Mayo writer Colin Barrett wins Frank O’Connor award with debut collection

Barrett is just second Irish winner of the €25,000 prize, after Edna O’Brien

Colin Barrett: hidden and at times disturbing depths lurk beneath the surface bravado. Young Skins was published in Britain last spring by Jonathan Cape.

Colin Barrett: hidden and at times disturbing depths lurk beneath the surface bravado. Young Skins was published in Britain last spring by Jonathan Cape.

Fri, Jul 11, 2014, 11:20

An Irish writer has held off a strong challenge from four Americans and a Scot to win the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. By winning with his debut collection Young Skins, Colin Barrett becomes only the second Irish winner of the €25,000 prize, initiated in honour of the great Frank O’Connor.

Barrett, who was born in 1982 and grew up in Co Mayo, had not only talent, but also the good fortune to catch the attention of one of emerging Irish fiction’s finest mentors Declan Meade, editor of the Stinging Fly magazine, which first published Barrett in 2009.

Last September, within weeks of another of his writers, Kevin Barry, winning the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, Meade was alerting reviewers to an “original voice” about whose forthcoming collection he was very excited.

That book was Barrett’s Young Skins. Meade was struck by the combination of a high literary style, emotional intelligence and dark humour.

Hidden and at times disturbing depths lurk beneath the surface bravado. Young Skins was published in Britain last spring by Jonathan Cape. One of the seven stories, Calm with Horses, is a stand-out work.

This year’s impressive shortlist included Bark, the first collection in 15 years from Lorrie Moore, and All The Rage from gifted Scot AL Kennedy. Both collections bore the hallmarks of their authors’ idiosyncratic humour.

Sharp, snappy and telling, Moore and Kennedy share that slick, wised-up wit of experienced observers of life and the game in which humans engage. In any year, on any shortlist, either of these books would be expected to win.

Also among the contenders was another debut, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, interlinking realist, often brutal, stories, drawing on his experiences as a US marine serving in Iraq. Its compelling immediacy compounded by a flatly laconic first-person narrative leaves its mark on a reader.

One of the stories begins: “My dad only told me about Vietnam when I was going over to Iraq. He sat me down in the den and he took out a bottle of Jim Beam and a few cans of Bud and started drinking. He’d take long pulls of the whiskey and small sips of the beer, and in between sips he’d tell me things. The sweatbox humidity in the summers, the jungle rot in the monsoons, the uselessness of the M16 in any season. And then, when he was really drunk, he told me about the whores.”

Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Alphabet, was shortlisted for Leaving the Sea, a collection touched by his already characteristically surreal humour. Marcus enjoys countering terror with his belief in life and its possibilities. The sixth, and by no means least, contender, Florida-born Laura van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth, takes an urgent and often funny look at the lives of women in stories that are raw and edgy, bearing unmistakable traces of Lorrie Moore’s pervasive influence.

Barrett and Edna O’Brien, who won in 2011 with Saints and Sinners, are the only two Irish writers to have taken the highly competitive prize. In its 10-year history, it has consistently attracted international quality entries.

Among the most outstanding collections to win have been the inaugural victor Yiyun Li with A Thousand Years of Good Prayers in 2005, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth in 2008 and Ron Rash’s Burning Bright in 2010. Yiyun Li made the shortlist in 2011 with her second collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

The award itself, organised by the Munster Literature Centre and co-sponsored by Cork City Council and the school of English at University College Cork, deserves to be celebrated for its support of an enduring art form, the short story. There is also Cork’s remarkable connection to short stories, through Frank O’Connor and the contemporary master William Trevor, as well as Elizabeth Bowen and Seán Ó Faoláin.

This year’s award will be formally presented to Barrett in September, as part of the Cork International Short Story Festival which was founded in 2000 and continues to thrive as does the short story, the truest test of any prose writer.