-breaking A Certain Mr. Takahashi to her most recent one, Where’s Bob?, published only months ago. For the rest, there is the thought of all the other conversations that might have been, if only time had been kinder.

Katherine Govier

President, 1997-1998

I did not know Ann well, or see her often in the last dozen years. But I have always been grateful to her for stepping into the presidency of PEN  Canada when we needed her, and as I stepped out. That would have been twenty years ago. As a working novelist her time was precious to her, and taking on the task was generous. Ann was quiet, humble, a dedicated writer without a great desire to publicize herself, but truly engaged with the craft. She had a dry sense of humour and an equally strong sense of what was correct behavior for an organization like ours, on which she could be sticky. There was the matter of whether an expensive Mont Blanc pen was a suitable gift for someone, I can’t remember who. No, she said, and we bought local ceramic art instead. Good call, Ann.

Sandra Martin

President, 1999-2001

Ann Ireland was big-hearted, open-minded and curious. She was a writer, a teacher, a mentor and a stalwart believer in freedom of expression. At PEN Canada I particularly remember how hard she worked on the writers in exile program – at an intellectual level, of course, but more memorably in her compassionate and practical assistance in helping writers find respite and a place in Canada after fleeing their homelands.

I am deeply saddened by her premature death.

Photo credit: The Toronto Quarterly

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