Sebastian Barry at the 2018 Walter Scott Prize

5th July, 2018

Walter Scott Prize alumnus and Laureate for Irish Fiction Sebastian Barry was invited to say ‘a few words’ at the Walter Scott Prizegiving at the Borders Book Festival in June 2018.  It was too good not to share – you can hear his enchanting, lyrical speech in full on Soundcloud here:


Below is a transcript of a short extract from his speech, in which he extols the virtues of the Walter Scott Prize. Thank you, Sebastian, we think you’re absolutely wonderful too!

From a speech by Sebastian Barry at the Walter Scott Prize 2018

Melrose, June 2018

Here is an absolutely wonderful prize for historical fiction that is acquiring a history of its own. Offering a tremendous shortlist year on year, it also has a body of judges that is more or less constant. They are therefore in a position to assess not only the yearly harvest, but to put the new books against those of previous years.  The individual judges are names in their own right, and so inspire the reading public, and yet it is this great army of people that has survived into the present, and represents a bulwark against the digital vacuums of the present day.

To me this is a prize like no other.  Wisely and generously, it is not just a matter of a welcome cheque, but also a radiant glass trophy.  Mine nowadays is retired to the Wicklow mountains, and catches the Wicklow light through the window as it creeps into the hall of the old rectory where we now live.  As I go in and go out, I am reminded of the Walter Scott Prize, and the permanent enchantment that it represents.

A prize that does its strange work so well that it may be considered not just passively to honour historical fiction, but to be having an effect on it at DNA level.

It digs and nurtures the seed bed.  Far from being stuck in the past, an historical novel can say as much about the present as a contemporary work, because the past is always in a strange conversation with the present; the present after all is only a temporary child of the past.

It is an alchemy and a conspiracy that the historical novel can harness, and I venture to think that this is what the prize and its judges expect.  To reach the shortlist is to be told ‘your work is of the finest calibre, and of the utmost urgency’.  After that, who can choose between winners.  It is very hard, but it is attempted not just for the glory of one person, but for the radiance of literature itself, to keep saying ‘it is radiant, and important’, and to put before that mysterious reading public books that are vital, overwhelming, and true.