As a connoisseur of Irish literature, I understand the intrinsic connection between the written word and the rich tapestry of Ireland’s history, culture, and landscapes. After all, I was obsessed with the Emerald Isle long before my first trip there!
For those traveling to the “Land of Saints and Scholars,” delving into the realm of Irish literature isn’t merely a pastime but also a crucial avenue to unravel the layers of this captivating nation. In this curated selection, I present my discerning choices for the 20 best books about Ireland.
This literary odyssey spans genres, encompassing Irish classics, modern fiction, and immersive historical fiction set against the backdrop of Ireland’s storied past. Of course, for the non-fiction reader, I also dive into celebrated Irish history books that unlock the country’s secrets.
You’ll likely recognize the most famous Irish authors on this reading list, such as James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. However, I’ve also included modern authors that I hope will come as a surprise. Therefore, you should be able to find books to read before going to Ireland for every type of reader!
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Classic books by Irish authors
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Wilde’s sole novel, published in 1890, is widely regarded as one of the best Irish novels ever written. The narrative revolves around Dorian Gray, a young man who trades his soul for perpetual youth and beauty.
Instead of aging, a portrait of Dorian undergoes the ravages of time, reflecting his indulgent lifestyle. The Picture of Dorian Gray showcases Wilde’s mastery of irony, satire, and wit, solidifying its status as a timeless masterpiece.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Published in 1996 and winning the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, Angela’s Ashes recounts the challenging childhood of author Frank McCourt, born to Irish immigrants in Brooklyn. The memoir details the family’s return to Ireland during the Depression Era, settling in poverty-stricken Limerick.
McCourt’s father grapples with alcoholism, and the book offers a unique perspective on Irish society. It serves as a coming-of-age story as McCourt strives to escape poverty by returning to America.
Dubliners by James Joyce
Dubliners, a collection of 15 short stories by James Joyce, provides glimpses into the lives of Dublin residents, often featuring moments of epiphany. Joyce captures themes of disillusionment and dissatisfaction, portraying the harsh reality of Dublin life.
Despite this, moments of hope and beauty showcase the city’s unique charm. The stories are divided into three sections, exploring childhood, adolescence, and maturity.
The Country Girls Trilogy by Edna O’Brien
The Country Girls Trilogy consists of three novels: The Country Girls (1960), The Lonely Girl (1962), and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). Readers follow the friendship of Cait and Baba as they move from rural Ireland to Dublin to escape their small-town lives.
The novels explore themes of love, loss, and self-discovery. Notably controversial for their frank portrayal of female sexuality, the Irish censorship board banned these books for a period of time.
Popular fiction set in Ireland
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Published in 2018 to critical acclaim and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Normal People is one of the most famous Irish books written by a modern Irish author.
This complicated love story explores the intricate relationship between Connell and Marianne, as they navigate the complexities of friendship in a small Irish town. This best-selling book was later adapted into an Emmy-nominated TV show in 2020.
The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle
The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle chronicles the Rabbitte family in the fictional town of Barrytown, Ireland. The series begins with The Commitments, featuring a working-class group forming a soul band led by Jimmy Rabbitte Jr.
The Snapper follows Jimmy’s sister Sharon dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, while The Van centers on Jimmy Rabbitte Sr. trying to save his fish and chips business. These novels provide a humorous and poignant portrayal of working-class life in Dublin.
Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
Best friends Benny Hogan and Eve Malone from the fictional town of Knockglen head to University College Dublin. While Benny is shy, Eve is proud and determined. At school, they quickly befriend the beautiful but selfish Nan Mahon and handsome rugby player Jack Foley.
As their circle grows, they navigate the challenges of university life, love, and betrayal in this heartwarming tale of friendship, love, and self-discovery—one of Binchy’s most popular novels set in Ireland.
In the Woods by Tana French
Complicating matters, the case dredges up Rob’s personal demons from twenty years ago when his friends disappeared in the same woods. It’s one of the top fiction books about Ireland for your friend obsessed with true crime podcasts.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
The Irish economic collapse in the late 2000s hit rural Ireland particularly hard. In The Spinning Heart, Donal Ryan uses a rotating cast of characters to capture the anger, fear, and frustration of the time.
A different person narrates each chapter; nonetheless, they’re all connected to Bobby Mahon, a young construction foreman. As each authentic tale unfolds, this social novel offers a poignant portrait of a small Irish town in the aftermath of the Irish financial collapse.
