Five Irish Books I’ve Read

Cover imageThe heading for this post could just as easily be 10, 15 or even 50 Irish books I’ve read. So much of the quietly elegant, understated writing I admire turns out to be by Irish authors. Their work is often tinged with more than a little melancholy, perhaps only to be expected given their country’s history. Below are five of the best Irish books I’ve read, just one with a link to a full review on this blog.

William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault begins in the troubled year of 1921. Three men appear in the grounds of Lahardane to burn the house down. Springing to the defence of his English wife and their daughter, Lahardane’s Protestant owner Everard Gault fires his shotgun meaning only to frighten the trespassers but wounding one of them. The young man’s family will have nothing of Everard’s pleas for forgiveness. For their own safety, the Gaults must leave Ireland, an idea that eight-year-old Lucy finds unbearable. She runs away, determined to make her mother and father stay. Believing Lucy to be dead, her heartbroken parents turn their backs on their beloved home. When Lucy is found alive, they can’t be traced and her life becomes one of atonement for the wrong she feels she’s done them. Infused with an aching sadness, The Story of Lucy Gault typifies Trevor’s novels: slim, elegant, often spare, each word carefully chosen.Cover image for That They Might Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun is a little cheerier, unlike much of his fiction. Leaving their bustling London life behind, Joe and Kate Ruttledge have settled in a small Irish lakeside community on a farm subsidised by Joe’s writing. The small dramas and quiet satisfactions of everyday life fill their world: visits from their neighbour and dear friend the incorrigibly inquisitive Jamesie; lambing and selling their calves at the cattle mart; trips to town to pick up supplies and local news. This gentle, almost wistful, novel traces a year in the Ruttledges’ lives, capturing both place and time beautifully. The quiet restraint that characterises much of McGahern’s writing is a delicate counterpoint to the sometimes lyrical sentences that bejewel his work.

Cover imageI was going to pick a different Colm Tóibín novel from Brooklyn which has received so much exposure thanks to the excellent film adaptation but it’s my favourite of his and I kept coming back to it. Unable to find work in 1950s Ireland, Eilas Lacey emigrates having heard of the many employment opportunities on offer in New York. She gets a job in a department store, takes up evening classes and tries to keep her desperate homesickness at bay. Shortly after she becomes involved with Tony Fiorello, she’s summoned back to Ireland by news of a family tragedy, hastily agreeing to a secret marriage before she leaves. At home, egged on by her mother, she finds herself falling in love with Jim Farrell, ignoring Tony’s letters and telling no one about him. The Irish American world is a small one, however, and it’s soon clear that Eilas must make a choice. Written in Tóibin’s spare yet eloquent prose, Brooklyn is a triumph, one which I didn’t expect to be matched by the film until I saw Saoirse Ronan as Eilas. She seemed born for the part.

Deirdre Madden’s Molly Fox’s Birthday takes place during the space of one day, as you might expect from its title, but it Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Maddenencapsulates decades of memories as a successful Northern Irish playwright thinks of her friend Molly whose Dublin house she has borrowed while Molly is in New York. Molly is a celebrated actress, feted for her stage performances. As our unnamed narrator struggles with writer’s block she remembers shared times with Molly, her thoughts often returning to their mutual friend Andrew. We know it’s Molly’s birthday from the book’s title but the full significance of the date slowly becomes apparent as our narrator muses on writing, friendship and identity, while wondering why Molly never celebrates her birthday. Madden’s writing is beautifully honed, as elegantly understated as all three of the previous writers.

Cover imageBelinda McKeon’s Tender begins in 1997 and ends in 2012, three years before the resounding referendum vote in favour of equal marriage in Ireland. Catherine and James instantly click when James returns from Berlin to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. He’s tactile and outgoing, loudly pontificating on everything and everybody yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long everyone is convinced they’re a couple but eventually James tells Catherine he’s gay. Soon she begins to bask in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told with unhappy results. Tender is a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate, and extraordinarily intense at times. Another Irish triumph.

Any books by Irish authors you’d like to recommend?

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39 thoughts on “Five Irish Books I’ve Read”

  1. This is a great list – a few for me to add to my TBR. I completely agree with you about that gentle, quite style that can be a feature of Irish writing. One of my favourites is Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture. 🙂

  2. Although it isn’t set in Ireland, Barry’s Days Without End is probably the most perfect book I have ever read.

    I know it isn’t your genre, but there are some wonderful crime series set in Ireland, some of them exploring the difficulties of policing in Ulster in the wake of the disbanding of the RUC. Try Claire McGowan’s The Silent Dead, which asks the question as to who has the right to hand out justice; indeed it questions the very nature of justice itself.

    1. I haven’t yet read that one but will make sure I do. Such a recommendation!

      I’ve spotted Claire McGowan’s name on several bloggers’ sites. I’ll look out for one next time I’m in a bookshop.

  3. Five books and authors I’ve never read, despite having bought Brooklyn when it was published! I’m very drawn to Tender though. I also read an increasing number of Irish authors, but recently, they’ve been the less gentle ones (Lisa McInerny, Tana French) plus Donal Ryan of course.

  4. I agree with all of these beauties except I’d have to swap Brooklyn for The Blackwater Lightship – a book I own two copies of and just can’t manage to give either up!

  5. Of these I’ve only read Tender, which I thought was excellent. I couldn’t get on with Brooklyn at all, but I’ll try it again because I think it was the timing for me, not the novel. Molly Fox sounds interesting, I’ll look out for it!

