When it comes to learning more about another country, one of the best ways to learn a little bit more about them than what a tourist guide or board might tell you is with a good book.
Especially by someone who comes from and has lived in the country for a long time.
And nowhere has proven that concept better than Ireland.
Contrary to what many people (including some of its English neighbors just a stone’s throw away) might suggest, Ireland is a country that is both deeply aware of its history, as well as its contemporary culture.
It’s this understanding of old and new that produces a very distinct culture and wit that can’t be appreciated from afar, especially if you haven’t visited.
However, one way to get a taste of that is through a good Irish Novel.
That’s exactly what I’ll show you with this extended reading list!
Here, you’ll find a collection of Irish novels that can help broaden your understanding of this island on the edge of the Atlantic.
From fictional works to biographies, from seminal classics to new releases, there’s something here for everyone.
Whether they’re looking to prepare for an Irish trip, or simply want some good literature to add to their reading list.
A Quick Note On Geography
Before we get into this list, it’s worth acknowledging that the novels that we are talking about technically cover 2 countries: The Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland.
The latter of which is a part of the wider United Kingdom of England, Wales, and Scotland.
However, the two countries both have plenty of common heritage and culture that is shared between them and were only technically separated into their states very recently, only a hundred or so years ago.
It’s a history and cultural connection that you’ll find explored in more than a few of these books.
So, while there are some distinctions and differences between the two countries, they are both unmistakably Irish. In different ways, for sure, but still Irish.
Starting this list with something of a curveball, we have a novel that doesn’t take place in Ireland’s distant or even recent past, but one that looks to a speculative future.
It’s 40 years in the future, and the west coast city of Bohane is not quite cutting the splendid image that it once did.
Sure, there are still rich folk in and around the city, but it’s in the backstreets, working-class neighborhoods, and slums where the real spirit of the city lies.
That’s a fact that is understood all too well by our protagonist, Logan Hartnett, the godfather of Bohane, and head of the Hartnett Fancy gang.
And if any readers here are starting to see a few patterns emerging with this work, that’s no coincidence.
This is a book that understands as much about Ireland’s recent history as it has a vision of what it could be in the future.
They say that looking at the past is a great way of seeing where someone or something is going, and that’s a sentiment that author Kevin Barry understands intimately in this book.
Not bad for a first novel!
- The mobster crime aspect of this book is an element that sometimes gets forgotten in good Irish literature. Glad to see it gets a chance to be in the spotlight here.
- The future take on language and slang might be a refreshing change for some. But for others, it might just leave readers confused as to what characters are talking about.
Going from crime to horror fiction, this next book mixes both mystery and intrigue with a sense of dread for young readers that you’ll feel the moment that you open the page.
Okay, maybe a few pages in. But the introduction and setup do their work quickly, rest assured!
Stephanie Edgley is a young teenager who has found herself inheriting her estranged uncle’s old mansion after his unexpected passing.
It’s huge, empty, and not a little eerie.
However, those quickly become the least of Stephanie’s problems when she encounters a gaunt man covered in scarves, bandages, and a thick coat.
The titular Skullduggery Pleasant, a skeleton detective, warns Stephanie that the death of her uncle may not have been as much of an accident as some people might have her believe.
This is a YA series with plenty of wit and charm to it that immediately draws you in from the moment you pick up the book.
It’s easy to recommend for me, whether you’re 18 or 80!
- A phenomenal opening book to a fun YA series that many people can enjoy.
- Skullduggery Pleasant is a phenomenal side character throughout the series.
- A great book to introduce kids and younger teenagers to the detective genre.
- The opening chapter, while by no means bad, does take a little while to get into as a new reader.
Moving from the works of fiction that we’ve had in this list so far, we have a different style of book that you’ll find just as much information and knowledge about this island in, if not more: An autobiography!
The author of the piece, Frank McCourt, was born in Depression-era Brooklyn to two Irish parents and ended up moving with them back to Ireland at the age of 4.
Growing up in Limerick, much of Frank’s childhood is marked by poverty, near-starvation on a worryingly regular basis, and the casual cruelty that relatives, family, and friends can often inflict on the youngest souls, whether intentionally or not.
The fact that there is no reliable income aside from his father’s meager earnings (much of which is spent on drinking) does not help matters.
