‘A more tolerant, democratic politics will emerge only when we reckon with loss’

Gail McConnell on what winning the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize means

I was deeply honoured to have been shortlisted for the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize. I can't even begin to describe my feelings about receiving the award for 2020-21. But here I am… I'm going to have to try…

This means so much to me. Thank you, Fergal Keane, for that extraordinarily kind reading of The Sun is Open.

I wish to extend my sincere thanks to Roy Foster, Paul Arthur, Catherine Heaney, Ian McBride, Susan McKay and Thomas Pakenham for the time, attention and understanding they have given to my work.

It means more than I can say to be awarded a prize judged by those whose lives and work have been shaped by this place, and whose lives and work shape it in turn. This place where, as Louis MacNeice put it, “history never dies” and where one hopes to find what Yeats called “a passionate syntax for passionate subject-matter”. I have tried to learn from them, and from so many others, in writing The Sun is Open.

Above all, I wish to honour Ciaran Carson, whose writing and friendship have been one of the greatest gifts of my life. Ciaran was this book’s first reader, and in the last conversation I had with him, just a week before he left us, he read the poems aloud at his kitchen table and talked about their music. That was gift enough. Receiving this award is an unexpected joy.

I started my career as a critic of Irish poetry and swerved into writing poems as I approached the age of 35. This was the age my father was when he was murdered. I had this uncanny feeling of being about to turn the age he was, and being forever older than he had been.

I was three-and-a-half when my father was murdered. My wife, Beth, and I now have a three-and-a-half year old child: Finn. In part, this prize will be an investment in his future, on this island and beyond it.

The Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize has a truly exceptional history of writerly achievement in fiction, history, memoir, poetry, theatre, political analysis and exhibition. It’s a unique artistic award in this regard. The list of prize-winners and shortlisted writers is extraordinary – many of them here this evening – many of whom are writers whose work has shaped my own. From my years as an A-level History student in Co Down, reading ATQ Stewart and FSL Lyons (I have two copies of Culture and Anarchy in Ireland – one of them was my father’s), through an undergraduate degree, discovering the work of Dervla Murphy and Stewart Parker, to my time as a PhD and then early career researcher, writing about the work of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, to the last few years, and of trying to write, reading Anna Burns’s Milkman and having that feeling of: at last, a book like this exists.

But behind the prize, a person: Christopher Ewart-Biggs. Pacificist. Novelist. Husband. Diplomat. Father. Known well, by some in this room. In receiving this award, I wish to honour him, and his wife, then widow, Jane, who established this prize in his honour, as part of her service to the ideals of peace and reconciliation she shared with him. In learning more about the Ewart-Biggs family, it has been the experience of an eight-year-old daughter that has shown me the parallels with my own life. Writing movingly about the day her father was murdered and its aftermath, Kate Ewart-Biggs writes:

“We did not emerge unscathed. We all suffered and continue to suffer from the events of that day – we have experienced ongoing loss throughout the generations.”

This is the truth of the legacy of the conflict here. And if a more tolerant, genuinely democratic politics is to emerge, it will occur only when we have reckoned with loss and its ongoingness. The Sun is Open tries to do that – and loss is what we have in common. “Loss has made a tenuous ‘we’ of us all,” as Judith Butler puts it. I thank the judges for seeing this truth in The Sun is Open and I thank the Ewart-Biggs Trust wholeheartedly for this award.

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