Gail McConnell wins £7,500 Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize

A preview of Saturday’s books pages and a round-up of the latest literary news

In tomorrow’s Irish Times, Marguerite Penrose, author of Yeah, But Where Are You Really From?, talks to Sorcha Pollak about the challenges of growing up as a black person with a disability in Dublin. Book reviews are Seamus Martin on The Shortest History of the Soviet Union by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Afghan Crucible: The Soviet Invasion and the Making of Modern Afghanistan by Elisabeth Leake; Kevin Power on Emilie Pine’s Ruth & Pen; NJ McGarrigle on Deadwood Encore by Kathleen Murray; Paschal Donohoe on The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality Oded Galor; Jan Carson The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha Philyaw; Rory Kiberd on The Stream of Everything by John Connell; Dean Jobb on The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures: A True Tale of Obsession, Murder, and the Movies, by Paul Fischer; Niamh Donnelly on Edith by Martina Devlin; Lucie Shelly on Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo; Sarah Gilmartin on Steve Toltz Here Goes Nothing; and Catherine Taylor on the best new translations.

This week’s Irish Times Eason offer is The Perfect Lie by Jo Spain. You can buy this bestselling thriller with your paper for only €4.99, a saving of €5.

The 27th Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, worth £7,500, has been won by Gail McConnell for her book of poetry, The Sun Is Open, published by Penned in the Margins. It was presented by Fergal Keane at a ceremony in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Iveagh House, Dublin last night.

Speaking on behalf of the judges, Prof Roy Foster said: ‘This year’s shortlist was a powerful one, representing fiction, memoir and historical research as well as poetry. But the judges were unanimous in selecting Gail McConnell’s astonishing and audacious book, which unpicks and unravels the narratives around the murder of the author’s father when she was three years old.


“Using a remarkable range of sources, this long poem investigates and interrogates memory, grief and violence in a new and arresting way and is an utterly original and compelling contribution to the literature of the Troubles. It could not be more immediately relevant to the origins and inspiration of the Ewart-Biggs Prize, founded to commemorate a life violently cut short, and recognising works which contribute to understanding between the peoples of Ireland north and south, and between Britain and Ireland.”

The prize was instituted in memory of the British ambassador to Ireland who was murdered by the IRA in 1976. The works considered cover a two-year period (2020 and 2021) and embody the objectives of the prize, which are to promote and encourage peace and reconciliation in Ireland, a greater understanding between the peoples of Britain and Ireland, or closer co-operation between the partners of the European Community. These are the ideals which inspired Christopher Ewart-Biggs and to which his widow Jane subsequently dedicated herself.

The other shortlisted candidates were Michelle Gallen, Big Girl, Small Town (John Murray); David Goodall, edited by Frank Sheridan, The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: a memoir (National University of Ireland); and Niall Ó Dochartaigh, Deniable Contact: Back-Channel Negotiation in Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press).


The High House by Jessie Greengrass, Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford, Sarvat Hasin’s The Giant Dark, Olivia Sudjic’s Asylum Road and Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall have been shortlisted for the £10,000 RSL Encore Award for the best second novel of the year, judged by Sian Cain, Nikesh Shukla and Paul Muldoon.

Previous recipients of the award have included Sally Rooney, Ali Smith, Sunjeev Sahota, Neil Mukherjee, Colm Tóibín, and last year’s winner Caoilinn Hughes. The winner will be announced on May 24th.


Lea Ypi has won the £10,000 Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize for Free (Allen Lane), a coming-of age-memoir set amid political upheaval. The annual prize is awarded by the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) to an outstanding work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that best evokes the spirit of a place.

The judges of this year’s prize – chair Sandeep Parmar, Patrice Lawrence and Philippe Sands – said: “Reading and re-reading Lea Ypi’s Free, we felt very strongly that the book’s central concerns – politics, personal history, the very meaning of freedom – spoke so resonantly to our lived moment. How do nations dream about themselves; how do individuals think of themselves within these fantasies? How do we feel within histories and how are they institutionalised?

