For as long as anyone can remember, the people of Ireland have put the copious contents of their imaginations down in writing, contributing to a literary tradition that has since been recognized as one of the most prolific and praised in the entire world. Writers of every age, gender, and background have played instrumental roles in helping the world of Irish literature reach the impressive height at which it sits today — and the books that have resulted are every bit as diverse as those who penned them.
Here, we at Shamrock Craic have rounded up eight of our favorite Irish novels to date — and while they’re mostly of a contemporary nature, you’ll be sure to recognize a couple of seminal classics we couldn’t help but include.
The school season is almost upon us once again, so why not make the most of it? This reading list is perfect for setting out your own personal Irish fiction course. Get reading, and prepare for many an evening to come curled up in the company of a great Irish book!
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
In this 2017 debut novel by Mayo-born Sally Rooney, the complexities of relationships formed 21st century Ireland are thrown into a bright and uncompromising light. The lead characters come in the form of two 20-year-old women, Frances and Bobby, both students at Dublin’s Trinity College. After performing together at a spoken word poetry reading, the two are headhunted by Melissa, a respected writer with designs on making them the new it-girls of Irish lit. Their new lifestyle, however, isn’t quite as perfect as it seems.
The novel’s most arresting device its the focus, as the title might suggest, on the exchanges that take place between its characters as the story progresses. In person, over text, and in email, the words these people bat back and forth, though often said in jest, feel anything but trivial. In picking up Conversations with Friends, any reader is sure to come to care for the deeply-flawed deuteragonists just as much as they do for each other.
In 2018, Rooney followed Conversations with a new novel, Normal People, which, fittingly, also centers around the universal struggle to contend with the strains placed by burgeoning adulthood on the relationships of youth. Just like its predecessor, Normal People was massively well-received, said by the Irish Times to be a 21st century work with “the engine of a 19th century novel.”
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Another debut novel that shook the core of the Irish literary world, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a dizzying exploration of an unnamed Irish girl’s life, emotions, and daily observations as she struggles to understand her mother’s religious fervor, her brother’s intellectual disability, and her own blossoming — albeit with great confusion — sexuality. If these themes didn’t seem powerful enough, sit tight for the most distinctive aspect of the book: its structure. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is written in an entirely stream of consciousness format, abandoning all sense of our learned English language conventions to tap into the rawest truths our hearts have to offer.
Henry Layte, co-founder of the book’s publisher, Galley Beggar Press, called it “one of the most important books [he] had ever read. It was the same effect on [him] as when [he] first read Samuel Beckett. It was a game-changer as far as what could be done.” Speaking on the style in which Half-Formed Thing is written, American novelist Joshua Cohen noted that its experimental style “forgoes quotation marks and elides verbiage for sense, sound, and sheer appearance on the page. For emphasis, it occasionally wreaks havoc on capitalS and reverses letter order.”
Intrigued? You should be. This book is one that everyone should read — and don’t be surprised if, while muddling through this expertly-tangled thicket of language, you find yourself struck by some emotions for which you realize you have no name.
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
In 2010, Dublin author Paul Murray released his second novel, Skippy Dies. It wasn’t long before the award nominations came swarming in — and from the moment you pick up this wonderfully tragicomic read, you’ll quickly understand why.
The novel follows the lives of a large group of students who attend a fictional Catholic boarding school in Dublin. As you might assume from the title, the action kicks off when Daniel “Skippy” Juster dies in the midst of a donut-eating contest in the opening pages. The rest of the story hinges upon this moment; Skippy’s final, sugar-dusted breath serves as a catalyst for Murray’s fearless exploration of how the wider community reacts to the loss, trying — and often, in a thousand little ways, failing — to move on with their lives.
The backstories of Skippy and the other members of the large character cast are detailed through a series of flashbacks, doing their part to paint the wider picture that Murray continually, and successfully, strives for. Skippy dies, but Skippy Dies will make you want to live.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
Easily one of the most talked-about Irish novels of the decade, Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn made a big splash after its 2009 release by winning the prestigious Costa Novel Award. Praised for its sincerity and perceptiveness, it tells the deceptively-simple story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman struggling to find employment in 1950s Ireland. In an effort to make something more of her life, she immigrates to the United States and settles in Brooklyn, New York. The story that follows is a moving testament to the many young Irish people who moved across the sea in search of opportunity in that era.
