Author Mark O’Connell awarded €10,000 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature 2019
To Be A Machine author won Wellcome Prize last year for exploration of transhumanism
Mark O’Connell has been awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature 2019 at Trinity College Dublin. Photograph: Fennell Photography
Irish author Mark O’Connell has been awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature 2019 at Trinity College Dublin this evening. He was presented with the prize for his debut To Be a Machine, an exploration of transhumanism. This is the first time the €10,000 award has been made for a work of nonfiction.
Announcing the 2019 winner, member of the prize jury Prof Michael Cronin said: “In his book which takes a personal look at the transhumanist movement – a movement which hopes through technology to enhance human capacities and eventually overcome human mortality – Mark O’Connell shows himself to be a writer of the first rank. His faultless characterisation, his deep interest in the humanity of his transhumanists, his engagingly precise but poetic style, his richly insightful observations on questions which are literally life and death issues, marked out him as a writer of unquestionable promise.”
The prize is awarded for a body of work by emerging Irish writers that shows exceptional promise. The author joins the auspicious ranks of former winners such as Colin Barrett, Sara Baume, Anne Enright and Frank McGuinness among many others.
Being presented with the award in Trinity had a particular relevance for the Kilkenny-born author, who is a graduate of Trinity from where he obtained an undergraduate degree in English and Philosophy and a PhD in English.
O’Connell said: “It’s a delight, and a real surprise, to be chosen as the winner of this year’s Rooney Prize for Irish literature. It’s especially thrilling to be the first writer of non-fiction to be awarded the prize. I’m deeply grateful to the prize committee and to the Rooney family for this wonderful honour.”
O’Connell’s book, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, was published by Granta in 2017. The Irish Times review called it “brilliant… A terrifying, fascinating and often funny insight into a brave new world”.
O’Connell, a books columnist for Slate and a staff writer at The Millions, won the prestigious £30,000 Wellcome Book Prize last year. It celebrates exceptional works that illuminate how health and medicine touch our lives. His next book, Notes from an Apocalypse: a personal journey to the end of the world and back, will be published by Granta next April. O’Connell set out to meet the men and women preparing for the end of the world. In the remote mountains of Scotland, in high-tech bunkers in South Dakota and in the lush valleys of New Zealand, small groups of determined men and women are getting ready. They are environmentalists who fear the ravages of climate change; billionaire entrepreneurs dreaming of life on Mars; and right-wing conspiracists yearning for a lost American idyll. One thing unites them: their certainty that we are only years away from the end of civilization as we know it.
The prize benefactor, Dr Peter Rooney, said: “I am delighted to see the award go to a writer of such original and fresh writing. The vision for it has always been to reward new talent and Mark is most deserving of this year’s award.”
The prize was set up by his uncle, the former US ambassador to Ireland and President Emeritus of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dan Rooney who died two years ago. The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature is administered by the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing at the School of English at Trinity.
Speech by Prof Michael Cronin on behalf of the prize jury
Ascending Errisbeg Hill in Co Galway, the cartographer and essayist Tim Robinson reflects on the dual perspectives of climbing: “Any hill suggests a progression from close-up observations of what is immediately under the climber’s hands and feet, through rests for breath-catching and retrospection and glances ahead at intermediate delusive skylines that hide the ultimate goal, to the triumphal horizon-sweeping outlook from the summit”.
Judges of literary prizes often feel like Robinson’s hill climbers. Gazing intently at the book currently under review and then moving swiftly on to the next, always hoping for that moment when they can finally reach the “the triumphal horizon-sweeping outlook from the summit” and decide on a winner.
This was my first year on the prize jury and I was deeply impressed by the thoroughness, the scrupulousness, the openness of my fellow judges as they gave equal consideration to the works submitted for consideration. From the slimmest volume of poetry to the door-stopping brick of prose, all of the books were objects of the same generous, free-ranging spirit of enquiry and sympathetic analysis.
What became quickly apparent as we hauled our bulging plastic bags and overstuffed tote bags to the Oscar Wilde Centre in Westland Row was the extraordinary vitality of the contemporary writing scene in Ireland. We found writers who were deeply committed to their craft, constantly alert to the news from elsewhere and who were not afraid to experiment with new forms or ideas.
What makes the Rooney Prize such a valuable and distinctive prize in the Irish literary landscape is its commitment to recognise emergence and promise. It is a prize which does not have to labour under the shadow of established reputation but can reward originality, freshness and distinctness. As even the most cursory look at the list of previous prizewinners will show, the writers have again and again delivered on this promise.
What is exciting for the prize jury is that each time you have a blank slate, complete freedom to recognise promise, whatever its source, whatever its form. But you do eventually have to get to the top of that hill and when we did we were unanimous in our choice. Surveying that rich landscape of writing there was one book that stood out for its boldness, its vivacity and its craft. The winner of the 2019 Rooney Prize for Literature is Mark O’Connell for To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death (Granta, 2017).
In awarding the prize to Mark O’Connell the jury was mindful of the need to extend the concept of literature to take in all forms of writing that pay particular attention to the quality and reach of language.
In his book which takes a personal look at the transhumanist movement – a movement which hopes through technology to enhance human capacities and eventually overcome human mortality – Mark O’Connell shows himself to be a writer of the first rank. His faultless characterisation, his deep interest in the humanity of his transhumanists, his engagingly precise but poetic style, his richly insightful observations on questions which are literally life and death issues, marked out him as a writer of unquestionable promise.
He is also corrosively funny. Never mocking or disrespectful of his subjects, he has a dry, teasing wit which makes irony the subtlest of devices in his repertoire as when he describes a futurist at a meeting in London, fumbling and dropping a pistachio nut “down the neck of his shirt open to the ideally entrepreneurial three-to-four buttons” or how one transhumanist, “went by the name T.O. Morrow, but since the late 1990s he has reverted to the less hurtlingly dynamic Tom W. Bell”.
Towards the end of the book, he gives an account of a journey on board the Immortality Bus with a transhumanist and American Presidential hopeful Zoltan Istvan. There is a comic brilliance in his evocation of the mechanically challenged Zoltan accompanied by his acolyte Roen who believed that dying was “so mainstream” as they make their way across Texas in a forty-three foot recreational vehicle in the shape of a giant coffin.
In awarding the prize to Mark O’Connell, the jury is also mindful of the richness of emerging forms of writing in Ireland that blend the personal, the factual and the reflective. Emilie Pine, Ian Maleney, Kevin Breathnach, Sinéad Gleeson are just some of the names that could be mentioned in this context. They demonstrate a continued desire to explore the varied potentials of writing and see how emerging voices can offer new perspectives on questions, both contemporary and ancient.
There is no theme, of course, more central to human engagement with art than the human attempt to come to terms with mortality, which is one of the main preoccupations of To Be a Machine.
We would like to thank all the publishers who submitted works for consideration and to the School of English in Trinity College Dublin and the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing for their administrative support. On behalf of my fellow judges I would also like to thank Jonathan Williams who was such a capable and supportive organising presence throughout the judging process. Once again, we would like to commend Mark O’Connell on his exemplary commitment to the art of writing and we feel that his promise as an emerging literary talent makes him a most worthy winner of the 2019 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Congratulations.
Members of the prize jury are: Jonathan Williams, Dr Rosie Lavan, Carlo Gebler, Riana O’Dwyer, Eiléan Ní Chuileanáin and Professor Michael Cronin, Professor of French & Director of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation at Trinity College Dublin