Ireland isn’t just a country, it’s a repository of myth and legend that has been mined by genre writers for decades. Even today, Ireland seems to be bursting with magical energies that other countries couldn’t hope to match—I mean, who would imagine an epic fantasy set in the wilds of New Jersey? Naturally, that means that not only have some of the best works of fantasy ever written taken inspiration from Irish history, but several are explicitly in Ireland. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here are a five fantasy novels exploring the Emerald Isle.
The Book of Kells, by R.A. MacAvoy
As with all of MacAvoy’s novels, The Book of Kells is difficult to pin down. Time travel, ancient Ireland, Viking invasions, and a saint or goddess meddling in mortal affairs? You’ll find all of it here, as an accidental confluence of ancient music and the tracing of an ages-old pattern by a modern-day artist transports first a screaming young woman from the past into the artist’s bedroom, then the woman, the artist, and a companion back in time a thousand years, into a medieval Ireland grounded in historical fact—which doesn’t lessen the fantastical nature of the ensuing adventures. It might lack wizards and dragons, but that doesn’t make it any less fun, and part of that is down to exploring a raw, roiling Ireland of old, populated by characters who act intelligently, considering (one even nips back to the modern day in order to convert all his cash into material that would be valuable in the tenth century).
The White Plague, by Frank Herbert
Published shortly before the Dune creator’s death, this intense novel is a bit dated in its politics, but still a fascinating read. After an IRA bombing kills his family, molecular biologist Jon O’Neill—deranged and shattered into multiple personalities from his loss—devises a plague that affects only women, but is transmitted by men. Unleashing it in the countries he considers responsible for his grief—Ireland, England, and Libya, where the terrorists trained—he issues a demand that these countries be quarantined so they would collectively suffer as he has. Things get really interesting when O’Neill travels to Ireland under a false identity to offer his services as a biologist in hopes of undermining any attempts at a cure; under the strain of the plague, Ireland is breaking down and reverting to ancient customs as IRA leaders proclaim themselves kings and old rituals make a comeback, lending what is ostensibly an SF novel a delirious fantasy aspect.
Finn Mac Cool, by Morgan Llywelyn
Llywelyn has set many of her books and stories in Ireland, but this retelling of the Fenian Cycle myths is a deep dive into the story of an Irish hero. We meet Finn as a helpless child who loses his parents in an attack by their ancient clan enemies, the Morna. Finn swears to become strong enough to never have to flee anything again, and in a purposeful Arthurian twist, as he grows more powerful, so does his army, the Fianna. This is an epic-scale story, in which truth and loyalty always win, and betrayal and deception are doomed to failure—but not before damage is done and pain is inflicted. This one serves double duty as crackling entertainment and a quick primer on one of Ireland’s foundational myths.
The Sevenwaters series, by Juliet Marillier
At first blush, Mariller’s magical series seems dreamy and almost fairy tale-like, beginning with the story of an old lord bewitched by his new wife and his six sons transformed into swans, leaving his daughter Sorcha to attempt a difficult and arduous countermeasure to save them. But this is no mere fairy tale. Sorcha’s journey turns dark and violent, and Ireland itself—primal and magical—becomes a character in its own right, as the forces of nature are sometimes allies, sometimes enemies. Drawing from legend, Marillier crafts a fully-formed fantasy universe, instantly recognizable yet inventive, pulling in clan rivalries and political maneuvering, the Otherworld and its mysterious inhabitants, and a good dose of romance.
The Sulien series, by Jo Walton
Walton creates a fantasy Ireland that feels very real, telling a gripping, gritty story about the costs of war through the eyes of woman warrior Sulien, hands down one of the best characters in modern fantasy. Sulien survives horror and hardship, never giving in or giving up, rising to a remarkable station in an ancient, violent land as the High King accepts her as a fighter (giving rise to rumors that her son, Darien, is his, and thus heir to the throne). The king’s sister, a sorceress named Morwen, glimpses the boy’s future, and, in fear, attempts to kill Darian and his mother, only for a god to intervene—and that’s just the first book of the series. Patterned in part on Arthurian legends, Walton’s writing has never been better, and the Emerald Isle has never seemed more magical.
Honorable Mention: Flann O’Brien’s novels
Classifying O’Brien’s novels The Third Policeman and At Swim Two Birds as fantasy is a stretch, yes—actually, classifying them at all is a stretch—but they’re worth mentioning because they’re both set in Ireland, they both incorporate magical elements and myths, and O’Brien remains one of the most interesting, under-read writers of all time. If you need a (temporary) break from swords and sorcery, either one of these books will transport you to an Ireland that’s just as strange and exciting. If you come away unsure if you understood what you’ve just read, don’t fret: that’s pretty much everyone’s experience.
What’s your favorite fantasy set in Ireland?