A Literary Tour of Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day

As with every cultural holiday, St. Patrick’s Day often gets diluted and boiled down to its trappings—the green beer, the folk songs, the parades. And while everyone loves a good green beer, there’s so much more to Ireland in terms of history, culture—and literature. Some of the greatest writers, living and otherwise, are Irish, so this year let’s make a pledge to prep for March 17th by taking a deep dive into books coming out of the Emerald Isle. We’ll kick things off with this list of 12 must-read books by Irish authors, running the gamut from literary fiction to thrillers with a few stops in-between.

Chestnut Street, by Maeve Binchy
Published after the author’s death in 2012, this collection of short stories collects work Binchy produced over the course of her career, and thus offers not just a ground-level glimpse of Irish life and culture but an overview of Binchy’s writing style itself. The stories focus on ordinary people dealing with the ordinary, epic problems that everyone has. Husbands leave their wives and discover they’re still not happy. People struggle with jealousy, with heartbreak, with professional and personal failure. These stories—set in a single Dublin neighborhood, by and large—offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives of its residents.

Ireland, by Frank Delaney
Delaney, a celebrated broadcaster and writer, offers up the history of Ireland framed as a series of fascinating stories told by a traveling Storyteller who visits nine-year old Ronan O’Mara in 1951. Trading stories for a bed and a meal, the Storyteller captivates Ronan—and the reader—with his tales of Irish Kings and warriors, until a story Ronan’s mother deems blasphemous sees him expelled from the house. Ronan goes in search of the Storyteller, and slowly evolves into a Storyteller himself, traveling Ireland and passing the stories on to a new generation. It’s a delightful book that acts as a stealth education on Ireland and its people.

Smile, by Roddy Doyle
Irish authors know how to spin a story like no one else. Booker Prize-winner Doyle returns with a fascinating character study that follows Victor Forde, a past-his-prime radio commentator who returns to his dingy hometown after separating from his celebrity chef wife. Abandoning his determination to make friends and do some writing, Forde drinks his sorrows away at Donnelly’s pub, spending time with the locals and then tottering off to work on a project he never quite gets started. One night at Donnelly’s, Forde encounters an old schoolmate, Fitzpatrick, a man he doesn’t remember from his violent years at St. Martin’s Christian Brothers School. Fitzpatrick forces Forde to revisit those dark childhood years, unraveling a decades-old mystery and memories of sexual abuse, and slowly becomes the man’s unlikely best friend, as Doyle builds to an ending both unexpected and inevitable.

The Green Road, by Anne Enright
Booker Prize-winning Enright was also the first Laureate for Irish Fiction, and this book tells the story of siblings dominated—and driven away—by their dramatic, excitable mother. Enright’s story is Irish, but she smartly sends the four Madigan children out into the world, where the language subtly loses its brogue and Enright can explore what it means to be Irish in the same larger context that people deal with in real life. The result is a marvelous story about family, about culture, and about those who choose to head out into the world and those who choose to stay close to home, and what those decisions cost each of them.

The Yellow House, by Patricia Falvey
Falvey, who was born in Northern Ireland but moved to America when she was twenty, left a high-powered job at PricewaterhouseCoopers to write her first novel—and you’ll be glad she did. The violence that plagued Northern Ireland throughout the 20th century is a vital part of Irish history, and Falvey frames it with a story about a determined young woman struggling to hold onto what’s hers in the midst of war both local and global, ultimately finding herself torn between two very different men. It’s as fiery and romantic as you want your Irish stories to be, and offers a perspective on the bloody sectarian violence that has defined much of recent history in the area, making this a moving and powerful read.

The Irish Princess, by Karen Harper
Harper offers up a gorgeous, lush story set in the 16th century. If you love historical narratives from outside perspectives, you will love the story of Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a girl born to Irish royalty…and a girl who knew the wrath of Henry VIII almost as much as his wives. The King imprisons her father, destroying her family, and she must seek allegiances and avoid enemies in the perilous English court of the aging king, seeing firsthand the fate of his wives and the intelligence and spirit of the young princesses, Mary and (future queen) Elizabeth.