A full-length film based on the novel was brought out in 2015, with an all-star cast that included Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, and Emory Cohen. Just like its source material, it was met with riotous praise, securing several major awards and an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor
Staying on the subject of historical novels, we go back much further back in time with Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea. This 2004 novel is set in 1848, and is backdropped by the immense suffering of Ireland’s Great Hunger, which drove thousands of people to board fleets of “coffin ships” bound across the Atlantic Ocean towards what they hoped might be a better life. Star of the Sea is the story of one such ship and, more importantly, its occupants, the complexity of their stories serving as a powerful reminder that their real-world equivalents were far more than mere statistics.
What really sets Star of the Sea apart from other migration stories that take place in the Great Hunger era is its most pressing plotline: that of a murder mystery. In a narrative that continually jumps through different times and places, all roads seem to lead back to one critical moment when a human being takes the life of another on board the titular vessel; the result, you’re sure to find, is nothing less than gripping.
The Commitments by Roddy Doyle
The first episode of Roddy Doyle’s internationally-praised Barrytown Trilogy, The Commitments, was penned in 1987 and served as an introduction to the wild adventures of a cast of characters who would eventually come to steal the hearts of many.
The plot concerns a group of jobless youths living in north Dublin, who, despite knowing relatively little about the music business, decide to form a soul band. The zany exploits that follow are nothing short of hilarious — and perfectly, geniusly Dublin, to boot. As you might have already guessed, the title of the novel reflects the name of the newly-formed music group — because, as the band’s questionably-intentioned manager Jimmy Rabbitte says, “all the good 60s bands started with a ‘the’.”
In 1991, a highly-praised film adaptation of The Commitments was produced, its success due in no small part to the involvement of Roddy Doyle himself in the writing of the screenplay. Filmed on-location in Dublin, it wryly captured the collapse of the inner city at the time, setting the action against an energetic soul soundtrack that’s still hugely popular today.
At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien
Going a little further back in time, it’s impossible not to include in this list a recommendation for the 1939 classic, At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. Considered one of the most masterful examples of metafiction ever written, it was noted by the Guardian in 2014 as being one of top 100 novels of all time.
The story is told by a nameless student of Irish literature, who balances three separate narratives in completely different genres as he recounts the details of his life so far. Soon, the narratives begin to overlap, with characters, themes, and settings interacting in a way he had never imagined — and changing the way he views the world of the novel forever.
For any reader with a love for stories which challenge their own form and dare to be different, At Swim-Two-Birds is sure to be an unforgettable experience. Many such book lovers have been known to power through its engrossing plot(s) in a single sitting!
Ulysses by James Joyce
Maybe this suggestion strikes you as something of a given — but it’s not without good reason that Ulysses is considered one of the top must-read novels the English-speaking world has seen thus far. This seminal work of modernism was first serialized in five parts between March 1918 and December 1920, and cemented James Joyce’s position as one of global history’s greatest literary giants. To quote Irish scholar of literary criticism Declan Kiberd, “Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking.”
A take on Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, Ulysses takes place over the course of an average day in the life of Leopold Bloom, a man living in Dublin in 1904. The novel draws many comparisons between itself and Homer’s work, elevating the mundane activities of Bloom’s daily errands to a similar level of importance to the heroic feats of ancient Greek figures.
Since its publication, the novel has been the subject of countless debates, the first of which was an obscenity trial held in its name in the United States in 1921. Today, fans of Joyce continue to celebrate the novel’s stream of consciousness style, colorful characters, and rich humor on June 16 of every year, an observance referred to as Bloomsday which falls on the exact same day as the one on which the book itself is set. Want to join in the conversation? Pick up a copy of Ulysses in your local bookstore, and get reading; it might just change your life as it has for so many others!
And now, it’s your turn. What’s the best Irish novel you’ve ever read? Is it a recently-written breakout piece, or an august classic that’s stood the test of time? Tell us all in the comments below!