Sebastian Barry: ‘we are in an unexpected golden age of Irish prose writing’
New Laureate for Irish Fiction to celebrate ‘the untoward and nation-shaking achievements of those labouring in the subsistence farms of Irish writing’
President Michael D Higgins presents Sebastian Barry with his Laureate medal “struck in the smithy of kindness and care”
President Michael D Higgins: “a great Irish one-edition-only person, our president who is our luck and our example – the Laureate of Irish Hope himself”
I began to write just after I left Trinity College in 1977, in that lovely, enabling foolishness of my 22nd year. I had a room high in a house in Leeson Street, and straight away I noticed the mysterious magic and adventure of rising in the morning, or soon after, and if all went well, having a short story by night-fall. A story that, until that heart-squeezing moment, had no existence whatsoever.
Every young writer needs curious dreams to fuel a sense of the future and the long stretch of possibility. This occasion would be among the more unlikely. That 40 years later a veritable village of loved and familiar faces might be gathered to mark a moment as signal, strange and moving as this. That there might even be a medal struck in the smithy of kindness and care, in a deep plan hatched by the Arts Council, UCD and New York University, after the absurdly generous deliberations of a committee formed of the rarest of souls.
That moreover many would be here who have not only been colleagues, family and friends, but inspirations and reasons fiercely and gratefully to acknowledge the beautiful adventure of life itself. And that the medal would be given by an extraordinary person, a great Irish one-edition-only person, our president who is our luck and our example – the Laureate of Irish Hope himself.
In 40 years of writing, and also of course just gazing about, idling as may be in the garden, in the mountains, flinging myself in the fashion of my mother into the sea, fashioning betimes a surfboard for the waves of things as they are, as they break upon the shore of the lives of everyone, I have tried to keep abreast of my contemporaries and resist the temptation to poison their soup.
I have tried by the example of Colm Tóibín and Jennifer Johnston, say, to celebrate and recognise the untoward and nation-shaking achievements of other similar souls, labouring in the subsistence farms of Irish writing. I have admired the sleekness of their cattle, the pristine quality of their milk, and the desolate desires of their hens.
What is clear to me at 62 is that we are in an unexpected golden age of Irish prose writing, with writers speckling a night sky with stars of peculiar luminosity. If part of my task is to tell as many people as possible, in as many places as possible, this good news, that the fabulous generations of Irish writers are at work, praise be and halleluiah, it will be no burden. It will be an extraordinary privilege and a delight.