Derry Girls, the hit Channel 4 sitcom written by Lisa McGee and directed by Michael Lennox, has been shortlisted for the 26th Christopher Ewart-Biggs Literary Prize, in memory of the British ambassador to Ireland who was murdered by the IRA in 1976.
The prize, worth £7,500, will be announced in late April in Dublin, is for works which promote peace and reconciliation in Ireland, a greater understanding between the peoples of Britain and Ireland, or closer co-operation in the EU, the ideals which inspired Ewart-Biggs and to which his widow Jane subsequently dedicated herself.
Among the five other entries shortlisted are the Man Booker Prize winning novel Milkman by Anna Burns, about a young woman being stalked by a paramilitary in an un-named city that is recognisably Belfast, and Country by Michael Hughes, a modern reimagining of the Iliad set along the Border.
Also shortlisted is New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe’s account of the 1972 IRA murder and secret burial of widow Jean McConville, Say Nothing: a true story of murder and memory in Northern Ireland, which won the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Writing.
Sam McBride is shortlisted for his surprise bestseller, Burned: the inside story of the ‘cash-for-ash’ scandal and Northern Ireland’s secretive new elite and Israeli academic Guy Beiner is nominates for Forgetful Remembrance: social forgetting and vernacular historiography of a rebellion in Ulster, which has already won the 2019 George L Mosse Prize, the 2019 Katharine Briggs Award for “the most distinguished contribution to folklore studies” and the 2019 Irish Historical Research Prize awarded biannually by the National University of Ireland for “the best new work of Irish historical research”.
A separate Ewart-Biggs prize, also of £7,500, will be awarded this year to a work dealing with the implications of Brexit for Ireland, Britain and Europe. As well as three acclaimed books – Tony Connelly’s Brexit and Ireland: the dangers, the opportunities and the inside story of the Irish response; Kevin O’Rourke’s A Short History of Brexit: from Brentry to Backstop and Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure: Brexit and the politics of pain – academic Katy Hayward has been shortlisted for her Twitter account @hayward_katy on which she provides her own political and sociological account of the Brexit process as it unfolds, as well as curating an up-to-date link to a range of work by other authorities.
Speaking for the judges, Prof Roy Foster said: “The sheer range and variety of commentary about Ireland (north and south) over the past two years has been enormous and in many cases vitalising – reflecting, I suppose, the fall-out of Brexit as well as the suspension of Stormont and much else. We wanted to recognise this, which is why we decided to give a separate prize for commentary on Brexit.
“We have always paid close attention to journalism in drawing up the shortlist and this time also wanted to take account of the fact that ‘commentary’ now takes many forms, including social media. Thus we were particularly struck by the way that incisive authorities like Katy Hayward were projecting their analysis into the public conversation via Twitter and other means.
By the same token, the prize has always included drama and television in its remit, and it it seemed important to recognise the serious intent and close social observation behind a comedy series like Derry Girls, hilarious as it is. Work like this sits logically with more conventional works of history and fiction, keeping up the prize’s tradition of recognising a variety of modes of expression which help to increase understanding.”
Previous winners from the medium of television include Robert Kee’s Ireland: a television history and the screenplay Five Minutes of Heaven, a 2009 film starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a script by Guy Hibbert.
“The function of the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Literary Prize is to enhance understanding between people, which often involves re-examining the past on both an individual and a communal level, perhaps especially in relation to the continuing effects of endemic violence,” said Foster.
“This year we have shortlisted a distinguished range of work which reflects this in different ways. There are two notably brilliant works of fiction, each giving a unique and unsettling perspective on inter-communal violence; a study of how history is processed in Ulster through ‘social memory’, and also ‘social forgetting’; a forensic and hypnotically readable study of the ‘disappearing’ of a victim of violence; an analysis of the scandal over ‘renewable energy’ in the province which casts new light on how government works in Northern Ireland; and an acclaimed television series giving a new voice and a fresh insight into the everyday realiteies of the Troubles as experienced by resilient and irreverent teenagers.
“The four short-listed works dealing with Ireland and Brexit include striking and succinct studies by two stellar journalists, a thoughtful analysis by an economic historian with deep roots in Europe as well as Ireland, and the accessible and deeply perceptive contributions on social media by a powerful analytical intelligence. Each work has clarified in uncompromising terms the implications for Ireland and Europe of the 2016 referendum, and also helped us to see how that result came about.”
The other prize judges are Prof Paul Arthur, Catherine Heaney, Prof Ian McBride, Susan McKay and Thomas Pakenham.
“The prize is not bound by genres,” said McKay. “We seek to find work that contributes to understanding between Ireland and Britain and further afield. This has been an exceptionally rich period for work across a range of genres and an exciting and diverse shortlist reflects this. We have fascinating and topical books by academics Guy Beiner and Kevin O’Rourke, and two fine and stylistically innovative novels from Anna Burns and Michael Hughes.
“Journalists Sam McBride, Patrick Radden Keefe, Tony Connelly and Fintan O’Toole are represented with work that ranges from McBride’s searing analysis of the RHI scandal to O’Keefe’s mesmerising exploration of a Troubles murder, to forensic studies by Connelly and O’Toole of the politics of Brexit.
“The phenomenon that is the Derry Girls TV series is recognised with writer Lisa McGee and director Michael Lennox nominated and for the first time there is a Twitter account for Katy Hayward’s authoritative feed of her own analysis of events as they unfold along with her curation of work by other Brexit authorities.
“There is much that is deeply serious on the list alongside work that is hilariously funny. All the shortlisted works are dazzling in their originality and all contribute enormously to understanding and thereby reconciliation.”
The previous Christopher Ewart-Biggs memorial prize was won in 2018 by Fergal Keane for his book Wounds: a memoir of war and love. The Ewart-Biggs Trust also awarded a special prize of £5,000 to Prof Marianne Elliott for her achievement in advancing the understanding of Irish history in Britain.