I’ve never been to Ireland, but I know the exact town my family is from, and I still have relatives there. I’ve also downed my fair share of Irish whiskey, and read a lot of Irish authors. Here are the seven works that make me feel I’ve actually (well, almost) visited the land of my forefathers.
Ulysses, James Joyce
I’ve read the famously challenging Ulysses—all of it. It took months. I often wondered what the hell was happening (did that guy just pee on a rock??), but I get why this important book, once banned for obscenity, is a classic. In 700+ pages, we follow Leopold Bloom through Dublin for a single day (June 16), on a journey that is loosely structured around Odysseus’ trials in The Odyssey. It’s THE book about Dublin and the Irish, and a study in stream-of-consciousness and realism. Read it, and you’ll be right there with me, celebrating Bloomsday every year.
“Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Beckett
Even though Beckett spent most of his life in Paris, the Irish still claim him and his avant garde works as their own. Of these, “Waiting for Godot” is his most famous. The play features two men discussing the meaning of life while they wait at a bus stop for a man named Godot, who may or may not actually exist. If you like “Seinfeld” (a show about nothing that you can’t stop watching) you’ll love “Godot.”
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle
Doyle gives us the Irish Catholic household in the ‘60s through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy. Paddy Clarke and his friends like to run amok committing mild acts of vandalism, but they’re not true hoodlums; they’re just bored. Paddy’s smart enough to know that life is changing day by day, especially at home. Can he find a way to keep his parents’ marriage from falling apart? It’s the one thing he has that he doesn’t want destroyed.
Light a Penny Candle, Maeve Binchy
This is the first of many bestselling books by Binchy, one of Ireland’s most beloved authors. Aisling and Elizabeth become friends in the midst of chaotic, small-town Kilgarret. Now, as old women, their roots are what will save them yet again. Pick up any of Binchy’s other 16 novels for her similar themes: her much-celebrated take on England, post-WWII Ireland, and the differences between urban and rural life.
The works of William Butler Yeats
Yeats’ commitment to Irish culture, and the poetry and plays he created, make him one of the cornerstones of the Celtic Revival at the turn of the 20th century. His most famous poem may be “The Second Coming,” which imagines our post-WWI planet on the brink of an apocalyptic revelation. On a quieter note, a personal favorite is “When You Are Old,” especially the line, “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.” If you haven’t already, it’s never too late to dive into Yeats’ genius.
Reading in the Dark, Seamus Deane
Deane’s multi-award-winning novel is one of the best about growing up in Northern Ireland during the violence of the 1940s and 50s. A young boy gradually remembers the details of his family’s tragedy: an uncle who may or may not have been an informer, the uncle’s disappearance, how the rest of the family may have been involved, and the way secrets can rot a family from deep inside.
Country Girl: A Memoir, Edna O’Brien
Against her parents’ wishes, O’Brien grew up to be a writer. In fact, her first novel, The Country Girls, was so offensive to the town parish that they held a book-burning after publication. Thus a great career was launched. Even though O’Brien’s personal life was a challenge—divorce, single motherhood, wild parties in the 60s with literary giants—her work has only deepened. Country Girl is the memoir of a true Irish lass, and a survivor.
What’s your favorite Ireland-inspired book?