Crack open one of these best books on Ireland and get inspired to go there. These nineteen great Irish reads really deliver on a strong sense of place, moody drama and classic Irish humor.
As a former bookseller, I appreciate the value of personalized book recommendations. This list of books about Ireland has been curated from my own reading list as well as recommendations from Irish authors and booksellers. As you work through the list you will find the sharp stick of Ireland’s history poking its way into contemporary society. These books are full of themes like love and loss, drifting families, the Irish diaspora, old enmity and chafing social structures. Although I recommend reading all of them, any one of these books will give you a strong sense of place, setting you right down onto Ireland’s rocky shores.
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Contemporary Books on Ireland
I recently heard a trio of Irish authors claim that the combination of dreary weather and Ireland’s troubled history produces a very particular kind of fiction that is dark and moody but also funny. The following books on Ireland certainly deliver “on brand” by offering up complicated characters histories, dark themes and tragicomic circumstances.
City of Bohane, Kevin Barry
This book is supposed to be set in the near future, but it also reads like Ireland’s recent past. The once great city of Bohane (which might be a stand-in for Galway) is now a tense, not-quite-war zone teetering on a sharp line that divides those who have from those who don’t. The city has been ruled by gangster Logan Hartnett but his girlfriend and henchmen are getting antsy just as his old nemesis rolls back into town. Barry has also received praise for Beatlebone, which creates an alternative reality in which John Lennon retreats from New York to a private Irish island.
The Spinning Heart, Donal Ryan
This slim volume explores Ireland’s devastating financial collapse of 2008 and how a small Irish town comes violently unglued in the aftermath. Ryan is heavily featured on all of the bookstore staff pics tables and he is also highly regarded by his fellow authors for producing some of the best books on Ireland.
Academy Street, Mary Costello
This is the story of a full life, following the main character Tess from her childhood in rural Ireland through her adulthood in New York City. The book is full of emotional force and loss, featuring…”a woman who would otherwise have faded into oblivion amid the legions of the meek and the unobtrusive” (J.M. Coetzee).
Midwinter Break, Bernard MacLaverty
Follow retired couple, Gerry and Stella as they fly to Amsterdam for a long weekend break. On its surface, all seems well. However, the reader will discover that the couple is deeply divided and memories of troubled events from their early days in Ireland are brought to the surface. “…the resilience and stress lines of human love experienced over much time– is anything but simple” (Richard Ford).
The Snapper, Roddy Doyle
Doyle writes the best Irish novels depicting everyday blue collar life. The Snapper is the second in his Barrytown Trilogy which also includes The Commitments and The Van. When Sharon Rabbitte’s friends and family discover her unplanned pregnancy, everyone is bugging her to name the father. Sharon’s unwillingness to spill the beans frustrates everyone, especially her father. The book explores their sassy family dynamics with wit and candor, but as with so many other great books about Ireland, there is also a dark and painful side to the story.
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
There is no burying the lead in this book because Skippy does indeed die. The story follows the fourteen year old, super-awkward Skippy on his bumbling exploits through prep school. The book explores how and why he dies and what happens next. It’s terribly, terribly funny but in a terribly tragic way. If you like this one, you should also check out Murray’s newer book, The Mark and the Void.
Read More: Plan a trip to Dublin with these one day itinerary options.
Mystery Books Set in Ireland
The best Irish books aren’t necessarily confined to the literary fiction shelves. Irish authors have also put murder at the center of their moody family dramas. The following mysteries deliver fast paced action coupled with commentary on contemporary Irish social issues.
In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad #1), Tana French
French’s Dublin Murder Squad series manages to produce a Irish literary hat trick. It’s a cracking good page turner but it also has a complex and sympathetic main character and it delivers a liberal dose of dark Irish family dynamics.
The Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville
If you were wondering why the civil war still haunts Northern Ireland, reading this book will give you some answers…and the shivers. The main character, Fegan, is (literally) haunted by those he killed during his time as an IRA hit man and he is attempting to appease those ghosts by making it right.
This book is published by Soho Crime and they publish well written mysteries set all over the globe. You should check out their catalog to find more great international reads.
The Rage, Gene Kerrigan
Bob Tidey is an honest cop doing his best to solve crimes while also trying (and failing) to dodge corruption in his department. While looking into a crooked banker, his investigation is diverted when he gets a tip on an old murder case. This book could have been a typical police procedural but Kerrigan gives it a very contemporary edge by exploring Ireland’s financial crisis and the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal.
