Sir Christopher Bland’s speech

Sir Christopher Bland’s speech at the 2013 – 2014 prize-giving ceremony:

“It is a privilege to be asked to present this year’s Christopher Ewart Biggs Memorial prize – and it is with real pleasure, together with commiserations to the runners-up in a talented and extraordinarily diverse field, that I can tell you the prize has been awarded to Charles Townshend for his book The Republic – The Fight for Irish Independence.

He is a worthy winner, not only because he has twice been runner-up, but because his book is, in the words of The Guardian’s reviewer, “magnificent, unflinching… A magisterial account of the Irish struggle for independence.” It is, I want to say seamless, but somehow that word seems inappropriate to describe such a complicated piece of fabric as the history of Ireland between 1918 and 1923; but it is thoroughly researched, and above all dispassionate in its account of a period of history that not only inflamed passions at the time but created divisions that have endured for almost a century.

Charles Townshend has done a great deal in this book to remove the excuse for Britain’s traditional inattentiveness to Irish history. It is thorough, but also enjoyable. It contains some memorable facts that will be new to many of us.

  • De Valera wanted Michael Collins to go to America in 1921 as Ireland’s special envoy because of, in Devs typically barbed words, “Collins’ fame, or notoriety if you prefer it”? It is clear which word Dev thought appropriate.
  • The field guns supplied by the British Army for the shelling of the Four Courts were so antiquated that they had to be sighted through opening the breech and looking through the barrel?
  • Winston Churchill believed that “our boast of civilisation in these islands is stultified,” because “the cattle are killed, the lonely white peacocks hunted to death” in Ireland?

It was over 200 years ago that Wolfe Tone expressed the hope that “the common name of Irishman would replace the old labels of Catholic, Protestant, Dissenter.” Sectarianism takes centuries, not decades, to die out; but all of us in this room can take real comfort from the fact that peace in Northern Ireland has taken root in a way that seemed impossible 20 years ago.

The Ewart Biggs prize since its inception has done much to encourage the process of peace, reconciliation and greater understanding. Charles Townshend’s book is a worthy contributor to that process.”