Niamh Campbell awarded 2021 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature

Author of acclaimed debut This Happy won Sunday Times short story award in 2020

Niamh Campbell: “A work that is a bit challenging will struggle to be a bestseller of any kind, so competitions that look for promise and risk are so important, ensuring a book will be taken seriously into the future.” Photograph: Iain White / Fennell Photography

Niamh Campbell: “A work that is a bit challenging will struggle to be a bestseller of any kind, so competitions that look for promise and risk are so important, ensuring a book will be taken seriously into the future.” Photograph: Iain White / Fennell Photography

 

Niamh Campbell has been awarded the 2021 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for her debut novel, This Happy, at a ceremony in Trinity College Dublin this evening.

The €10,000 prize, awarded annually since 1976, is one of the most distinguished Irish literary awards. It celebrates an outstanding body of work by an emerging Irish writer under 40 years of age and is administered by Trinity’s Oscar Wilde Centre for Creative Writing.

Campbell said: “It is overwhelming and so gratifying to be given such a prestigious award at so early a stage in my career. I am hugely grateful to Peter Rooney, Jonathan Williams, all the judges and to the Provost of Trinity for their kindness and careful reading.”

The author, who is from Balbriggan and lives in Dublin, is writer in residence at University College Dublin and lectures in the Department of English at Maynooth University. This Happy was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2020 and nominated for the Kate O’Brien Award, the An Post Irish Book Awards, the John McGahern Book Prize and the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award.

In 2020 Niamh won the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award for her story, Love Many. Her second novel, We Were Young, will be published next February. She is also the author of an academic work, Sacred Weather: Atmospheric Essentialism in the Work of John McGahern, published in 2019 by Cork University Press. Reviewing it for The Irish Times, Eamon Maher wrote: “In 30 years from now I wonder if some literary critic will be asking what is meant by ‘Campbellesque’? That would not surprise me in the slightest.”

Jonathan Williams, chair of the judging panel, said: “The determining factor in deciding who is conferred with the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature is that the successful writer show promise of further achievement. In some years – such as this one – a single impressive work may be reason enough to warrant winning the award, especially if there is evidence of other writings in progress and the possibility of the writer developing in distinctive and intriguing ways. The supple prose and singular and arresting language of Niamh Campbell’s novel This Happy show her to be a worthy recipient of the prize.”

The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature is generously sponsored by Dr Peter Rooney, who said: “Niamh writes with passion and erudition, displaying a complexity of emotion that challenges traditional representations of love. Her writing flows from one beautiful sentence to the next and I am thrilled to add her name to our long list of talented prize-winning writers.”

Sarah Gilmartin, reviewing This Happy for The Irish Times, wrote: “the purpose of Niamh Campbell’s sharply written debut novel is to relate the experiences of one woman and what she has learned in her 30-odd years on this planet. The answer is a surprising amount of wisdom on human behaviour and relationships, the details of which Campbell gracefully unpacks.”

The author found out she had won the prize at the start of the summer and found it “very hard” to sit on the good news for so long. “I first learned I had won in June, when Jonathan Williams of the judges’ panel sent me a cryptic email saying ‘call this number’. For a moment I did think it might be some kind of bespoke phishing scam, but it was news of the Rooney instead. I told my parents and work, since I needed the day of the ceremony off, but that’s all. I promise.”

There are several ways in which a writer can get validation for their work, through sales, through reviews and through prizes. What does it mean to Campbell to win two such major prizes in quick succession?

“For me, this kind of prize lifts a weird, slightly deranged work of literary fiction up and gives it a nod of approval. It’s my first book, and I threw everything at it, so this distinction is also a sign of faith or confidence in my career. A work that is a bit challenging will struggle to be a bestseller of any kind, so competitions that look for promise and risk are so important, ensuring a book will be taken seriously into the future. The list of people who have won the Rooney over the years is also so impressive and dizzying I am proud to be added to it.”

Campbell adds another important source of validation, particuarly for young writers: “I am always keen to credit the Arts Council, who first gave me a bursary and the chance to write a book. Without that, I don’t know if I would have done it at all. I needed to feel believed in.”

How important is it that the Rooney Prize ceremony will be an in-person event, given that the Sunday Times prize-giving and her debut’s launch were both virtual?

“This will be the first party we get to throw for This Happy, and the first event I will be at in person to celebrate the last year of success. I have been able to invite my friends and family and I can thank everyone in a speech. Missing it all the first time was like missing my own debs ball, and now I feel able to go back and celebrate – I am very grateful to Peter Rooney and the judges for this.”

We Were Young, her second novel is, she said, “about a happy bachelor, Cormac, who is an artist surrounded by long-suffering lovers and exes and a volatile nuclear family. He falls for a young dancer and then right back out again, awkwardly.”

Asked how it differs from her debut, she said: “The book is pacier, funnier, and more built around scenes and networks of characters – it’s less intensely insular than This Happy. But it’s still my book, so the language is important. I wanted to try writing a male protagonist and explore the mindset of the kind of love interests my female characters are baffled by.”

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