Gail McConnell wins Pollard International Poetry Prize

Blog / Tom Chivers

Gail McConnell has been announced as the winner of the 2022 John Pollard Foundation International Poetry Prize for her debut book The Sun is Open at an award ceremony in Trinity College Dublin this evening (Tues, April 12, 2022).

The Sun is Open (Penned in the Margins) focuses on the life and death of the poet’s father, who was murdered by the IRA outside their Belfast home in 1984. Moving between child and adult perspectives the collection of poetry pieces together his history and life.

This is the fourth year of the prize, which is awarded annually for an outstanding debut collection of poetry in the English language. Valued at €10,000, the prize is sponsored by the John Pollard Foundation and administered by the Trinity Oscar Wilde Centre in the School of English at Trinity.

Winner Gail McConnell said:

I am deeply honoured to be the fourth recipient of the John Pollard Foundation International Poetry Prize for The Sun is Open. This book swirls around an autobiographical event: my father’s murder by the IRA outside our Belfast home in 1984. Using newspaper reports, Hansard, fragments of the Psalms, my father’s student diaries and other public and private materials archived in a ‘dad box’, it moves between child and adult voices to try to piece together a history and a life. I started my career as a critic of Irish poetry and swerved into writing poems as I approached the age at which my father died. It means a great deal to me to be awarded an Irish prize, judged by writers and critics whose work addresses the complexities of this place – 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 wish to extend my sincere thanks to Eoin McNamee, Phillip Coleman, Vona Groarke and Alice Lyons for the time, attention and understanding they have given to my work. I thank the benefactor of the prize, Stephen Vernon, wholeheartedly, and I am grateful to Trinity College Dublin for hosting the award.

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. In part, this prize will be an investment in his future, and I hope it will help create some space and time for more poems. I am grateful to my editor at Penned in the Margins, Tom Chivers, for understanding this book intimately. I also wish to thank the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the School of Arts, English and Languages at Queen’s University Belfast, whose support made its completion possible. Finally, I wish to honour Ciaran Carson who was this book’s first reader and whose work and friendship have been one of the greatest gifts of my life.

Announcing the 2022 winner, chair of the judging panel, Professor Eoin McNamee, Director of the Trinity Oscar Wilde Centre, said:

Out of a very strong shortlist the panel recognised the authority and lyric command of The Sun is Open. Working on the very edge of what can be said, The Sun is Open is both a work of adamantine witness and a patient unearthing of what is rare and beautiful. This is a work of gravity and importance and we are delighted to have the opportunity to acknowledge it.

The patron of the John Pollard Foundation Stephen Vernon, who named the foundation in memory of his grandfather John Pollard, congratulated the winner on her achievement:

Once again the judges have picked an outstanding example of emerging literary talent. Gail’s collection is influenced by Belfast and gives the reader a new perspective on the Northern Irish experience. I am delighted to add Gail’s name to our growing list of talented prize-winning poets.

Gail McConnell is from Belfast. She is the author of The Sun is Open, Northern Irish Poetry and Theology and two poetry pamphlets: Fothermather and Fourteen. The Sun is Open has been shortlisted for The Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize. It was a book of the year in the TLS and The White Review and a Poetry Book of the Month in The Observer. Gail’s poems have appeared in Poetry Review, PN Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Blackbox Manifold and Stand, and she is the recipient of two awards from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. With Conor Garrett, Gail has made two arts features based on her poetry for BBC Radio 4: Fothermather and The Open Box. Gail is Senior Lecturer in English at Queen’s University Belfast.

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