Irish author John Banville was the surprise winner of the Man Booker Prize tonight with his novel 'The Sea'.

The contest was expected to be a run-off between bookmakers' favourite Julian Barnes, former winner Kazuo Ishiguro, and Zadie Smith.

But Banville, a 7/1 outsider, triumphed after a fierce debate among the judges.

They had been torn between Banville and Ishiguro's novel 'Never Let Me Go'.

Chair of the judges John Sutherland cast the deciding vote.

He said: 'In an extraordinarily closely contested last round, in which the judges felt the level of the shortlisted novels was as high as it can ever have been, they have agreed to award the Man Booker Prize to John Banville's The Sea, a masterly study of grief, memory and love recollected.

'The judges salute all the shortlisted novels,' he added.

In 1989, Banville's novel 'The Book Of Evidence' was shortlisted for the Booker Prize but lost out to Ishiguro's 'The Remains Of The Day'.

The narrator of 'The Sea' is Max Morden, a middle-aged arts historian mourning the recent death of his wife from cancer.

He returns to the Irish seaside town where he spent a childhood summer and recalls the traumatic events which have haunted him ever since.

Banville, 59, was born in Wexford and now lives in Dublin. He is the first Irish winner since Roddy Doyle in 1993.

The prize is worth £50,000 and a guaranteed boost in sales. The award ceremony was held at the London Guildhall.

Banville was one of two Irish authors on the shortlist - the other was Sebastian Barry for 'A Long Long Way'.