Galway Bay, by Mary Pat Kelly
While the Great Irish Starvation might not seem like a particularly lush historical period for fiction, Kelly tells the story of her own family through that lens to spectacular effect. Beginning with Honora Keeley in 1839, who meets her future husband Michael Kelly swimming in Galway Bay, the story takes them through years of failed crops and bare survival before the momentous decision to take the trip to America to make a new life. Kelly’s chronicle of her own ancestors’ struggles and triumphs paints a masterful picture of a culture, a family, and an America in constant transition.

The Daughters of Ireland, by Santa Montefiore
A sequel to Montefiore’s The Girl in the Castle, this novel stands on its own and tells the story of Celia Deverill, who takes possession of the ruined Deverill Castle in 1925. She spends years lovingly refurbishing and repairing the place, only to see her family’s fortune destroyed in the crash of 1929—and her father and brother lost as well. Worse, she’s set upon by a blackmailer who tells her that her father’s fortune wasn’t exactly on the up-and-up, and Celia decides that she must clear her father’s name and rebuild her life using only her own energies. An ancient castle? A determined woman? This is the stuff of great stories, and Montefiore earns her bestselling status with a story of Ireland that will make you want a tour of the castles immediately.

Unraveling Oliver: A Novel, by Liz Nugent
Just in case you thought Ireland was all about gorgeous landscapes, romance, and the local pub, Nugent offers up this sprawling puzzle of a book. This is the story of Oliver Ryan, a successful children’s author in Dublin with a seemingly happy home life who one evening assaults his wife Alice, nearly killing her. But it’s also the story of everyone in Oliver’s life, past and present, who offer their stories about the man, weaving in and out of his own recollections. Bit by bit Oliver is exposed and the cause of his moment of violence is pieced together. Nugent brilliantly offers up stories that at first seem entertaining but unnecessary, then slowly links them more and more deeply until they click into place as essential clues. Dark and twisty, Nugent’s debut novel is urgent and violent and reminds us that we can walk away from our traumas, but we can never escape them.

The Princes of Ireland, by Edward Rutherfurd
An epic historical saga of the entirety of Irish history from Ireland in A.D. pre-Christian society through the founding of the Free Irish State, this novel follows fictional families through eras of Irish triumph and travails, starting with a romance in the 5th century that leads to tragedy and twisting and winding its way through time, stopping to note the arrival of Saint Patrick, the Viking attacks, the conquest by England, and the hanging of Silken Thomas in 1537. Threading history through the personal stories of people real and imagined, Rutherford paints a memorable picture of what Ireland was, is, and could be, making this an absolute joy to read, whether it’s St. Patrick’s Day or not.

An Irish Country Doctor, by Patrick Taylor
Taylor based this (and other books in his Irish Country series) on his own journals and notes from his youth, and the end result is a delight. Set in the 1960s in rural Ireland, freshly graduated Barry Laverty takes an apprenticeship with a small-town doctor (‛tiny’ is probably a better word than ‛small,’ actually) whose methods seem odd, but who slowly impresses Barry with his wisdom and dedication even as Barry gets sucked into the myriad local dramas and gossips that make small towns everywhere—but perhaps especially in Ireland—so interesting. This is the sort of book you sink into and get lost in, the sort of book that makes you want to book a trip to the Irish countryside immediately, and thus the ideal book to read in the month of March.

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín
Since the film adaptation of Brooklyn was nominated for an Oscar, more people than ever before know Tóibín’s name—and that is a very good thing. His status as a living link to Irish history is unparalleled: his grandfather was arrested during the 1916 Easter Rising, and his father was a member of the IRA. Tóibín’s work often explores Irish characters moving into unfamiliar cultures, which allows him to explore both with a deep intelligence and perceptive style that elevates his works above what are often fairly simple plots. He has commented that he grew up in a house with a “great deal of silence” and that his work “comes out of silence.” Ponder those statements while you’re reading some of the best writing of the modern age this St. Patrick’s Day.

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