However, what his parents did foster in Frank, as you’ll no doubt discover while reading this piece, is a love of stories and the medium of storytelling, as well as a sharp wit that will be familiar to many Irish households.
(Of course, whether that is something that is taught or a perhaps response to an uncaring worldview is a different topic, but that’s something for you to come to your conclusions with as you read further.)
A fascinating examination of what it was like to live in Ireland during an arguably tumultuous period, this is an autobiography that balances that view of Irish culture, with Frank’s drive to one day return to the US and share these stories with the world.
Two guesses as to how that turned out!
- An autobiography that is as funny as it is gut-wrenching.
- A phenomenal look at living in Ireland following the Independence and civil wars.
- Many charming and tragic stories from the author’s childhood are impossible to put down once you get started.
- The subject matter and contents are not for the faint of heart. Especially considering that this is a real-life account, and not a work of fiction.
Moving from an older period when Ireland was gripped in economic turmoil, I want to now turn you to a novel that takes place in a much more recent time of economic hardship, that many readers will likely be familiar with.
It’s the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and rural Ireland is feeling that chaos unfolds just as much as anywhere else in the world.
And, as you’ll find as you go further into this book, those tensions spill over into violence at a shocking rate of knots.
The debut novel of now-established and well-regarded novelist Donal Ryan, this modern classic has everything you could want in a piece regarding rural Irish life, from the small towns and villages where everyone seemingly knows each other’s names, to the very human, very witty way that the characters speak.
However, there is also an undeniable darkness to this story at the same time.
The authentic truths of each character’s stories, and how they interconnect and affect one another, and also lead to heartbreak and violence, feel very real, and in a way that fits seamlessly into a town whose world is in the middle of being turned upside down.
There’s a good reason that this book has gone on to be considered a seminal work of late-2000s Irish literature, so grab a copy for yourself!
- Each character comes across as an authentic person, living in Ireland during one of the most tumultuous times in the last 20 years.
- It is somehow both hilarious in a very personal way and unnerving and tense in an equally human manner.
- Some of the vernacular might come across as a little strange to non-Irish readers.
It’s no surprise that many books written or based around the 1960s through to the 90s will touch on The Troubles in some way, especially if they are based in Northern Ireland.
It’s almost a well-worn trope at this point, but one that is still fresh in many people’s memories.
So, what do you get when you combine this incredibly tense and sporadically violent time with a literary classic like The Iliad?
Well, if this book is anything to go by, it makes for a phenomenal read!
Country by Michael Hughes does exactly what we outlined earlier, the story, like the Ancient Greek classic, starts with a woman, forced by circumstance, to leave her husband.
In this case, it is away from her Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) husband.
The event causes her husband, Dog, and his regional IRA group to continue and intensify hostilities with the Unionists and the British Armed Forces.
Many people who haven’t read the old Greek classics might worry that they will come off as old-fashioned or unrelatable in some way.
However, the straightforward, matter-of-fact, and even vulgar and violent language and descriptions used in the book do more than enough to place a story that took place thousands of years ago into the late 20th-century setting.
It’s not for the faint of heart, as many books around the troubles are.
But it is undeniably one that is gripping to read through, especially if you’re someone who has a wider interest in The Troubles
- An age-old classic story that is translated beautifully into a completely new, and shockingly recent, setting.
- The characters feel very much alive, and active players in their roles in this story.
- The contents of the book are both graphic, and well within many people’s living memory.
- While the Iliad is not necessary reading for the book to be enjoyed, some background understanding of the Troubles and the IRA probably is.
If you thought the contents of the last book were dark, just wait until you read a little about the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.
Seriously, this is one of the darkest chapters in modern Irish history.
It’s not exactly a time of good vibes, is what I’m trying to say.
However, this is also the setting of perhaps one of the most seminal works in Irish literature, The Silent People.
Written in 1962, the story focuses on the life and struggles of Dualta Duane, a young educated man from Connacht.
Despite his reluctance, he is forced into the political turmoil of the 1840s, as famine continues to sweep the country, and as landowners and lords are either ineffectual or downright cruel.
Dualta must make the long trek across the west coast to find a way to help his fellow countrymen, in a chapter of Irish history that has become a cornerstone of not just the people of Ireland, but the Irish diaspora around the world.
