Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of all things Irish. I mean… whiskey, potatoes, luck. What’s not to love? And at the top of my favorite Irish things is, of course, the rich literary tradition of Ireland. So, this St. Patty’s Day, I couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to pass along some of my favorite books by Irish authors.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. By James Joyce.
You can’t roam an Irish town without passing a bookstore, and you won’t see a bookstore without Joyce in the window display. But while the modernist style he introduced marked a turning point for Western literature, it can be damn hard to read. So if you’re new to Joyce, start with this coming of age tale (based on Joyce’s own life) – it’s not only powerful and lovely, but one of his more approachable works.
The Last September. By Elizabeth Bowen.
This is a book for lovers of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, but with an Irish twist. Or rather, with an Anglo-Irish twist. That is: this book recounts the experience of the aristocratic Irish class of wealthy land-owners that were loyal to the British crown in the years before Ireland gained independence. So it has all the marks of your classic romantic novel: class, marriage, and uncertainty. But with some good Irish politics and history thrown in.
Murphy. By Samuel Beckett.
Be warned: this difficult book will have you confused most of the time. And that’s pretty intentional on Beckett’s part, since he is, after all, depicting the life of a mentally-unstable man who gets a job working at an asylum. Another perk: when you’re not confused, you’ll be laughing to the point of tears. And if / when you do finally piece together these wild and crazy scenes, they are ones you will never forget.
Graveyard Clay. By Mairtin O’Cadhain.
If you’re detecting a theme after these first four books, it’s probably this: their difficult reads. And this is no exception (don’t worry , we’re coming up to some contemporary fiction that, I promise, goes a bit easier on the brain). In fact, this book was deemed so difficult to translate from it’s original Irish language text, that Irish presses refused to publish translations until just a few years ago. But like so many famous Irish novels, this book is a truly fresh and innovative take on literature and the things writing is capable of…
Reading in the Dark. By Seamus Deane.
A reading of Irish literature – and especially of Irish history – isn’t complete without consideration of “The Troubles”, or the period of religious conflict that plagued Northern Ireland throughout the late twentieth century. This novel (based loosely on Deane’s own life) is one of my all-time favorite books and is a stunning, haunting, and powerful depiction of one family’s struggles, sorrows, and secrets in the midst of the troubles.
Milkman. By Anna Burns.
While we’re on the subject of The Troubles, I can’t forget this stunning novel that came out just a few years ago. We’re back to the category of hard-to-read, Irish novels, but the intensity of Anna Burns’ language and the intensity of the plot will have you hooked start to finish, and like Reading in the Dark, this book will leave you with a deeper understanding of the impacts of The Troubles on the people who lived through them.
The Master. By Colm Toibin.
Ordinarily, I might choose Brooklyn as my top-recommended Toibin novel, but I wanted to highlight this often-overlooked work, which offers a fictionalized portrayal of Henry James. This book is really one for literary buffs, and the more familiar you are with James’ own works, the better. But even without that background, Toibin’s stunning control of language and narrative throughout this novel is simply impossible to ignore.
Normal People. By Sally Rooney.
This story is about exactly what you might guess, based on the cover: two normal people. And yet, boring as that may sound, this story of two young, normal people is simply captivating, nearly impossible to put down (I think it was the first novel I every read in just a day). Rooney’s capacity for developing characters is uncanny. You will get all the feels with this book and then you’ll quickly be onto Rooney’s other beloved novel, Conversations with Friends.
Academy Street. By Mary Costello.
Maybe it’s because I’m Irish-American myself, but this modern-day immigrant story struck a cord with me. It has one of the most memorable twists I can remember and is one of few books that has ever made me literally cry. It is easy to read, but so lovely and heart-wrenching, that I definitely recommend grabbing the tissues before you start.
Room. By Emma Donoghue.
I don’t read a lot of thrillers, and it’s even more rare I find one to be truly exceptional, but Room is exactly that. An exceptional thriller. If in the first few pages, you’re thrown off by the strange style and voice, keep reading. If you’re like me, that incredible voice will ultimately be the most memorable thing about this book – which is saying a lot considering the intensity of the narrative. There’s a reason the film was such a hit – this is simply an unforgettable story.
Alright. There you have it – a list of books by Irish authors that will leave any reader feeling lucky as a leprechaun. But before I go, I do want to mention a couple of novels that are notably absent from my list, and why.
Ulysses. By James Joyce. … It’s just too difficult to read. Too much to recommend to, well, anyone. Go for Portrait of An Artist instead.
Angela’s Ashes. By Frank McCourt. … Brutal in it’s depiction of an Irish town, this book was marketed as a memoir but there has been plenty of controversy as to where McCourt was honest and where he wasn’t. I’m still not sure about it.
A Portrait of Dorian Gray. By Oscar Wilde. … First of all, you’ve probably read it or at least know the story, and secondly, it’s so long. So so long.
Say Nothing. By Patrick Keefe. … Because, to my chagrin, I haven’t read it. Yet. But it is on my TBR list. I’m including it here just so you know I haven’t been under a rock for the past few years. I know I’m behind.
Poetry. In general. I didn’t know where to start and I haven’t read enough collective works, but I would be embarrassed not to briefly mention at least William Butler Yeats, Eavan Boland, and Seamus Heaney here.