Contemporary Classics of Irish Literature
Strumpet City, James Plunkett
The book is set in Dublin during the infamous labor lock-out of 1913. The dispute was brought on by harsh working conditions forced upon a powerless workforce. The story explores the traumatic events from the point of view of fed-up workers who are mired in stifling poverty.
Star of the Sea, Joseph O’Conner
This story of the Irish diaspora follows hundreds of refugees fleeing famine and injustice on board the New York bound Star of the Sea. They may be fleeing Ireland, but they have brought their troubles with them and the story surges with passions, thuggery and resentments.
The Green Road, Ann Enright
None of the Madigans really want to come home for Christmas. They gladly left their small seaside town for Dublin, Africa and North America, but they have returned for one last visit before their mother Rosaleen sells the family home. The Madigan’s fractured family dynamic and struggles with intimacy are laid bare as they try to engage with one another once again.
Censored Classics of the Irish Literary Canon
You get the best Irish books when strict cultural morays and pious politics are flung aside by artists who are having none of it. The following four authors braved censorship and derision by their self-appointed “betters”. They ultimately got their own artistic revenge by becoming the foundation of Irish literary culture.
Ulysses, James Joyce
We owe a debt of gratitude to Joyce not only for pioneering stream of consciousness prose but also for pushing the censorship envelope so far that his work forced changes to both Irish and American censorship laws. Follow Leopold Bloom as he wanders Dublin over the course of a single day, ruminating about his life and stopping in on friends. Blooms meanderings and Joyce’s genius have earned Ullysses a spot on every list of the best books on Ireland. You should also check out The Dubliners, which follows up Ulysses with a series of short stories exploring middle class life in Dublin.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
Wilde also raised the ire of prigs and censors with his story of a character in moral decline. Dorian Gray’s quest for a hedonistic eternal youth is a deal with the devil which oozes with decadence and decay.
The Country Girls Trilogy, Edna Obrian
This trilogy follows two ambitious country girls as they set out to conquer the world. They ditch their repressive rural atmosphere and find love, loss, liaisons and misadventure in Dublin. O’Brien boldly bucked the prevailing censorship and when Country Girls was originally published in 1960, it raised the ire of the Irish censors and condemnation from her local priest. So you know that it’s going to be a rollicking read.
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift
Who doesn’t want to read a book that was once referred to as a “gibbering shrieks and gnashing imprecations against mankind…”, “wicked and obscene” and “…filthy in word, filthy in thought”? These detractors just couldn’t handle Gulliver’s precarious journeys and dystopic shenanigans delivered with the sharp knife of political satire.
Ireland Travel Books
Reading any of the above books on Ireland is going to make you want to travel there. I always read several books set in a particular location before or during a trip. But sometimes you need some practical advice to help you plan your trip. These Ireland travel books and blogs will help you better understand each region and give you practical travel planning tips.
ROUND IRELAND WITH A FRIDGE, TONY HAWKS
Because of course you drink a few pints too many and make a bet with your mate that you can hitchhike the circumference of Ireland with a refrigerator. If you have ever been temped to take up that bet, read Hawks’ book first. You’ll be heartened by the generosity and “up for anything” nature of the Irish folks that he meets along the way.
The Rick Steves guides are always imminently practical and budget friendly. His Ireland guides also include Northern Ireland — although, I disobeyed his guide in northern Ireland and lived to tell about it.
The Lonely Planet guides do a great job of surfacing oddball or out of the ordinary activities. The guide will help you keep your budget in check by suggesting a wide range of budget lodgings and money saving suggestions.
Most of the Lonely Planet Guides (and many other books) are free with Kindle Unlimited. If you don’t have Kindle Unlimited, give it a try with a 30-day free trial HERE.
Irish Travel Blog Resources
- Spend a day (or two) in Dublin with this step-by-step itinerary.
- If you are road tripping in Ireland, be sure to read this guide for how to build a sensible itinerary and this one for how to survive driving there. Seriously, read it!
- Or rather, spend all of your time in Dublin chasing down literary sites, literary pubs and libraries.
- But make time to stop into some of these Dublin bookstores.
- Get lost on the Wild Atlantic Way by road tripping northwest of Galway.
What are your favorite books about Ireland? I love a good recommendation so comment below with some ideas.
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