Claire Keegan and Sally Hayden win Orwell Prizes in double Irish success

Small Things Like These wins political fiction prize; My Fourth Time, We Drowned wins political writing prize

Two Irish writers have won Britain’s leading prizes for political writing - one for a novel about a man taking a moral stand against a Magdalene laundry; the other for her book about the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.

The Orwell Prize for Political Writing 2022 has been won by Sally Hayden for her book My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route (Fourth Estate), while the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction 2022 has been awarded to Claire Keegan for her novel Small Things Like These (Faber). The £3,000 prizes, inspired by George Orwell’s ambition “to make political writing into an art”, were awarded at a ceremony at Conway Hall in central London this evening.

“Both Sally Hayden and Claire Keegan have, in very different ways, written gripping stories about things that should alarm us: there are awful truths right at the heart of our societies and systems,” Jean Seaton, the director of the Orwell Foundation, said. “However, in their wit, elegance and compassion, these powerful winning books also help us think about the choices we make, and how to make the future better. Orwell would be proud.”

Sally Hayden is an award-winning journalist and photographer, who writes regularly for The Irish Times and other international media outlets on migration, conflict and humanitarian crises. A UCD law graduate with an MSc in International Politics from Trinity College, Dublin, she won the prize for foreign coverage of the year at the 2019 Newsbrands Irish Journalism Awards.


My Fourth Time, We Drowned investigates the migrant crisis across North Africa and into Europe from a number of angles, while firmly centring the experience and testimony of refugees. It reveals a shocking system of incarceration and abuse, as people are exploited by smugglers and detained indefinitely in camps - and the complicity of the EU and UN via their policies. Hayden introduces readers to refugees and migrants as people with a wide range of motives, hopes and fears, as they ask for help, dignity and, most of all, to be listened to.

The book was chosen by Stephen Bush, associate editor at the Financial Times; chair David Edgerton, professor of modern British history at King’s College London; Kennetta Hammond Perry, founding director of the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre and Anne McElvoy, senior editor of The Economist.

“Hayden’s reporting is an extraordinary exploration of a modern reality using modern means: truly a book of our times,” the judges said. “While many people seeking refuge from the terrible logics of repression, war and poverty cannot easily cross frontiers, phone and Facebook messages can. They allow contact with home but are also the means by which ransoms are gruesomely demanded by traffickers. But they are also the way in which Hayden explores the lives of people stuck under the control of traffickers, militias, the UN, and lets them speak to us as full human beings: hungry, ill, and often doomed in their quest for safety. She gets the terrible truth out to a world that has been far too indifferent.”

Small Things Like These takes the reader to an Irish town in the weeks leading up to the Christmas of 1985, and into the life of Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant confronted with an ethical dilemma that has lain dormant in the town for years. With great tenderness, skill and poise, Claire Keegan asks questions of huge moral and political importance: what should we do when we encounter what we know to be wrong? Where, and to whom, do we owe the greatest loyalty? And when does collective silence become complicity?

Small Things Like These was chosen by chair Adam Roberts, novelist and professor of literature at Royal Holloway; Dennis Duncan, lecturer in English at University College London; Sana Goyal, writer and deputy editor at Wasafiri; and Monique Roffey, who won Costa Book of the Year for The Mermaid of Black Conch in 2021.

“The focus of this novella is close, precise and unwavering,” the judges said. “a beautifully written evocation of Ireland in the 1980s, precisely rendered; of a good man and his ordinary life; and of the decision he makes that unlocks major, present questions about social care, women’s lives and collective morality. The very tightness of focus, and Keegan’s marvellous control of her instrument as a writer, makes for a story at once intensely particular and powerfully resonant.”

Keegan was born in Co Wicklow in 1968 and lives in Co Wexford. Her first short story collection, Antarctica (1999), won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Her short story, Foster, won the 2009 Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award, was published in expanded form as a novella by Faber and is now a Leaving Certificate text. It was adapted for film as An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl), written and directed by Colm Bairéad, and has become the most successful Irish-language film. Small Things LIke These last month won the €20,000 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year prize at Listowel Writers’ Week. Unusually, it was published first in French as Ce genre de petites choses, winning the 2021 Francophonie Ambassadors’ Literary Award for Keegan and her translator, Jacqueline Odin.

The Belfast author Glenn Patterson and radio producer Conor Garrett were also shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Journalism for their BBC Radio 4/ BBC Sounds series, The Northern Bank Job, about a £26.5 million Belfast bank robbery in December 2004, which was blamed on the IRA. The Colony by Audrey Magee was also shortlisted for the political fiction prize.

In 2019, Anna Burns won the political fiction prize for Milkman and Patrick Radden Keefe won the Political Writing Prize for Say Nothing. In 2017, Fintan O’Toole won the Journalism Prize for his writing on Brexit in The Irish Times, the Guardian and the Observer. That same year, historian John Bew won the combined book prize for Citizen Clem, a biography of former British prime minister and Labour leader Clement Attlee.

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times