It’s St Patrick’s Day on 17 March and what better way to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland than by reading a book by an Irish author? Ireland has a population of just under five million, but despite its size it has produced some of the finest and most successful writers in the world – from James Joyce to Edna O’Brien.
Literary superstar Marian Keyes has sold more than 35 million copies of her books worldwide. Colm Tóibín won the 2009 Costa Novel Award with Brooklyn, which was made into a movie starring Saoirse Rohan, while The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne was also turned into a film – and later on, a ballet.
Choosing the best books by Irish authors is highly subjective and it’s almost impossible to narrow them down to a mere 10 titles. With that in mind we’ve picked books to suit all tastes – from highbrow tomes to popular fiction – but we could have chosen 100 and still not included everyone we wanted to feature.
We haven’t, for instance, included Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray was his only novel), Roddy Doyle, William Trevor, Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, or Maeve Binchy and more – all of whom are brilliant writers.
We’ve kept our focus instead on novels, and even then more well known books like Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir about his poverty-stricken 1930s childhood, are missing.
Still, the ones below are some of our all-time favourites by Irish authors, that made us laugh, made us cry and made us think – titles that we’ll re-read over and over again in the years to come.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín, published by Penguin
This beguiling novel beat Hilary Mantel’s Booker-prizewinningWolf Hall to the coveted 2009 Costa novel award and we can see why. It’s the story of Eilis Lacey, a young girl who leaves small-town Ireland to find work in 1950s New York. Desperately homesick at first, Eilis gradually becomes absorbed in her new life – till devastating news from home forces her to decide between personal freedom and duty. It’s exquisitely-written and a tender story of love and loss, we couldn’t put it down and think you’ll love it too.
Buy now £6.95, Hive.co.uk
‘The Country Girls’ by Edna O’Brien, published by Faber & Faber
When Edna O’Brien’s classic coming-of-age novel was first published back in 1960 it caused outrage. It was banned by the Irish censor for its explicit content and frank portrayal of sexual desire and in some ways that made it even more of an exciting read. But times have changed and in 2019, Faber & Faber, published a new edition ofThe Country Girls trilogy, including the two sequels, The Lonely Girl and Girls in their Married Bliss, with the addition of an introduction by Eimear McBride herself.
The trilogy follows the tale of two girls – Cait Brady and Baba Brennan – who grow up in a repressive Irish village after the Second World War. After being expelled from convent school they head to the bright lights of Dublin, where their lives take unexpected turns. It’s an exceptional collection and each page is as seductive and dazzling as the next.
Buy now £9.43, Blackwells.co.uk
‘The Forgotten Waltz’ by Anne Enright, published by Vintage
From the Man Booker prize-winning The Gathering to The Green Room, it’s hard to choose between Anne Enright’s novels. However, our pick is The Forgotten Waltz, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize, and chronicles a love affair that wrecks two Dublin marriages.
Narrated by Gina, who is married to the steady Conor but in love with the more complicated Seán, we found it to be an achingly brilliant piece of writing on passion and delusion. It’s a pleasure to read from start to finish and reignites our love for fiction. All because Enright’s prose flows so smoothly and eloquently that she makes writing seem effortless.
Buy now £7.37, Whsmith.co.uk
‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne, published by Definitions
It may surprise you to learn that John Boyne wrote the first draft of his classic 2006 novel in just two and a half days. “The idea came to me on a Tuesday evening,” he told The Irish Times in 2017. “I began writing on Wednesday morning and continued for 60 hours with only short breaks, not sleeping on Wednesday or Thursday nights and finishing the first draft by Friday lunchtime.” Since then it’s a novel that has captured the hearts, and many tears, of the nation.
Told through the eyes of naïve nine-year-old Bruno, we learn that he is baffled by his family’s move from Berlin to the middle of nowhere. Why is there a huge razor-wire fence next to the house and who is the boy in grey striped pyjamas on the other side? It’s tale of innocence, evil and the power of friendship and though it’s aimed at younger readers, it’s lauded by people of all ages and for us it’s truly an unputdownable read.
Buy now £6.55, Whsmith.co.uk
‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce, published by Penguin Modern Classics
No list of the best Irish literature would be complete without Ulysses – even though it’s a book that divides opinion. Some Joyce fans are so devoted to it that they re-read it every year, while sceptics declare that it’s one of the most challenging novels in the English language (Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is even more challenging).
