Leader Interview..with Kevin Barry

LOCAL author Kevin Barry claims to be the first person to drink a cappuccino in Limerick and the fastest drop-out of the University of Limerick. The recipient of the €10,000 Rooney Prize for Literature, for his first collection of short stories, entitled There Are Little Kingdoms, he spoke to ANNE SHERIDAN about documenting the changes in Irish life.

IT'S an all too familiar scene: a group of drinkers bearing the signs of adult weariness, sit in a country pub and listen to a news bulletin. Reports of murders, oil shortages and atrocities in Africa, flash before their eyes. Detached, but not quite cut off from it, the barman turns to the solemn drinkers and remarks on what "a sad, peculiar life it is."

It is a scene painted with both hilarity and sadness, by the award-winning Limerick author Kevin Barry, in his first collection of short stories, There Are Little Kingdoms.

Most recently, it received the Rooney Prize for Literature and was also been short listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.

Pubs are depicted as places where the "days are slow and the nights are only trotting after them"; where the publicans feel they're the "ones getting a clatter off the blunt end of the spade" and whose customers "are fine specimens of bile and fear and broken sleep."

It is a time, space and era outside of the Celtic Tiger, where "the world slows to a human pace," words leap off the page and each depiction of a slightly broken human character, determined to keep on going, will keep readers enthralled.

It is no wonder the poet Theo Dorgan thinks he's the "real thing" and believes the author presents "truths about ourselves and about the new Ireland."

Ripe with hilarious observations about the vicissitudes of Irish life, it contains dozens of reflections that deserve more than one reading, such as "the clock considered twelve and passed it by with a soft shudder, as though it had been a close call."

While Limerick is no longer his home, the Mid-West is no means overlooked in the book - a place which has any amount of "healthy girls with well-scrubbed faces" and he acknowledges that much of the dialogue is rooted in his home town - in the courts, city council meetings and journeys by bus and train from Colbert Station.

A distinguished travel writer, his accounts on destinations across the world have made it to The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and many other publications.

Instead of the Mid-West, the Spanish province of Valencia has become a home away from home and an oasis of calm, while he and his girlfriend renovate their new home (a former RIC barracks) in county Sligo.

"I'm nearly afraid to say it, in case it (Valencia] gets over run. I always feel really at home when I arrive there, even though I don't speak the language. But it's a whole different atmosphere out there and a bit slower. A lot of people say Spain is a bit like Ireland in the 80s, and it's probably tied in to the whole Catholic thing as well."

Born in 1969, he grew up in Ballinacurra Gardens, a place that he notes that has been touched by Limerick's sprawling suburbanisation, since he left in 1993. "It used to be a really conservative place and unwilling to put itself forward, but all that is changing. Now, if you go into an internet cafe on Wickham Street, you can hear 15 different nationalities; that's a wonderful thing," he delights.

Though his first ambition was to be a photographer, he admits, in a typical self-depreciating style, that he "was handy enough at English at school, so it was an obvious line to follow."

He began writing fiction earnestly in his 20s, and while he is now earning enough "to keep the wolves from the door," he laments the loneliness of the craft.

In addition to writing another book, he writes two weekly columns - The Last Word each Saturday for the Irish Examiner and another for the Sunday Herald in Glasgow.

"It's not exactly journalism," he laughs, "it's moreso things I pick up from the top of my head."

Nor has the transition from freelance feature writer to a full-time author been an easy ride. At first, there was the temptation to constantly "go on the tear", which was followed by a spell of going cold turkey - not from weaning himself off alcohol, but computer games such as Sonic the Hedgehog.

"I miss journalism an awful lot; it gets you out of the house and gets you talking to people, whereas with fiction I go into a room in the morning and it's just me, the four walls and a blank screen."

After spending less than a week studying European Studies at Limerick's National Institute of Higher Education, now the University of Limerick, he joined the now defunct newspaper, Limerick Tribune, as a reporter.

