Trinity College Dublin presented Caitriona Lally last week with the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, one of Ireland’s most prestigious literary honors. The prize committee praised her book, “Eggshells,” as “a work of impressive imaginative reach, witty, subtle and occasionally endearingly unpredictable.”
For the past 3½ years, Lally has worked as a janitor at the college.
The day the call came from the prize committee, Lally was so shocked and the experience felt so out of context, she asked the person who told her she had won the award to please explain it again.
Of course, she had long known the reputation of the award — an enormous honor given annually by Trinity College to a writer under 40 who shows great talent and “exceptional promise.”
“But at that moment, I couldn’t figure out what a Rooney was,” Lally, 39, said in an email to The Washington Post, adding that her book was published three years ago.
Lally said the honor was “the happiest shock of my life.”
Each morning, she wakes at 4:45 a.m., pulls on her blue janitor’s smock and heads over to the college to clean from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Then she returns home to take care of her 14-month-old daughter, Alice. The day she got the call over the summer telling her she won the prize, Alice was being fussy.
“I’d been having a rough day — up early for my cleaning job, tearing home to mind the baby, baby wouldn’t nap and was making her feelings known,” Lally told Trinity College.
Once Lally realized that she won the award and that it came with a 10,000 euro prize (about $11,500), she described it as “just pure magic.”
She hadn’t applied for the award; the prize committee selects the nominees. Winners over the years have become some of Ireland’s best-known writers, including Anne Enright and Frank McGuinness.
The benefactor of the prize is Peter Rooney, who took over from his uncle, Dan Rooney, former U.S. ambassador to Ireland and chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who died last year.
Lally said she plans to use the prize money to pay her bills and provide day care for her daughter, as well as buy a water tank for her attic.
“I’d rather say I’m bathing in Dom Pérignon and flying first class to Las Vegas, but practicalities take priority,” she said by email.
Lally’s path to literary acclaim has been marked by plenty of rejection and job hopping.
Lally attended Trinity College Dublin as an undergraduate student and studied English. She worked as a custodian for the college when she was a student to offset expenses.
“I spent a couple of summers working as a cleaner in Trinity,” she wrote to The Post. “I spring-cleaned student residences after they vacated them, then worked as a chambermaid when guests came to stay in the college in the summer months. The spring cleaning was tough work — a year’s worth of grime doesn’t shift easily!”
She became close friends with some of the other housekeepers, and said she enjoyed her college experience studying literature.
After graduating in 2004, Lally worked as an English teacher in Japan for a year and then traveled a lot. Back in Ireland, she held various jobs, including as a copywriter, and she went to New York for a time as a home helper. She found herself unemployed in 2011, which was when she got the idea for “Eggshells.”
“ ‘Eggshells’ is about a socially isolated misfit who walks around Dublin searching for patterns and meaning in graffiti or magical-sounding place names or small doors that could lead to another world,” Lally wrote to The Post.
“I spent the guts of a year wandering around Dublin in 2011, the year I was unemployed. I had been laid off from my job in the recession and was walking the streets myself looking for ‘staff wanted’ signs, and came up with the idea of my character, Vivian, who’s just looking to belong, to connect with someone,” she said.
Lally finally got a job in data entry and decided to develop Vivian’s character and write her book. Once she finished it, she entered it in a competition and won, with her prize being a day pitching her novel to agents and publishers. She got an agent and a book deal.
“There were many, many rejections, but after hundreds of job rejections, I think I’d gotten used to being told ‘no,’ ” she said.
Her book was published in 2015, the same year she found herself out of a job again. She had stayed friends with some of her old cleaning buddies from Trinity, and they told her the school was hiring housekeepers. “I went back,” she said.
She said she finds cleaning large empty rooms, especially beautiful libraries at the college, to be peaceful.
“In my current area, I have no bathrooms, thankfully — just offices and lecture rooms and a library,” she said.
She and her husband, who is employed by the government, live in Dublin and had their daughter last year. Lally said her janitor job works for her schedule as a mother and is a great fit for writing. She’s finishing up her second novel, and she’s not planning on giving up her morning work.
“It works well with my writing life. I've had paid copywriting jobs before, but it was hard to motivate myself to sit down at the computer and write my novel once my paid work was done,” she said.
Her advice for anyone who wants to write a book is to have a paid job that is not stressful.
“It’s very hard to write if you’re emotionally drained after work, or have a job that you dread,” she said. “I know that cleaning is some people’s vision of hell, but it works for me. The bills must be paid and until that six-figure sum comes a-knocking, everyone needs a day job.”