16/06/2012 20:02 BST

Author Sebastian Barry Wins £25,000 Walter Scott Prize

Irish author Sebastian Barry has won a £25,000 prize for historical fiction for his novel On Canaan's Side.

Barry was presented with the Walter Scott Prize at the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland today.

His novel was chosen from a shortlist of six books.

Judges said they were impressed by his "wonderful writing, which, as Walter Scott did in his time, shifts perception on a period in history".

The author said: "I'm uncharacteristically speechless. I really was not expecting to win - just look at the other authors on the shortlist.

"My first encounter with Walter Scott was unlocking a trunk in my grandfather's attic which contained the Waverley novels. I felt as if I was excavating a tomb.

"I think that is an appropriate way to encounter a writer - as if you were literally retrieving him from the damp and history of your grandfather's life."

On Canaan's Side tells the story of a woman who flees Dublin after the First World War for a new life in the USA.

Barry has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction 2009 for The Secret Scripture.

The other shortlisted books were The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst, Pure by Andrew Miller and The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth.

To qualify, novels must be set 60 years ago or more.

Commenting on Barry's win, the judges said: "There was little more than a whisker between On Canaan's Side and the other five shortlisted novels, but it was its drive, and its sustained power that persuaded us to award the Walter Scott Prize to Sebastian Barry.

"A work of immense power, the book is muscular and complete, and the author wears his learning lightly. Every character is fully drawn and utterly memorable. "