The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for 2014 has been awarded to Colin Barrett in recognition of his outstanding achievement as a fiction writer. The announcement was made by the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr Patrick Prendergast, at a reception in the Provost’s House on Monday evening (September 1st).

Now in its 38th year, the Rooney Prize is a highly regarded award recognising a body of work by a young Irish writer which the selection committee considers shows exceptional promise. Past recipients include Neil Jordan, Frank McGuinness, Hugo Hamilton, Anne Enright, Mark O’Rowe, Claire Keegan, Keith Ridgway, Philip O Ceallaigh, Kevin Barry, Lucy Caldwell and Ciaran Collins.

The annual award is maintained through the generosity of Dr Daniel Rooney, President Emeritus of the Pittsburgh Steelers who recently served as Ambassador of the United States of America to Ireland, and his wife Mrs Patricia Rooney. The award is administered by the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing at the School of English at Trinity.

Colin is pictured above at the reception on Monday with Dr Prendergast and Dan and Patricia Rooney.

The Rooney Prize 2014 selection committee was comprised of:

Gerald Dawe poet and essayist, (Professor of English, TCD); Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, poet, critic and editor (Professor Emerita, School of English, TCD); Dr Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, novelist and dramatist (Lecturer in Creative Writing, UCD); Dr Carlo Gébler, novelist and dramatist; Dr Riana O’Dwyer , critic, (Department of English, National University of Ireland at Galway) and Jonathan Williams (Literary Agent and Editor).

Here follows the award citation delivered by Jonathan Williams on behalf of the committee:

The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature is awarded annually for a body of work that, in the view of the selection committee, shows exceptional promise. In certain years a single outstanding work may warrant an award being presented to its author, especially where there is evidence of further writings in progress.

This year’s recipient, Colin Barrett, has been awarded the Rooney Prize specifically for his first book, Young Skins, which comprises six short stories and a novella. The book was first published in Ireland by The Stinging Fly Press and was subsequently published in Britain about six months ago by Jonathan Cape.

Young Skins is a shimmering debut. Henry James said the house of fiction contains many windows. This collection opens a window on a very particular tract of earth. All the stories take place in or around a fictionalised small town in north Mayo, but, as with other writers who have chosen to set their narratives in a postage stamp patch of earth, it would be a grave mistake to characterise these stories as being in any way parochial. Rather, Colin Barrett’s fictional terrain will resonate with readers from various cultural backgrounds, in the same way as the settings of Maupassant’s short stories do. In Young Skins, the writer has made a world.

There is an intensity about some of these stories. It’s as though an electric current is running along the spine of the book. Barrett can invest the most mundane incident with a tautness and incipient menace. And yet scenes of horrifying brutality – ‘the wishbone snap of a nose breaking’ is one instance – are cheek by jowl with smoulderingly beautiful prose about the Mayo landscape, about the air and the quality of the light. The varying colours of the sky and clouds – ‘warm’, ‘melancholy’, ‘lavender’ in one story – are depicted with obvious relish. In the embedded novella, ‘Calm with Horses’, which takes up nearly half the collection, just before what proves to be a particularly violent confrontation, there is a pastoral serenity:

‘They were beyond the farmsteads now, into reefs of bogland infested with gorse bushes. Bony, hard thorned and truculently thriving, the gorse bushes’ yellow blossoms were vivid against the grained black sheen of the sump-waters, the seamed bog fields. The sky was clearing itself of clouds. The day was on its afternoon wane, already.’

Colin Barrett portrays the individuals who inhabit these stories with a potent fusion of pitiless insight and a merciful acceptance, much as Flannery O’Connor does in her fiction. Despite the prevailing despair and outbursts of viciousness in these stories, what gives them an affirmative twist inevitably is the invigorating prose. I think the greatest attribute of good writing is a verb used in a way you have never seen it used before. Young Skins has a slew of them.

This dazzling writer has a whiplash wit – one lad in ‘Stand Your Skin’ has ‘a spotty face like a dropped bolognaise’ – and there are turns of phrase to savour in his descriptions of the animal world: pigs with snouts shaped like electrical sockets and ‘cows moving like barges through the long grass’.

Reading the stories put me in mind of William Faulkner’s words that the oppressed live permanently in a kind of daze. The collection is written with a ferocious elegance and underpinned by a clear metaphorical impulse.

My colleagues on the panel and I trust that the Rooney Prize will enable Colin Barrett to write many more astringent and arresting stories (which, like all achieved work, deepen on further reading).