Ireland, despite its small size, is home to scores of world-renowned Irish authors, both classic and contemporary. The Emerald Isle has such a rich, turbulent, and unforgettable history, recorded extensively in its literary canon, that it seems nearly impossible to narrow down this list to the six brilliant works of Irish literature.
But, I’ve given it my best shot and can only hope these classic and contemporary books resonate their stories as beautifully and vividly as they did to me and offer you a glimpse into Ireland in several forms.
Dubliners by James Joyce
You can’t dive into the canon of Irish literature without getting your hands on Dubliners first. This Irish classic was Joyce’s first published work. Although often mistaken as a novel, Dubliners is actually a collection of fifteen short stories divided even further into chapters of growing up: from childhood and adolescence to maturity and old age. As deduced by its title, the collection focuses on the city of Dublin, pinpointing its geography through its cobblestoned streets and defining its national identity through culture, alcoholism, and religion. This masterpiece does not dwell on the beauty and bustle of a growing Dublin, but rather reveals the inability to escape the confinements of the city and the self-awareness that comes afterward.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Published in 1996, Angela’s Ashes is secured in the beloved shrine of Irish literature. Frank McCourt wrote a memoir with loads of anecdotes and childhood stories from living in both Brooklyn, New York and Limerick, Ireland, while intermixing such lightness and nostalgia with the hard truths of poverty struggles and his father’s alcoholism. In 1997, McCourt received the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, cementing his work in the literary universe.
Read about Frank McCourt’s Pultizer win here.
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry
Kevin Barry’s second novel, Beatlebone, is a whimsical “magical mystery tour” into the fictional journey of John Lennon to Ireland. The year is 1978, and John Lennon escapes the Big Apple in search of an island on the west coast of Ireland that he purchased nine years ago, but he can’t seem to find. This contemporary novel bleeds reality with fantasy, along with pure Beatles fanaticism, and delves deep into the colorful whimsy of a man exhausted by the spotlight. This work might not be the typical headliner for Irish literature, but it sure exhibits the range of creative writing and popular culture Ireland is leaning toward!
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Irish literature would not be Irish literature without Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is the only novel written by Wilde, and it exists in a variety of versions. The Gothic tale tells of Dorian Gray, a subject for a full-length portrait painted by Basil Hallward. Basil introduces Dorian to Lord Henry Wotton, who believes that beauty is the ultimate human pursuit. Through this advice, Dorian convinces himself that he must sell his soul to ensure that the portrait of himself, and not his physicality, will age and rot. Dorian’s wish is granted, and he realizes the moral implications of his wish when his sinful acts begin to appear right on the oil painting, showcasing every fall from grace. Wilde’s masterpiece is a philosophical undertaking that has rewritten itself in Irish literature and its canon.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
This book needs absolutely no introduction – as long as you’ve binge-watched the book-to-series adaptation that received raving reviews worldwide. Normal People revolves around the toxic relationship between two teenagers, the popular Connell Waldron and the outcast Marianne Sheridan, who take on a romantic, sexual affair behind everyone’s backs during their secondary school careers. After a fallout, Connell meets Marianne again in Trinity College Dublin, where their roles have been reversed: Connell is struggling to fit in, while Marianne has blossomed with her beauty and brains. Through sex, drama, and traumas, the pair weave in and out of one another’s lives through university, shedding light on this intense bond that is more than just sexual attraction and puppy love.
Read about how Sally Rooney became a status symbol in Irish literature and television here.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies follows the fictional storyline of Cyril Avery, a boy given up by his unwed teenage mother in post-war Ireland; Cyril is then adopted by the Averys, a well-to-do couple that treats their relationship more like a business transaction rather than a parental one. The book moves from 1945 to 2015, where readers witness Cyril experiment with his sexuality as he questions his identity and religion. This bittersweet story also documents a period in Irish history where same-sex couples faced criminal persecution, religious excommunication, and eventual imprisonment; this contemporary novel is a reminder of a not-so-distant time in history that loving someone of the same gender was illegal. But, even in the darkest of times, Cyril is always brimming with heart, welcoming readers into his well-intentioned journey.
Have you managed to read any of these books yet? Sound off on the comments below!
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