I went through an Irish reading phase in my early 20s (at about the same time I discovered U2 — but that’s another story), so the list reflects a weird mix of cosy fiction and hard-hitting, award-winning tomes. Note, however, that it’s a little inadequate on the classics front, with not a Joyce or an Edna O’Brien in sight!
The list is in alphabetical order according to author’s name.
* Yes, I know that I am posting this a few days early, but I’ll be too busy downing Guinness on Friday to think about blogging here!
Here’s my list of Irish novels (arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name):
Book of Evidence by John Banville (1989)
For a period of my life I considered John Banville to be my favourite author. Ever. I read Book of Evidence, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker and won the Guinness Peat Aviation Award, in my early 20s and thought it was the most profound novel I’d ever read. I was going through a phase of reading books with a dark, morbid edge and this — the story of a man who steals a painting from a wealthy friend and then kills the chambermaid who catches him in the act — fitted the bill perfectly. This book was followed up by two others (to form a trilogy) but, in my opinion, they did not surpass the grim beauty of this one. Definitely not for the faint hearted, but an interesting exploration of morals, guilt and why people do bad things.
Light A Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy
Maeve Binchy is one of my guilty pleasures. I discovered her in my early 20s and read pretty much everything she ever wrote for the next decade, by which time I got a bit sick of her cloying tales of love and friendship. Light A Penny Candle, which is about an English girl who escapes the London Blitz by staying with a family in Ireland, was the first book Binchy wrote and the first book by her that I ever read, hence its selection here. However, if I’m honest, it could have been any one of her books — Echoes, Firefly Summer, Silver Wedding, Circle of Friends, The Copper Beech, The Glass Lake — because they are all charming, deliciously girlie and overwhelmingly Irish reads.
The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle (1987)
This is kind of cheating, because this book is actually three novels in one, but I couldn’t resist this wonderful trilogy. It comprises The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van — all of which are set in the Dublin working-class suburb of Barrytown and which, unsurprisingly, have all been turned into films. I say unsurprisingly because Doyle’s stripped back writing style is reminiscent of a screenplay: a lot of dialogue and not much detail. But the best thing about these books is the laugh-out-loud humour. Not books to read in public then, unless you enjoy guffawing in front of strangers! My favourite is The Snapper, which is about a huge, sprawling Irish Catholic family and how they all band together when the eldest daughter falls pregnant out of wedlock but refuses to tell anyone the name of the father.
paddy clarke ha ha ha by Roddy Doyle (1993)
Sorry. I couldn’t resist choosing another Roddy Doyle book. This one received the Man Booker Prize and with good reason. It’s a delightful coming of age story told through the eyes of a 10-year-old Irish boy growing up in the 1960s. Doyle’s descriptions of childhood — particularly of peer pressure — are pitch-perfect and the language, comprising lots of Irish slang, is wonderful. The beauty of this book, however, is its clever balance of humour and pathos. A definite must read.
This is the first part of a trilogy, which I read a couple of years ago and fell in love with. The writing is a little staid but the story is a wonderful action-packed adventure set during Cromwellian rule. The heady mix of religion, politics and history makes this a quintessential Irish read. Thoroughly recommended.
The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe (1992)
Like John Banville’s Book of Evidence, this is another book that got a starring role in the dark reading period that comprised my early 20s. In fact, for about a decade this was my favourite book of all time. It seared my brain in a way that no other book has really done since. It’s a dark, depressing and very twisted tale about one young boy’s murderous rampage in small town rural Ireland. As a literary feat it is exceptional: the first-person narrative of Francie’s descent into madness is captured so well that it brings goosebumps to my skin just thinking about it. But I have to issue two warnings: 1. if you don’t like violence, stay away, there are some very brutal acts depicted here; and 2. if you’re a stickler for punctuation it might take you some time to get used to the fact that there’s not a comma or full stop in sight.
The Butcher Boy was shortlisted for the 1992 Man Booker Prize, won the 1992 Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Fiction and was turned into a film directed by Neil Jordan in 1997.
This is a gripping story set on a New York-bound ship filled with hundreds of refugees fleeing the Irish potato famine in 1847. But this is not the usual “Irish potato famine fare” you might expect. It’s a complete reworking, not just of the 19th century disaster that was the famine, but also of the naval-based novel. It is incredibly detailed and multi-layered. There are stories within stories, and the narrative swings effortlessly between past and present, on board the ship and in Ireland. I’ve not read anything like it — then or since.
William Trevor is a much heralded Irish writer (although he lives in England), so I had long wanted to read one of his books. This one about a young girl – Lucy Gault – abandoned in error when her parents flee troubled Ireland is a heartbreaking read. The writing is restrained but the emotion resonates off the page. Tissues are very much required for this one.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)
One of the first ‘real’ Classics I ever read, I immediately fell in love with this dark morality tale. As Dorian Gray’s behaviour gets more and more outlandish, his portrait grows aged and corrupt while he remains youthful and innocent in the flesh. It’s a kind of creepy tale, but one that is endlessly fascinating. What was the message of this book? That vanity does not pay? That living a life in the pursuit of pleasure is a dishonourable one? I don’t know, but I keep meaning to re-read this novel — just as I keep meaning to explore more of Wilde’s back catalogue.
Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams (1998)
This is one of those achingly beautiful books that reminds you about the power of literature to move the spirit and touch the soul. The prose is rich and velvety, completely enveloping the reader in a warm, fuzzy embrace. The book has a dual narrative, but the stand out storyline for me — and certainly the one that sticks in my memory — is the one involving Nicholas Coughlan falling in love with the girl he doesn’t think he can have. Williams writes in such a way that the reader experiences all of Nicholas’s joy, pain and frustration as if he was a real flesh and blood character. A gorgeous read that keeps you turning the page wondering ‘will he, won’t he?’ and leaves the reader truly believing that fate and destiny do exist!
Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? Do you agree/disagree with my choices? Can you recommend any other Irish novels that are worth reading?