This book series covers over 300 years of a single Irish family and their place in the island’s history and is one that we would wholly recommend to people looking to learn a little more in general.
However, if we had to recommend just one, it would be The Silent People.
- A gripping, somber tale during a terrible time.
- A protagonist that manages to work as an into the audience, while still being a key part of their family’s story.
- This is the second book in a series, so you may be lost for some vital context for who the family of the protagonist comes from.
- Again, this is a book not for the faint of heart.
Time for something a little bit different in my recommendations.
The books that I’ve shown so far have all been full-length novels of some kind, whether they are fictional tales or autobiographical pieces.
However, we haven’t given much love to the short story format.
Easily digestible stories, collected into a single issue, are an often underappreciated corner of the book market.
So, let’s change that, with this widely-read and critically acclaimed collection by James Joyce.
Dubliners is a collection of 15 tales that follow the lives of different residents around the city of Dublin, particularly around or just before the time of publication, in 1914.
A time when Irish nationalism and the prospect of a free Ireland from British rule was in its heyday.
Many of these tales are dark and are a glimpse into the harsh reality of what it was like to live in Dublin around this time.
However, amidst these dissections and depressing epiphanies, there is still a moment of triumph and joy.
After all, life in troubling times might be difficult, even awful. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still bright sparks of joy to be had in those moments.
Pondering aside, if you’re in the mood for some turn-of-the-century stories in Ireland, this is the collection for you!
- This is a great insight into life in early 20th-century Dublin, right before the Irish war for Independence.
- Stories of great introspection, tough realities, and moments of hope and joy can be found in the collection.
- While the stories do not overstay their welcome, many readers may find that they don’t fully connect with every tale.
When it comes to many of these books, often the ones that grip us the most are those that follow a person throughout their entire life.
Whether it is autobiographical, or complete a work of fiction, there’s just something gripping about watching a person grow throughout their life, and seeing the ways that they do or don’t change.
It’s a cycle that is on full display in this incredible work by Mary Costello.
It’s a story that many of us will have heard of, regardless of what side of the pond we find ourselves on.
A young woman, in our case Tess, leaves the known world of her small rural Irish town to move to New York and make a new life for herself.
Only here, like many other unfortunate souls, it isn’t exactly a choice that she makes for herself.
The story continues through much of her life as she reestablishes a new life for herself, finds work, becomes a mum, and many of the other struggles that immigrants will likely know at least part of the struggle of.
All of this, culminating in a tear-jerking reunion with her family as she goes back to Ireland some 40 years later, is exactly the sort of thing that everyone should at least try to read.
Even if it’s only once.
- A profound journey through one woman’s life as she makes the biggest decisions in her life.
- The urgency of the piece feels timeless, and one that will help it stand the test of time.
- Some of the decisions made by Tess may leave questions about why she made those decisions, with no solid answer.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot of really sorrowful and downer books so far in this list.
All of them are phenomenal, and many of them are deeply insightful pieces of fiction or literature that give insight into both Ireland the country, and its people.
Still, it kind of feels like a list of beat-down stories with very few upbeat works, with one skeleton-shaped exception so far.
Let’s get back to that with this next book!
Humaira Khan (‘Hani’ to her friends and family, comes out to her friends as bisexual but is immediately dismissed by them, as they have only known her to date guys (a sentiment that many bisexual people may be able to relate to).
So, to prove to her friends and peers that she is what she says she is, she blurts out that she is in a relationship ship with Ishita ‘Ishi’ Dey, another Bengali-descended girl who Hani has barely even spoken to.
Fortunately for her, Ishi is prepared to go along with this charade, as it might make her, the class bookworm, a little more popular.
So, two girls in a fake relationship couldn’t be more different from each other. Seems simple, right?
So what happens when those fake feelings stop being so fake?
Well, teenage shenanigans ensue, that’s what!
Whilst not shying away from serious issues of bi and homophobia, as well as Islamophobia and racism, this book manages to keep up its heartwarming vibes, with a Sapphic romance at the center of it.
Plus, this isn’t some autobiographical piece from 80 years ago or a contemplation on the violence inflicted on or struggles of the Irish people over the last 200 years.
This is a modern, feel-good story.
Through and through!
- A heartwarming tale of Sapphic love, and an excellent YA novel overall.
