Rooney Prize for Irish Literature 2018

Provost's House

25 September 2018


Good evening,

And welcome, everyone, to the Provost’s House in Trinity College Dublin for this great annual event: the awarding of the Rooney Prize to a new emerging Irish literary talent.

This year – like most years – has been a good year for Irish literature. An Irish author, Mike McCormack, won the IMPAC, the world’s most lucrative literary award – he is also, as it happens a former Rooney Prize winner. And three Irish writers were long-listed for the Booker Prize; one of them made the shortlist, and one of the ones who didn’t, Sally Rooney, was the bookie’s favourite, based on sales and reviews.

And another Irish author, Mark O’Connell – also, like Sally Rooney, a Trinity graduate - won this year’s Wellcome Prize, which is for literary works that illuminate health and medicine.

So Irish authors are featuring strongly on international awards and in international sales. This is, as I say, nothing unusual. The rude health of Irish literature is a constant source of national pride. It gives a sense of achievement and confidence to the whole country, including to those of us not directly engaged in literature.

Speaking for myself I know the pleasure that writers like Joyce and Michael Hartnett have given me. And I know the bond created when you meet people abroad and they talk enthusiastically of Emma Donoghue or Edna O’Brien or Seamus Heaney or Colm Toibín.

If Ireland has made a strong global impact for such a small and underpopulated country, then this is greatly – perhaps principally - due to our writers. Dublin was the fourth city to be made a UNESCO city of literature and it’s not hard to see why.

Irish writers keep the flame of the tradition alive in this country and they ignite the flame around the world, inspiring other writers and readers of very different background. Because of this, Ireland is a literary and imagined place, as well as a physical and geographical one. Without our writers, we could not I think understand ourselves, nor could we inspire others with a sense of ourselves. Without our writers, this is not Ireland.

All of which is by way of saying that whether you prefer to speak in terms of a national industry or a cultural necessity, it’s essential to safeguard and strengthen Irish literature. And this is what – for 42 years and counting – the Rooney Prize has done.

The Prize was established in 1976 by Daniel Milton Rooney, former chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, US Ambassador to Ireland, and co-founder of the Ireland Funds – a remarkable owner-manager of a legendary American Football team, a philanthropist and benefactor of the arts, and a true friend to this country.

The Prize is exceptional among literary awards for its longevity – the same Prize with the same name and the same benefaction for over four decades – and for its ability to spot talent: Neil Jordan, Frank McGuinness, Anne Enright, Colum McCann, Claire Keegan, Nick Laird, Kevin Barry, Mike McCormack, Colin Barrett and Sara Baume are just some of the past winners.

It’s a question I ask every year whether the Prize creates such winners or the wealth of talent in Ireland enables such a talent-spotting Prize? I guess it’s a bit of both. When you have ability in a particular area, it makes sense to build on it – to incentivise, reward, and create a stir. This is something Dan Rooney understood in sport, and in the arts.

The Rooney Prize is indelibly associated with its founders and we’re so delighted that, following the sad death of Dan Rooney in April of last year, his nephew, Peter Rooney, has now taken over as benefactor of the Prize.

Peter is a Dublin resident and he frequently accompanied Dan and Patricia to this annual prize-giving, so he is already a friend to the College and to the Prize. We are delighted to welcome him and his husband, John Curran, here tonight. We thank them, on behalf of the arts in this country, for their generous support and their enthusiastic commitment.

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For over a decade now, the Prize has been administered by the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing, of the School of English, here in Trinity. It’s a tremendous honour for the university to manage and administer this prestigious prize.

A prize is only as good as its judges. The Oscar Wilde Centre takes particular care in choosing the judging committee, drawing from within the School of English and outside the university. The chair of the Rooney Prize Committee is Jonathan Williams, who is a literary agent and editor. He is joined by:

  • Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, poet, critic and Fellow Emeritus of Trinity.
  • Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, novelist, dramatist and lecturer in creative writing in UCD;
  • Carlo Gébler, novelist and playwright;
  • Riana O'Dwyer, senior lecturer in English at NUI Galway; and
  • Rosie Lavan, assistant professor of Irish Writing in our School of English and Literary Arts Officer.

On behalf of the university, and indeed of literature lovers everywhere, I thank the Committee for the work they have put into this Prize.
The Oscar Wilde Centre and Trinity’s School of English include among its staff and graduates significant names in literature. In this year’s QS rankings, the School was ranked 28th in the world – that’s up four places from previous years. We are very proud of our School of English and its role in releasing the creative potential of future writers and supporting the practice of literature in Ireland and the world.

Earlier this year we formally opened the new Trinity Centre for Literature and Cultural Translation in a beautiful renovated Georgian house at 36 Fenian Street. The Centre greatly strengthens Trinity’s commitment to, and our investment in, literature. It is part of our drive to help create and supporta flourishing literary ecosystem which we see as essential for Dublin and Ireland.

‘A flourishing literary ecosystem’ means supporting independent publishing presses and literary journals; establishing excellent creative writing courses; enabling translation; providing writers’ bursaries and retreats - and founding literary prizes that become markers of talent.

We thank Peter Rooney for putting confidence in the Oscar Wilde Centre to manage this truly extraordinary Prize.

And now I’d like to invite committee member Rosie Lavin to announce the winner of the 2018 Rooney Prize for Literature in this, the forty-second year of the Prize.

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