Rooney Prize for Literature
Provosts Saloon, Trinity College
Thursday, 27 September 2012
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to welcome you to the Saloon in the Provost's House for the award of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. This prize has been awarded to an emerging writer every year since 1976. For the past six years, it's been administered by the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Literature, of the School of English, here in Trinity.
And for the past three years, we’ve enjoyed what may well be an unprecedented situation: the benefactor of this prize also happens to be the current US Ambassador to Ireland, Dr Daniel M. Rooney.
Ambassador Rooney’s remarkable commitment to this country goes back many decades. He is one of the founders of the American Ireland Funds, which are dedicated to building bridges of peace, culture, and charity in Ireland and Northern Ireland. And 37 years ago he founded the Rooney Prize for young Irish writers, not knowing then, I guess, that he would one day be Ambassador to this country. And that, furthermore, his term would come during a period of economic difficulty when his generosity to the arts would be particularly appreciated.
The Rooney Prize is among the most significant literary prizes on this island. It is generous in financial terms, and it seems to have an uncanny ability to spot great talent. Among the former recipients of this prize are
- Neil Jordan,
- Frank McGuinness,
- Anne Enright,
- Claire Keegan,
- Colum McCann,
- Hugo Hamilton,
- Claire Kilroy,
- Nick Laird,
- and Kevin Barry.
Because the Prize is specifically aimed at young writers, they were awarded at an early stage in their careers, long before they had written the books that would later make them famous.
The selection committees’ ability to get it right time and time again is, as I say, remarkable. Although - to look at it in another way - perhaps it’s the prestige of winning this award at a crucial moment in ones career that propels a writer on to future renown. In any case, the Rooney Prize now marks out the ‘young-writers-to-watch’.
The School of English is honoured that Dr Rooney, and his wife Patricia, have entrusted the administration of the prize to the Oscar Wilde Centre. The Centre was opened in January 1998 in Wilde’s birthplace, as a teaching and research institute. It runs the M.Phil. programme in creative writing. One of the former students of this M.Phil, Claire Kilroy, is also a former recipient of the Rooney Prize, and her third novel was a fictionalised account of her time studying creative writing in Trinity. We know it’s fictionalised because the book is called All Names have Been Changed... though when I read it, it didn’t seem too fictional to me... hopefully it’s more fictional than another book where the Head of a Dublin University is found murdered in the library....
A prize is only as good as its judges. This year the Rooney Prize selection committee was chaired by Professor Terence Brown and included, from the college, Professor Gerald Dawe and Professor Eilean Ni Chuilleanain. From the wider academic and literary community, they were joined by Eilis Ni Dhuibhe, Riana O’Dwyer and Carlo Gebler. The college is especially grateful to this latter group who gave so generously and thoughtfully of their time.
A particular word of thanks is due to Lilian Foley, administrator in the Oscar Wilde Centre. Her contribution was much appreciated by all committee members.
Trinity has always produced great writers. But creative writing courses were not previously part of the college curriculum, neither was music composition which has also recently started, acting or directing which are now offered in The Lir - the National Academy of Dramatic Art.
The creative and performing arts are intrinsic to any plan for the social and economic regeneration of this country, not only for their economic potential but for the sustenance they give to our identity, to our human spirit, and to the realisation of our potential as individuals and as a society.
We are delighted that Dr Rooney realised this as far back as 1976 and made such a commitment to what is certainly one of Ireland’s greatest strengths - its literature. The constancy, and the calibre, of this prize is a source of continuing vitality and optimism - and, of course, of entertainment.
I am now pleased to call on Dr Rooney to present this year’s prize to Nancy Harris.