“Ypi is a master at the juxtaposition of these grand and personal narratives – of family secrets and political crises – and repeatedly we returned in our judging conversations to history’s long shadow, asking what darkness lies where things remain unquestioned. Ypi’s both darkly humorous and deeply serious work made us reflect forcefully on the need for truthfulness about the stories we are told and how we negotiate our own lives within them.”

Ypi is professor of political theory at the London School of Economics & Political Science.

“This started as a book about concepts and so it is incredible to receive this prize for the best book that evokes the spirit of a place,” Ypi said. “It goes to show that concepts and places are connected to each other. It is really important to me because the place whose spirit is evoked is Albania, a place people don’t usually think about – it’s not somewhere that makes headlines unless there is something problematic happening. I hope that it will make people have an interest in the history of this country, which is also a history of universal significance.

“The book is about the transition from communism to liberalism in Albania and also the dilemmas of freedom that arise as people navigate these different systems. It connects these ideas with ordinary lives, the conflicts, hopes and tragedies that people lived through. I hope this book will make people more sensitive to the realities that should be paid attention to, regardless of whether there is a recognised crisis in a place or not.”

The Society of Authors has announced shortlists for the ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award, the Betty Trask Prize and Awards, the Paul Torday Memorial Prize, the Queen’s Knickers Award, the McKitterick Prize and – in its first year – the Gordon Bowker Volcano Prize.

Among the 32 shortlisted works are Red Market by How to Gut a Fish author Sheila Armstrong for the ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award for short story; Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation for the Betty Trask Prize for a first novel by a writer under 35; Diving For Pearls by Jamie O’Connell and Winter in Tabriz by Sheila Llewellyn for the Gordon Bowker Volcano Prize for a novel focusing on the experience of travel away from home; Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett for the McKitterick Prize for a first novel by a writer over 40; and Maybe...written and illustrated by Chris Haughton for the Queen’s Knickers Award for an outstanding children’s original illustrated book for ages 0-7.

Blood Ties by Brian McGilloway (Constable)has been longlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, the UK and Ireland’s most coveted crime writing award, along with Chris Brookmyre, Denise Mina, Mark Billingham, Mick Herron and othere top writers.

Following the sold out run of Lovesong, Red ‘n Blue Theatre Company returns with Bridget O’ Connor’s award-winning comedy The Flags.

The Flags centres on Howie and JJ, lifeguards on the second worst beach in Ireland, strewn with litter, a dead cow and a burnt-out car. They have ambitions to fill the vacant lifeguard positions on the golden sands at Banna beach. However, they must first overcome an eagle-eyed inspection from their boss Brendan, who has a secret agenda of his own. The inept pair, who have lost their lifeguard manual, are thrown into further turmoil by the arrival of a mysterious young woman with surprising intentions.

This hilarious play has been compared to a mixture of Father Ted and Martin McDonagh. It runs at Cork Arts Theatre May 31st - June 11th at 8pm and Garter Lane, Waterford, Wed 15th - Sat 18th June at 7.30pm. See the trailer here.

Bridget O’Connor, omne of my favourite writers, was a Bafta-winning author, playwright and screenwriter. O’ Connor’s first success in writing came in 1991, when her story Harp won the Time Out Short Story Prize. After this she wrote two collections of stories: Here Comes John and Tell Her You Love Her. Her plays include The Centurions, States of Mind, The Lovers and Becoming the Rose. In her final years, Bridget and her husband Peter Straughan wrote the screenplays for the films Sixty Six and Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution. They adapted John le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a 2011 film of the same name, for which they were awarded the BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Bridget died of cancer in 2010 at the young age of 49.

Red ‘n Blue Theatre Company was founded in 2018 by married couple Dylan Kennedy and Jenny Fennessy, hailing from Cork and Waterford respectively.