First published in book form in 1922, the story is set in and around Dublin on a single day in 1904. The three main characters, Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly are modern-day counterparts of Telemachus, Ulysses and Penelope, and the events of the novel loosely mirror the main events of Ulysses’s journey home after the Trojan War. If you can keep up with all that’s going on, it’s a fascinating read – though it might not be the best choice for a relaxing, easy, before-bed read.
Buy now £9.99, Waterstones.com
‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney, published by Faber
Thanks to the BBC’s TV adaptation, Sally Rooney’s Normal People became one of the most talked-about novels last year. It’s the story of star-crossed lovers Marianne and Connell, who grow up in the same small town in the west of Ireland and try to stay apart but can’t. At school Connell is popular with everyone while Marianne is a loner with no friends. The situation changes at university in Dublin, where Marianne thrives but Connell finds it hard to fit in. It’s relatable content makes it all the more compelling and we can’t recommend it enough as a book or a series to binge.
Rooney is still only 30 but she’s a wonderful writer who deserves every plaudit she’s received. This year the BBC will begin filming Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, which is also set in Dublin and explores the tangled relationships of four friends and we can’t wait to once again see her words come to life on screen.
Buy now £6.99, Blackwells.co.uk
‘Grown Ups’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin
Marian Keyes’s novels are warm, witty and wise. Even when she’s writing about hard-hitting subjects like divorce, depression or alcoholism, she’s never preachy or pious. It’s hard to choose her best book but her latest, Grown Ups, is a wonderful story, filled with heartbreak, empathy and Keyes’s trademark humour. It’s the story of the Caseys, a close-knit family of three brothers, their wives and their children. Described by her publisher as “inimitable Marian Keyes”, it explores everything from family life and infidelity to bulimia and tricky finances. You’ll laugh, cry, and might even have your heart broken, but it’s definitely worth it.
Buy now £6.99, Waterstones.com
‘City of Bohane’ by Kevin Barry, published by Vintage
Shortlisted for the 2011 Costa First Novel Award and named as one of the BBC’s 100 Novels That Shaped Our World, Kevin Barry’s dystopian novel is an electrifying and utterly original read. The once-great city of Bohane on the west coast of Ireland is “on its knees, infested by vice and split along tribal lines”. The place has been in the grip of gang-leader Logan Hartnett for years but there are rumours that his old nemesis is back in town – and trouble is brewing. We love how different this book is from anything else on this list and are sure you will too.
Buy now £9.99, Waterstones.com
‘The Sea’ by John Banville, published by Picador
When The Sea was named as the winner of the Booker prize in 2005 Professor John Sutherland, the chair of the judges, described it as “a masterly study of grief, memory and loss”. It’s the story of art historian Max Morden, who returns to the seaside village where he spent a childhood holiday. He’s mourning the loss of his wife but it gradually becomes clear that he’s also confronting a distant trauma. We found it a really intriguing read, with every page helping us try to piece together the answers, and though the shifts in time were occasionally hard to follow we can’t deny that John Banville’s writing is sublime.
Buy now £8.19, Whsmith.co.uk
‘PS, I Love You’ by Cecelia Ahern, published by HarperCollins
For something lighter try Cecelia Ahern’s best selling PS, I Love You, which she wrote at the tender age of 21. In the intervening years she has published 17 more novels, selling more than 25 million books worldwide – a pretty impressive achievement for a writer who’s still only 39.
PS, I Love You tells the story of Holly, whose husband Gerry dies of cancer. However, after his death she discovers that Gerry has left her a bundle of notes, one for each month and each signed “PS, I love you”. It’s raw and heart-wrenching and one of those books we could read time and again without ever boring. We also love the follow-up to this heartrending tale, Postscript, which was published in 2019.
Buy now £8.19, Blackwells.co.uk
The verdict: Books by Irish authors
Choosing fiction is incredibly personal but our top choice is Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín for its beautiful writing and tender storyline. However, The Country Girls, Edna O’Brien’s classic coming-of-age tale of two convent girls who head to the bright lights of Dublin is not to be missed.
Want more fiction books to curl up with this Spring? Take a look at these titles from The Duchess of Cornwall’s new book club, The Reading Room