Sebastian Barry has been named as the Laureate for Irish Fiction for the next three years, hailing what he called the current “golden age of prose writing in Ireland”.
Costa Award winner Barry takes on the role from Anne Enright and will begin his reign from 2018-2021 this month.
As well as being honoured with the title, Barry’s task will be to encourage a new generation of writers, promote Irish literature internationally and entice the public to engage with Irish fiction.
Speaking at a ceremony in Ireland on Thursday (7th February), Barry said: “It is no burden to assert, to as many people as possible in as many places as possible, that we live in a golden age of prose writing in Ireland. And I am really happy to be the ambassador of this rather stupendous reality for a few years.
“Writers reading their own work can make an illuminating music and show something important about it in the very act of 'singing' it. I would like to pay homage to this during the course of my laureateship”.
Barry also said he wants to acknowledge the part played by readers in the life of books – “in many forms of course, the necessarily private, but also in the newer form of the Book Club, an activity that can work surely anywhere, even in prisons, in detention centres, in hospitals, places where a life might otherwise be temporarily circumscribed. So I would hope to try and honour that”.
He added: “The mass of living Irish writers is distinguished only by the fact that there is such immense diversity of purpose and difference of styles. That is the great wealth of the present moment. There are writers who have worked the miracle of making their name in their twenties and others who have worked the concomitant miracle of working on from book to book for decades. What unites them is the ability to generate the shock that rare work gives the reader, not only in the pleasure and gratitude it engenders, but the serious business of the lines and engines of your own life finding answer and echo in another's art.”
The Laureate for Irish Fiction is an initiative of the Arts Council and is run in partnership with University College Dublin and New York University.
The selection panel praised Barry for his “soul-searching, heart-stopping prose” and for taking “Irish fiction where it hasn’t been before”.
“With transcendent insight as well as a storyteller’s ingenuity he teaches us to see the world differently, and to look more deeply into our own hearts. This most lyrical of myth-makers magically re-arranges our synapses," the panel said.
Chair of the Arts Council, Sheila Pratschke said Barry was a writer of “profound humanity and grace”.
“Over the past four decades, he has produced a body of work that is testament to his passion for, and commitment to, literature and writing. We very much look forward to how he will shape the role of Laureate and engage with readers and writers over the next three years.”
Barry’s first engagement in his new role will be a public interview with playwright Billy Roche in Gorey Library, Co. Wexford next Tuesday (13th February) and the second will be a reading in Bridge Street Books in Wicklow, introduced by Caitriona Crowe on Thursday 15th February).
Barry won the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2017 for Days Without End (Faber), becoming the first novelist to win the award twice. He first claimed it eight years earlier for The Secret Scripture (Faber).
In the UK, Barry has sold 629,034 print books for £4.3m through Nielsen BookScan, with his top-selling title The Secret Scripture with 379,861 copies sold, followed by Days Without End. which had shifted 55,452 print units. In Ireland Barry has sold 244,685 books for €2.7m.