Rural stories of isolation and dark humour
Growing up in Co Mayo helped Colin Barrett shape wild visual narratives written in local voices
Colin Barrett: bends language to expose new angles
In a Dublin cafe, a few minutes into an interview with Colin Barrett, he does that thing all storytellers do without realising: he imparts an innocuous piece of information but reveals something else very telling.
The 31-year-old is explaining his roots: he’s a Mayo man who wrote his new book in Dublin but is now living in Mullingar, in Co Westmeath. This is swiftly followed by an afterthought. “I was actually born in Canada. My parents are Irish and had emigrated there. My mother says it was all part of her plan to have her children born in countries with good economies, for when the inevitable cycle of immigration hit.”
Her prophetic gift is to be applauded: her son not only currently lives in the middle of another cycle of emigration but also astutely records the lives of those it affects.
In his debut short-story collection, Young Skins, Barrett catalogues the lives of a generation of twentysomethings living in the fictional midlands town of Glanbeigh. “Every story is about someone leaving home or coming home,” says Barrett, but in Glanbeigh emigration is a peripheral force, something that happens to other people and an option not taken by many.
The young men of these stories (and it is mostly men) accept their collective lot, and anchor themselves to the town. They sit at bars, watching girls. Time seems frozen in amber and simultaneously charging past, taking the best years of their youth with it.
They are distinct in their idiosyncrasies, however: Dympna, the (male) drug dealer; Matteen, a local pool shark; and Bat, a shy shop worker who has been disfigured after an attack.
Barrett was wary of writing about a place familiar to him, but he found it unavoidable. “I tried to write more fantastical stuff not connected to my life, which writers often do when they’re starting out. I circled around, trying to disguise it, but once you set it in a milieu that’s familiar, it comes out with energy.
Growing up in Co Mayo, Barrett was more interested in visual narratives than in words, and he drew constantly. If he watched something on television, he drew his own version of it. Cartoons were a favourite, as were comics, but he began to develop his own stories.
“If I played with my toys, I’d tell a story and not just bash them together. I had to tell a little soap opera, or create Star Wars rip-offs. Some writers write with their ears, some with their eyes, and to this day when I’m inventing a simile or metaphor it’s always the visual comparison I get in my mind’s eye.”