Irish fiction Laureate Sebastian Barry inspired to bring book clubs to prisons

Posted 5 July, 2018

  • Irish fiction laureate planning series of book clubs with prisoners and psychiatric patients during his tenure.
  • Was inspired after seeing one of his plays set in Mountjoy prison performed in the Dublin jail.
  • The Laureate for Irish Fiction is a partnership between UCD, the Arts Council, and New York University

Acclaimed writer Sebastian Barry would rather spend time behind bars than host another middle-class book club. 

The Irish fiction laureate wants to setup a series of talks and readings with those “constrained” in the modern Ireland, including prisoners and psychiatric patients, during his tenure.

The writer of The Secret Scripture and Days Without End said he was inspired to “bring literature to constrained people” after seeing one of his plays set in Mountjoy prison performed at the Dublin jail.

“This idea was born of an incredibly life-changing moment when Jim Culleton of Fishamble [theatre company] brought my little play On Blueberry Hill into Mountjoy,” he told Miriam O'Callaghan on RTÉ Radio 1.

“The silence of those men listening to the play was quite extraordinary.

“There’s a moment where Niall Buggy, playing his role, says that he never sees his children but ‘that’s all right because your children are inside you’.

“There was a man in front of me whose head just went down a fraction of an inch. It was such a private moment.”

A partnership between the Arts Council, University College Dublin and New York University, the Laureate for Irish Fiction honours established Irish writers of fiction, and seeks to encourage the public to engage with Irish fiction.

A two-time winner of the Costa book of the year award, Sebastian said there was some resistance to his plans after he was announced as the Irish fiction Laureate 2018/2021 in Feburary.

“The first reaction was, why about the great tribe of book clubs in Ireland… maybe these should be the people you should go to,” he said.

However, persisting with plans to dedicate a large portion of his tenure to people who are constrained, the Dublin-born writer said “a sea change” had come about and that, now, many backed his worthwhile endeavour.

The fiction laureate hopes to bring his book club series to prisons next year, while focusing the rest of 2018 on “people who are constrained in other ways”.

“I’m going to go into the Central Mental Hospital. People are familiar with that high wall in Dundrum. They are our people, they are our citizens, we are part of them. In my own foolish way, I hope to do something,” he added.

By: David Kearns, Digital Journalist / Media Officer, UCD University Relations