The Guest List by Lucy Foley
The Guest List is a gripping thriller set on an Irish island where tensions among a bride, groom, and their guests surface during a glamorous wedding.
Against the picturesque backdrop, a murder occurs, unraveling secrets and resentments among the characters in an Agatha Christie-style mystery.
Irish historical fiction
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
The Heart’s Invisible Furies follows Cyril Avery, adopted by a well-to-do couple who constantly remind him he’s not a ‘real Avery.’ With his charming best friend and first crush, Julian, Cyril navigates love, loss, heartbreak, and betrayal in 1940s Dublin.
Moreover, this novel explores what it was like to be a gay man born in an extremely conservative Ireland.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
In 1985 Ireland, Bill Furlong, a coal delivery man, uncovers unsettling truths during a Christmas delivery to a convent, forcing him to confront his past amid economic hardships in a small town.
Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These is a short yet powerful international bestseller, weaving a tale of hope, heroism, and empathy, akin to classics like It’s A Wonderful Life and “The Good Samaritan.”
What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon
Anne Gallagher, inspired by her grandfather’s tales, travels to his small Irish hometown in 2001 to spread his ashes. However, she unexpectedly time travels to the 1920s, assuming a new identity to navigate the past.
Bonding with Dr. Thomas Smith and connecting with her grandfather as a child, she experiences Ireland on the brink of revolution. Especially if you’re a fan of Outlander, What the Wind Knows is one of the best Irish books for you.
The Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherfurd
The Princes of Ireland, the first book in the Dublin Saga, spans eleven centuries of Irish history from Celtic Ireland to the reign of Henry VIII of England.
It follows fictional families grappling with critical historical events in Ireland, including battles for control of Dublin against Viking invaders, English kings, and internal conflicts. Rutherfurd’s meticulously researched novel stands out as some of the best historical fiction set in Ireland.
Ireland: A Novel by Frank Delaney
Ireland: A Novel is an epic that traces Ronan O’Mara’s life from his youth in the Irish countryside. After meeting a memorable storyteller as a boy, Ronan sets out to find him when he’s older, discovering his own storytelling talent.
The novel, a New York Times bestseller, serves as a love letter to Ireland, emphasizing the connective and historical power of stories. Plus, it’s a popular choice for book clubs around the world.
A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle
A Star Called Henry is the first book in The Last Roundup series by Roddy Doyle. It follows the life of Henry Smart, from his Dublin childhood to his involvement in the Irish Citizen Army and the 1916 Easter Rising.
Moreover, Henry encounters important characters in Irish history, including Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, and Michael Collins. This historical novel is informative for those interested in learning about the Irish War of Independence.
Irish history books
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill
How the Irish Saved Civilization, a top pick for history enthusiasts, narrates Ireland’s pivotal role in preserving Western Civilization. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Irish scholars and clergy–like Saint Patrick and Saint Columba–took charge of restoring Christian learning in Europe.
The book credits Irish monasteries as vital centers of learning, asserting that the Irish saved Western Civilization by preserving crucial literature from the Dark Ages, including works by Aristotle, Plato, and Euripides.
We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole
Fintan O’Toole, born in 1958 and raised in Dublin’s Catholic education system, witnessed Ireland’s transformation from a conservative society to a modern nation over 60 years.
This book–part memoir and part history lesson–explores defining moments in Ireland’s modern history, offering insights into the national character through O’Toole’s unique perspective on the past, present, and future of the country.
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland is a nonfiction work delving into the Troubles in Northern Ireland, particularly the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville.
The book explores key figures like Gerry Adams, Brendan “the Dark” Hughes, and Dolours Price, shedding light on ongoing efforts to uncover the truth about the conflict. Well-researched and essential for those interested in Irish history, especially the Northern Irish conflict.
Irish Fairy and Folk Tales by W.B. Yeats
Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, published in 1892, is a collection of Irish folklore and myths passed down through generations. Edited by Yeats, the book categorizes stories by subjects like fairies, ghosts, witches, and giants.
It offers a rich treasury of folklore that will continue to be enjoyed by readers for many years to come! We suggest soaking in one story at a time instead of trying to read the whole book in one sitting.
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This article was first published in June 2022 and has since been updated.