This was followed by a three year spell with the Limerick Post, where days spent covering the district and circuit courts, and city council meetings, provided plenty of fodder to embellish the rich dialogue of his short stories.

"In terms of writing fiction later on, all human life is in the Limerick courts and you learn all you need to know about dialogue there."

In one council meeting, he calls the late Labour politician Jim Kemmy standing up saying: "Now lads, I was up in Galway at the weekend, and they're all sitting outside cafes.

"And there was uproar," marvels Barry. "They were all saying: 'Jim, for God's sake, but you expect us to sitting outside freezing, in our overcoats. People like Kemmy and Frank Prendergast were constantly coming out with these great lines."

And so it follows that life has changed little - as developers and architects continue to opine about the creation of a more cosmopolitan Limerick and our so-called "riverside city". Barry himself has played a part in excelling the popularity of cafe culture back, when he walked into Huckleberry's Cafe on Henry Street one dreary morning in the late 80s. "Everybody was looking at this cappuccino machine with great fear in their eyes and I bravely went up and ordered a cappuccino," he says with mock bravado.This is the world most keenly observed by Barry, a world that at its core remains the same, despite the obvious advancements.

Witness the opening lines of Breakfast Wine:

"They say it takes just three alcoholics to keep a small bar running in a country town and while myself and the cousin, Thomas, were doing what we could, we were a man shy, and these were difficult days for Mr Kelliher, licencee of The North Star, Pearse Street.

'The next thing an ESB bill will come lording in the door to me,' he said. 'That could tip me over the edge altogether. Or wait until you see, the fucker for the insurance will arrive in. Roaring.'"

Such comic reflections have earned him this year's Rooney Prize for Literature, which is awarded to the best first book by an Irish writer under 40. If its list of previous recipients - Anne Enright, Hugo Hamilton and Neil Jordan - are anything to go by, this will not be the last award pocketed by the Limerick author.

"Oh, I'm hugely ambitious," he jokes, "I won't be happy until I'm up there, receiving the Nobel Prize."

Currently, the book is being adapted by the Meridian Theatre Company in Cork, and the first on-stage production of the book is hoped to run next year in Cork, with a nationwide tour to follow.

The difficulty, he realises, is presenting the best of the books characters and moulding them all together in a coherent context, that will remain true to the book.

The stories may be bleak, but Barry has also challenged himself to keep people laughing all the way through.

"They are comedies, ultimately. I read Breakfast Wine at a festival in Cork recently, and although it's a very dark story, people laughed all the way through, so I thought I did something right then."

Interestingly, the title of the book (which is taken from one of the short stories), links in with one of his favourite films, Paris Texas.

The 1984 film by the award-winning German director Wim Wenders focuses on a man, who wanders out of the desert not knowing who he is. Eventually, he makes contact with various people from his past.

Meanwhile, the central figure in There Are Little Kingdoms walks around Dublin in a haze, bumping into characters he knew from his childhood but believed were dead.

The vagaries of modern life are noted: drab office workers in Dunnes Stores suits chomp baguettes near the Liffey; a man walks into a run-down greasy spoon where Larry Gogan's just-a-minute quiz crackles on the radio.

It concludes that "some of us (are] mad, some in love, some very tired and all of us, it seemed, resigned to our humdrum affairs."

As the third edition of the book is now being printed, Barry could liken himself to that story's central character - a man with a song in his throat and a twinkle in his eye. "If I'd had a cane, I would have twirled it, unquestionably."

There Are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry, which is dedicated to his late aunt Maura Meade, is available in all good book stores and is priced at €12.

Home: Originally from Ballinacurra Gardens, now living in Clontarf, Dublin

School: CBS Sexton Street

Family: Three sisters and one brother

Favourite book: White Noise by Don DeLillo

Favourite food: Risotto or fish

Favourite holiday destination: Valencia, Spain

Favourite film: Paris Texas, and Ice Storm


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