In honour of St Patrick’s Day*, I thought I would list my favourite Irish novels.
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.
Seek the Fair Land by Walter Macken (1959)
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.
Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor (2003)
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.
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor (2003)
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?
31 thoughts on “10 books from Ireland”
Great – but do any of them feature journalists? If so, pop across to Scoop! Keep up the good work.
Philip, I’ve got a vague feeling that one of the characters in Star of the Sea was a reporter… but I’d have to dig out my copy to double-check. I could be getting him mixed up with someone else. I’ll let you know…
Paddy Clarke and Butcher Boy are excellent books. So glad they are on your list. I’ll have to give Banville another try. I read one of his other books and couldn’t get into it at all but this one sounds very interesting.
I read the Picture of Dorian Gray ages ago.
I have also read his plays. Funny, in a Victorian sort of way. You have to be in the right mood to read them.
In terms of plays, I have seen a couple of productions of Samuel Beckett, another Irishman.
During one hot Dallas summer, I just didn’t feel like doing much of anything, so I got this from the library: Beckett on Film DVD Set. It’s beautifully made, with the top actors of today playing the various roles.
Hmm. I wonder if I could come up with an Irish list? Mine would not have any Joyce on it either. I really like Roddy Doyle, too! I read the Trevor book last year and thought it was very good.
iliana, I’ve got Banville’s ‘The Sea’ sitting here waiting to be read but I’ve heard so many mixed reviews about this book I keep putting off reading it. I guess I just don’t want to be disappointed because I really admired him a long time ago and don’t want the illusion shattered.
Isabel, never read Beckett, nor any of Wilde’s plays, though I did see the film version of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ over the Christmas break and thoroughly loved it – very witty.
Danielle, have you read Trevor’s ‘Felicia’s Journey’? I can recommend that one – quite a sad read.
I was just updating some of my typelists and came across this Irish literature link on the Penguin (USA) website. Apparantly they are holding a bit of an Irish book sale, if you are interested:
Anne Kelly has written an Irish novel which is worthy of your time. It is called Nobody’s child and can be bought via any of the major bookstores.
To find out a bit more about this book visit
you will find out a little bit more about the author, the book and there’s a bit of craic thrown in! Enjoy.
could you please help about twenty years ago I read four novels based on historical fact from the days of Oliver Cromwell’s desimation of the country then through the potato famine etc .They made a profound effect on me and would love to purchase them now. I don’t have a clue who the author is Marg Hanl
Marg, could possibly be the Walter Macken trilogy – although there’s just three books, not four. They are: Seek the Fair Land (1959); The Silent People (1962); and The Scorching Wind (1964). Book 1 is set during Cromwellian rule, book 2 during the famine and book 3 during the 1916 Easter Uprising.
I just happened upon this site and was amazed to read Kim’s quiry. For the last few days I have been trying to remember that same set of books! Thanks for the relief!
Nancy, glad to be of assistance!
you should read Edna O’Brien The Country Girls if you haven’t already. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Two books for you;
1. The best of Myles- by Flann O’brien
2. The Master- by Colm Toibin
Both extreemly good.
Tom, thanks for the suggestions. I read Toibin’s Blackwater Lightship last year and loved it, and I have Fann’s At Swim Two Birds in my reading queue.
I think you should add, Author, Hazel McIntyre’s books to this list. ‘Lament in the Wind’ set during the Irish famine is a compelling and wonderful read…This led me on to read her other books and I fould them all riviting and wonderful storytelling….
I give it top marks…See Amizon and website for details
Great list. Brooklyn by Colm toibis, Esther Waters by George Moore, Spring to mind
I’d also suggest James Plunkett’s Strumpet City for its depiction of Lockout Dublin.
I totally agree Sylvia!
Hazel McIntyre’s books are treasures every one. I first got hooked on her memoir, ‘Iron Wheels on Rocky lanes’ and have read and re- read every one of her six books.
A truely wonderful writer that I can truely reccommend,
I also read Strumpet City; Very evocative and sad.
I would also reccommend Hazel McIntyre’s books.
‘lament In The Wind’ set during the Irish famine is a truely riveting read also, ‘Bourne on the Wind’. McIntyre is a great storyteller with a keen sence of time and place.
You will enjoy!!!
Michelle Roberts, London UK
See Amazon books and Kindle for details
No problem thank you for allowing me to be on the site.
I’ve read all these but the Macken and heartily concur with your recommendations, plus everything Colm Toibin and Ann Enright write (such subtle observant powerful writers). And do people know Joseph O’Connor is Siobhan O’Connor’s brother? His latest is about rock music and in my TBR. I loved Brendan Behan in my youth and Patricia Lynch in my childhood and have no reason to change my mind now.
I’m glad for the Hazel McIntyre suggestion too, I’ve never heard of her and she looks excellent.
Don’t be scared of James Joyce, he’s so worth reading/experiencing though it took me about 50 years to discover so! Elizabeth Bowen is also worth reading, and I love the clever and sly John McGahern.
There’s a novelist and short story writer originating from ireland, now living in Scotland who is a sublime writer of prose but I CANNOT recall his name – wrote a novel about a composer living on a Scottish island who’d lost her mojo – some of the best descriptive writing I’ve come across especially on music, he made me hear it, can anyone help me? Could it be Bernard someone……
Thanks for your comment and suggestions, Carol. This is a very old list (I wrote it in 2006) and since then I’ve read Ulysses (I loved it) and interviewed Joe O’Connor in Dublin. (Ive been a big fan of his sister’s music since 1988!). I’ve read his latest and will review it over the weekend. Is it Bernard McLaverty youre thinking of?
Yes it is!
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I have only read Paddy Clarke from your list. There are plenty of other gems there to explore. My favourite Irish books are That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern and Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture. I didn’t get along very well with Banville’s The Sea but I do have another of his on my tbr and I will give him another go.
This list is 9 YEARS old so it’s probably time I did a new one, as I’ve read dozens and dozens of Irish books in the intervening years. And there would definitely be a McGahern novel (or two) on there.
It would be interesting if any if these books would make the cut if you did a favourites list now.
Well, I would exclude all of the books on this list as there’s no point in repeating myself — in other words I’d do a 10 books from Ireland part 2 — but if I had to start afresh, I’d probably still include The Butcher Boy and The Barrytown Trilogy.
Another book that has been sitting on my shelves for a long time, Star of the Sea, I’m glad that you have reminded me.
Star of the Sea is wonderful. Im afraid my review of it, written in the very early days of this blog, doesnt do it justice. Its actually one of those books that I think I should reread at some point.