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Kala author Colin Walsh: ‘The financial crash scattered my friend group all over the world. A lot of people just didn’t come back’

The Irish writer says living abroad was an opportunity to see Ireland from a different angle

When Colin Walsh took an acting gig in the Edinburgh Dungeon years ago, he had no idea that the experience of wearing ghoulish make-up and spending all day underground terrifying tourists would later help him as a writer. But looking back now, Walsh – whose debut novel Kala won the Irish Book Award for Newcomer of the Year in 2023 – can see that “in a weird way”, the madcap job proved to be great training.

As each tour group came down into the dungeon, he would have to make a split-second decision on how best to entertain them: “Is this a group that you’re just going to make them laugh, or is this a group where it’s going to be more fun to be scary? Or you have that immediate thing where you can identify the person in the group who’s most likely to scream and then you direct your attention [towards them],” he says.

“I think in a strange way that sort of idea where you’re constantly projecting yourself into the position of the audience, that helps a lot with writing because you’re figuring out how best to tell the story, how best to bring the reader through the experience and how best to maximise whatever effect you’re trying to achieve in a particular chapter or scene.

“You never know when you’re getting material or skills,” he says. “It’s always in retrospect that you see, ‘Oh, maybe that’s where that came from’.”


After graduating college Walsh left his hometown of Galway city and lived a peripatetic life for many years, travelling the world while gigging as a musician and teaching TEFL, and racking up 19 addresses. “It’s a family joke,” he says. Come Christmas, his aunts are always asking for his latest address.

Walsh had left Galway to work in Quebec when the Irish financial crash happened, changing his home place forever. “The crash definitely scattered and shattered my friend group all over the world. A lot of people just didn’t come back. It was a kind of generational moment,” he says.

These changes hit hard when he returned home expecting things to have stayed the same. “I remember coming back to Galway and it was just this very uncanny kind of experience,” he says. “It was the first time in my life, for example, I ever walked down Shop Street and didn’t see a single person that I knew. So many people were just gone. Places were closed as well. The whole feeling of the place had completely changed.

“When you’re younger you have a real sense that, ‘I am the person who’s taking action in the world’ and that the world is just going to stay there as it was. That idea that you leave and when you come back, it’s still going to be home. It’s like, no, while you’ve gone, it’s not just you who’s changed. Home has changed and the relationship has to be established or negotiated in some kind of way ... That kind of youthful arrogance was very swiftly put into check.”

He didn’t consciously connect this realisation with the themes of Kala while writing it, but can see now that the experience of being “uprooted” from his home place, and then feeling “this kind of longing for something, longing for an idea of home that maybe never was even real” fed into the novel, which thrums with nostalgia for the sunlit summers of youth.

One of the temptations of nostalgia, he says, is that you can have a “sealed-off vision of the past” that you romanticise it. “You project a kind of coherence on to the past that wasn’t there when you were living it in the present.”

There are a few moments in your life where you know you’re making a decision that is going to determine very different life paths

Take Joe, for instance, one of the three narrators in Kala. Now a famous musician, Joe is the small-town boy made good and believes his home place is somewhere he can reconnect with “something authentic and nourishing”, Walsh says. However, the events of the novel upend Joe’s expectations and draw out the “fracturedness” that he’s trying to escape by being home.

After years of travelling, Walsh now lives in the countryside near Brussels, having moved to Belgium in 2013 to do a masters at the KU Leuven Institute of Philosophy. The experience instilled in him a level of discipline that stood to him when he later began writing fiction. “The standard [at the institute] is extremely high. They don’t take any prisoners. You need quite a thick skin ... but it really forced a certain type of focus on me.”

He was living off his savings and diligently “studying, studying, studying”. He says it was the making of him. He learned to “subordinate” himself to the discipline and bring “real humility and zero ego” to his work. “This was essential to shaping how I approach writing fiction,” he says. “My ‘self’ is an obstacle to my work. Step one of doing good work is getting the self out of the way. Philosophy taught me that.”

However, with philosophy he felt he was constantly trying to fit the “open ended and mercurial elements of what it is to be a person living a life” into some kind of metaphysical architecture. “What I realised was that fiction was a place where you didn’t have to just freeze these things in concepts, where you could just dramatise the ongoing irresolvable nature of what it is to be a person and you can dramatise these things without needing to find a solution for them. You can just kind of bear witness to them.”

Interestingly, he’d been so wrapped up in reading philosophy, history and politics that he hadn’t read fiction in years. But then, in a pivotal Sliding Doors-type moment, he read A Brief History of Seven Killings, the Booker Prize-winning novel by Marlon James, and it changed his life.

At the time Walsh had an offer to do a PhD in philosophy at Penn State University in the United States. This was a big deal, not least because he didn’t have any money left and the PhD came with a stipend. “It wasn’t just a career lifeline. It was like a financial lifeline ... What was I going to do for money if I didn’t pursue this?”

“But when I read A Brief History of Seven Killings, it was just this undeniable thing where it was like, whatever is going on here in these pages, this is what I want to be doing.

“There are a few moments in your life where you know you’re making a decision that is going to determine very different life paths,” he says. “If I’d moved to America, who knows where I’d be now?”

“There were tough times after that because I didn’t have any money to fall back on, so I was really just cobbling together the rent month to month and it was a very stressful time.” He worried that he’d made a terrible mistake but beneath all of that fear was a sense that he was doing the right thing. He began writing short stories and a year later he won the RTÉ Francis McManus competition. “That was the first sign I wasn’t deluded.”

He went on to be published in the Stinging Fly and in 2019 he was named Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year. In 2022 Kala was snapped up in the UK by Atlantic Books in a five-way auction, and there was also a State-side auction for the North American publication rights. And as the cherry on top, the novel was optioned for a TV miniseries. The novel more than lived up to its hype when it was published last year, combining as it did the psychological depth of a literary work with the propulsive momentum of a thriller.

Does Walsh feel he would have been able to write Kala if he had stayed in Ireland? He answers by noting that writers tend to be people who are always observing from a slight distance, “holding themselves back a little bit back from the immediate events that are going on”.

“The act of writing is very much that,” he says. “You are standing outside the experience and orchestrating time and events and so I think that living outside of Ireland definitely gave me the distance, gave me a certain way of framing Ireland, that I wouldn’t necessarily have if I was there.

“What living abroad and travelling has done for me more than anything is that it always encourages you to not foreclose possibilities but punch a hole in the world view that you have, and something new and nourishing can flow through.”

Kala is published by Atlantic Books