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

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.

“Writers like Dermot Healy, Kevin Barry, Pat McCabe, Barry Hanna and Richard Ford all made me realise that you can write in a rural idiolect and do it with anarchy and wildness.”

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.”

Year of writing
Barrett quit a full-time job at 28 and enrolled in the master’s degree in creative writing at University College Dublin. His motivation was to have a year of writing full time to see if he could become a writer.

He had already worked his way through writers such as Flannery O’Connor and John Updike. “I was reading more, writing more and developing a sense of what I wanted to do, but it was fragmentary and in isolation.

“The course at least provided the camouflage of a structure. It was something I could tell friends and family – ‘Hey, I’m going back to college to do a master’s!’ – and they wouldn’t think I was completely insane.”

In his 20s, Barrett dabbled in poetry, but he felt that he was drawn more to narrative and characters than to “distilling a moment”. The short story, he says, “is a deceptive form – it can accommodate a lot, but it can also lead to less overexperimentation”.

These stories were written in clusters, but one story could run to 100 drafts, and he is aware of his slow pace. “I have to get a paragraph done before I can move on to the next one. I work very slowly – it’s the only way I can do it – but I found that one story would often generate another, and so Young Skins slowly came together.”

Small-town rivalries, loneliness and the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go dilemma are not new in Irish fiction, but Barrett is a gifted writer. He bends language to expose new angles: water is “saliva-temperatured”, and glasses of drinks are “bunched with knuckles of ice”. There is malice and hopelessness but also, crucially, sex and humour.

Barrett admits an admiration for “Thomas Pynchon and other heady American maximalist guff” and the black humour of Flannery O’Connor. “In my family we react to bad stuff by having a laugh about it. It’s Irish therapy. All of us tell the funny version of a story when we tell it again. It’s a commemorative thing.”

Despite gloomy predictions for short-story collections, particularly from debut writers, Barrett followed his instinct. His publisher, the Stinging Fly Press, has also published successful debut collections by Kevin Barry and Mary Costello. That he is now writing a novel is inevitable, as the stories in Young Skins were “getting longer and more unwieldy”.

“There is more seepage and diversification in genres now, and things are breaking down. The whole history of the novel is of it being broken apart and then healed, and then broken apart again. And I’m really interested in that.”

Young Skins is published by the Stinging Fly Press