  6. Interesting that you picked Brooklyn. I preferred Nora Webster – have you read that one? Any other recommendations you ask – well you already know I’m a fan of Donal Ryan…..How about M. J Farrell who also writes as Molly Keane – she’s ace at characterisation

    1. I have, Karen, and I’m sorry to say it’s the one Tóibín I didn’t get on with very well. I remember reading all those Molly Keanes back when Virago resurrected them in the ’80s. Very enjoyable!

  7. There’s a wonderful book of linked short stories (family bonds and domestic tensions against the background of the Troubles) by award-winning writer Orla McAlinden: “The Accidental Wife” (Sowilo Press). Her recent novel (published by Red Stag: “The Flight of the Wren”, winner of the Cecil Day Lewis Award) explores the impact of the 1845-49 famine on the women of Ireland. This I haven’t read yet, but it’s been much acclaimed.

  8. And I forgot to say, I absolutely love “Brooklyn.” Colm Toibin is brilliant, and this is one of his very best books. Though I haven’t yet read “The Blackwater Lightship…” which I now must do after what commenter kerry says above!

  9. Lovely to see William Trevor in your list, a writer I’d like to read more of in the future. Lucy Gault has been recommended to me before, so it’s clearly one to consider.

  10. What a terrific post! I love so many Irish and Irish American writers. I read Lucy Gault recently, and it is a 5 star read. While I usually prefer William Trevor’s short stories to his novels, this one was really exceptional.

    Colm Toibin is wonderful. My favorites of his are Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn and Nora Webster. His debut novel, The South, is remarkable. Sebastian Barry is another lovely writer and I particularly like The Long, Long Way and The Secret Scripture.

    Have you read Death and Nightingales by Eugene McCabe? Toibin recommended it as a overlooked book and I have a copy of it on my tbr. After reading a recommendation by Anne Patchett, I read a wonderful novella, The All of It.

    Another overlooked book that I would recommend is the Walking People by Mary Beth Keane. It begins in Ireland and continues in New York City. It seems to have had the misfortunate of coming out in the same year as Toibin’s Brooklyn.

    My favorite Irish American writer is Alice McDermott. I like all of her books but would recommend starting with At Weddings and Wakes. Her most recent, The Ninth Hour, is very, very good.

    1. Thanks so much, Susan. I’ve not come across either the McCabe or the Keane but they’re going straight on my tbr list. I love McDermott’s writing – particularly Charming Billy, sadly out of print here in the UK.

  11. I haven’t read any of these but they all look lovely. I’m reading Normal People by Sally Rooney right now and although it’s a character driven book it plays out during the recent Irish recession. I am in love with it! It’s making me feel really wistful for my late teens.
    I read Beatlebone by Kevin Barry a while ago. That book beautifully evokes the wild Irish countryside.

    1. I’m looking forward to reading Normal People very much. Really enjoyed Conversations with Friends.
      Beatlebone is such an idiosyncratic book, isn’t it it, but you’re right about the evocation of the countryside side. Very striking.

  12. What lovely choices Susan – particularly William Trevor, whose writing I love. Tender is one of my favourite books from recent years (in fact, I think that Normal People owes it quite the debt).

  13. I haven’t ever seen Lucy Gault mentioned in a book blog so this was wonderful. I don’t know how I found the book but I remember thinking I didn’t know writing could be so beautiful, so perfectly evocative. I adored that book and went on to read a number of his other other novels.

    I know he’s getting a lot of publicity and may be considered old news for Irish writers but I thought John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies was fabulous. Also, Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry. Absolutely loved both their voices.

    1. Gorgeous prose, and one of the saddest books I think I’ve ever read.

      I’ve yet to read a Boyne but certainly intend to this year. So many people whose opinion I trust have been praising him to the skies. I think my partner has A Star Called Henry on our shelves somewhere. I’ll have to look it out.

  14. John Boyne is an author I’d been watching since reading his Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and last year his The Heart’s Invisible Furies was on my favourites list. I love Donal Ryan’s novellas after The Spinning Heart.
    Nuala O’Connor or Nuala Ní Chonchúir as she sometimes uses is another Irish writer whose books The Closet of Savage Mementos and Miss Emily (a fictional account of the friendship between an Irish maid and the poet Emily Dickinson) I enjoyed.
    I do enjoy reading the Irish Times literary section and I’m especially fond of the reviews of Eileen Battersby.

      1. As you can see I’ve been catching up on a few post! I hope you get to John Boyne, I’ll never forget the reading experience and the review – especially as one of my mature French students read it and bought a copy before I could warn him of it’s length – it’s a great read, but pretty long (582 pages) for someone reading in a second language – though the storytelling is pretty riveting. Every week for a long time I’d ask how he was getting on, and he was, slowly. After my end of year reads, he said, I think I’ll be going for your shortest read this year – which is one that made my favourites ‘So Long a Letter’ by Mariama Ba – and one that can be read in its original French! 🙂

        1. And I’m delighted that you are, Claire! I think lots of people have trouble with 582 pages in their first language so he did very well, and obviously trusted your judgement.

      1. I’ve been off social media for a while, so it hadn’t crossed my radar, but I was looking forward to her end of year favourites, so, so sad, irreplaceable even. I don’t know of any other reviewer whose diversity of reading was so enticing, to me anyway.

          1. And a shock for those who didn’t know her, I really was floored by it this morning, being lead there after reading your post about Irish literature and reading some of the commentary from people who did know her, no wonder I loved her reviews, not just her intelligence but the kind empathic human she clearly was.

          2. I certainly got that impression. I’ve not read much of her criticism but her name crops up frequently in blurbs and puffs, understated – always a relief from the hype – and perceptive.

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