- A modern book that is a reflection of Ireland as it currently is, as well as some of the issues that it faces, from biphobia to racism, and other relevant issues. All while still keeping up a generally upbeat and heartwarming story.
- This might not be the easiest experience for people in their late 20s or older to fully relate to in the same way as a younger audience.
Okay, enough of the feel-good stories for a little while.
It’s time to cover another pivotal moment in Irish literature, especially literature written for and by women.
If we’re talking about authors that influenced a generation of Irish girls and women, this list wouldn’t be complete without the works of Edna O’Brien.
Especially her iconic 1960 book The Country Girls, about the experiences of being a young woman in Ireland around and before that time, and the realities of living with the harsh reality of growing up from a child and teenager, into a young woman.
It’s a coming-of-age story that deals with a stage of adolescence that many women will likely be familiar with, as youthful optimism and bright, young love are put to the test, maybe even broken, by the realities of living in a city and being a woman.
Especially during a period just before second-wave feminism.
Even if the exact subject detail doesn’t suck you in, O’Brien’s masterful use of prose and constructing a narrative absolutely will.
While the whole trilogy that this book is a part of is phenomenal, this first book is the place to start with.
You know. Because it’s the first in the series!
- Seminal work from a seminal author!
- Tells the hard truth about growing up as a young woman in post-WW2 Ireland.
- Once again, this book doesn’t end on the happiest of notes. Still, you can take comfort that the story of Kate doesn’t end here.
Not only are we back in Dublin during the early 1910s for this next entry, but we’re also back with the short story format.
Strumpet city takes place during the 1913 Dublin lockout, arguably the biggest industrial dispute that took place in Ireland in its history, much less in the 20th century.
The book itself follows the story of 13 different characters that lived and worked in the city in the run-up to and during the lockout.
From all sorts of backgrounds and social classes, you get a sense of the political and cultural landscape of Ireland’s capital during this cornerstone of Irish industrial history.
Especially during a decade that, as we established with the last short story entry, was about to be a tumultuous one for the future Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
And yet, despite the tumultuous setting, there is still a sense of those who are in the right in this historical moment, and who are in the wrong.
You get that from these characters, painting an image that is both personal, and yet on a much bigger scale too.
Wow. If I had a penny for every short story collection that took place in Dublin during this decade, I’d have… well, two pennies.
Still, it’s kind of freaky that it’s happened twice so far in this list…
- Paints a significant historical moment in excellent detail, giving a sense of the views of people on the ground as this massive dispute unfolds before them.
- Plenty of characters are shown in this book, from all walks of life, all with their characters and narratives centered around them.
- Anyone who knows about the 1913 lockout knows that this isn’t a story for the faint of heart.
Moving away from the firmly historical works that have dominated a lot of this list so far, we go to a story that is filled with mystery, and not a little helping of terror and suspense.
Not necessarily in the ‘oh no, I’m living through extraordinary times, and I don’t know how to process or express my feelings about it’, kind of way that we’ve shown plenty of so far.
But much more in the ‘oh no, my entire family was murdered by a serial killer, and I think he is after me as an adult now’, kind of way.
It’s a subtle difference, sure. But one that makes for a phenomenal mystery and thriller book!
Young Eve Black was just twelve years old when the titular Nothing Man murdered her entire family in cold blood.
And now, as a result, she has become fixated on him and trying to get revenge and bring justice to him.
And what better way to do that than to… turn your childhood trauma into a murder-mystery book?
Well, it certainly seems to catch the attention of one Jim Doyle, who, realizing who the writer of the author of this book is after seeing it in a store, must do everything in his power to stop his awful secret from being revealed.
You can see where things might go from here!
This is a phenomenal story for anyone looking for a good thriller with a wicked Irish sense of humor to go with it!
- Characters are energetic and active in this novel.
- A compelling thriller book with plenty of turns and twists to keep you entertained.
- Catherine Howard knows how to make you keep
- The unique writing style might not be to everyone’s tastes.
So, which of these books will you read first?
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I Read These Before Visiting Ireland?
While they are not required reading, many of these books will give a deeper appreciation of much of modern Ireland’s modern and more recent political events.
Is The Weather Really That Bad In Ireland?
One of the things that many people wonder is if Ireland has as bad weather as it seems to in books and other media.
And yeah, the weather isn’t usually all that sunny.