Anyone who’s ever planned a trip to Ireland will know that it’s essential to do some research to make the most of your visit. There’s so much history and culture to explore, after all! In fact, one great way to learn more about Ireland is by reading books about the country.
With this in mind, this article reviews the 27 best books about Ireland. We include Irish classics, modern fiction, historical fiction set in Ireland, books about Irish history, and travel books.
You’ll likely recognize the most famous Irish authors on this reading list, such as James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. However, we’ve also included modern authors that we hope will come as a surprise! Therefore, you should be able to find excellent books to read before going to Ireland for every type of reader.
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Table of Contents
Classic books by Irish authors
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Wilde’s only novel was first published in 1890 and is widely considered one of the best Irish novels ever written. The story follows Dorian Gray, a young man who makes a deal with his soul in exchange for youth and beauty.
Instead of going through the process of aging himself, a portrait of Dorian ages and fades in his place. As time passes, the painting begins to reflect Dorian’s indulgent lifestyle. Wilde’s use of irony, satire, and wit are on full display in The Picture of Dorian Gray, making it a truly timeless masterpiece.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Angela’s Ashes was published in 1996, winning the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. This memoir tells the story of the author’s difficult childhood, split between New York and Ireland during the Depression Era. Born in Brooklyn to Irish immigrants, McCourt and his family return to Ireland when he is four years old.
They settle in Limerick, where they live in poverty, and McCourt’s father struggles with alcoholism. The book provides a unique perspective on Irish culture and society during this period. It’s also a coming-of-age story, as McCourt goes from a struggling child to hopefully escaping poverty by moving back to America.
Dubliners by James Joyce
Dubliners is a collection of 15 short stories written by one of the most famous Irish authors: James Joyce. Each story offers a glimpse into the lives of residents in Dublin, Ireland, with characters often experiencing a moment of epiphany.
Additionally, many of the stories deal with themes of disillusionment and dissatisfaction, as Joyce sought to capture the often harsh reality of life in Dublin. However, there are also moments of hope and beauty, revealing the city’s unique charm. Joyce divided these stories into three sections, focusing on childhood, adolescence, and maturity.
Strumpet City by James Plunkett
One of the best classic Irish books of the twentieth century, Strumpet City is set in Dublin during the 1913 lockout. This epic novel follows a dozen Dubliners representing various social classes whose lives are disrupted by the events leading up to this major industrial dispute and the Dublin lockout itself.
Plunkett skillfully captures the social and economic conditions of Dublin at the time, as well as the human cost of the conflict. In 2019, BBC News included Strumpet City on its list of the 100 most influential novels.
The Country Girls Trilogy by Edna O’Brien
The Country Girls Trilogy by Edna O’Brien consists of three novels: The Country Girls (1960), The Lonely Girl (1962), and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). The main characters throughout the series are Caithleen “Cait/Kate” Brady and Bridget “Baba” Brennan, two girls from rural Ireland who move to the city to escape their small-town lives.
Cait and Baba’s friendship is at the heart of the novels, as they navigate their new lives in Dublin and learn about love, loss, and themselves. Interestingly, these Irish fiction books were controversial at the time of their release. Due to their frank portrayal of female sexuality, the Irish censorship board even banned them for a period of time.
Popular fiction set in Ireland
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Normal People is one of the most famous Irish books written by a modern Irish author. It was published in 2018 to critical acclaim and then shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year. The book follows two young people, Connell and Marianne, who grow up together in a small town in Ireland.
They have an increasingly complex relationship and love story that ebbs and flows over the years, from friends to enemies and back again. This best-selling Irish novel was adapted into an Emmy-nominated TV show of the same name in 2020.
The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle
The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle is a literary fiction series following the Rabbitte family in the fictional town of Barrytown, Ireland. The trilogy begins with The Commitments, centering on a group of working-class friends who form a soul band led by Jimmy Rabbitte Jr.
Next, The Snapper tells the story of Jimmy’s sister, Sharon Rabbitte, as she becomes pregnant out of wedlock and must deal with the fallout from her family and friends. Finally, The Van focuses on Jimmy Rabbitte Sr., who is struggling to keep his fish and chips business afloat. Together, these novels offer a hilarious and moving portrait of working-class life in Dublin.
Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
Benny Hogan and Eve Malone are best friends from the fictional rural town of Knockglen who go off to study at University College Dublin. While Benny is shy and awkward, Eve is proud and determined. They quickly form connections with the beautiful but selfish Nan Mahon and handsome rugby player Jack Foley.
As their “circle of friends” expands, Benny and Eve must grapple with the challenges of university life, love, and betrayal. Overall, this novel is a heartwarming story of friendship, love, and self-discovery. It’s also one of Binchy’s most popular novels set in Ireland.
In the Woods by Tana French
In the Woods is the first mystery novel by Tana French in the Dublin Murder Squad series. We follow Rob Ryan and his partner, Detective Cassie Maddox, as they investigate the murder of a twelve-year-old girl.
However, the case hits close to home for Rob because twenty years earlier, his two friends disappeared in the same woods where the body was found. Now, as he investigates this new case, he’ll have to confront the demons of his past to find justice. 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 give voice to the anger, fear, and frustration that many felt during this time. In our opinion, the various perspectives make it one of the best books on Ireland.
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 by Lucy Foley is a gripping thriller set on an island off the coast of Ireland. As a bride and groom, along with their guests, gather for a glamorous wedding, tensions, secrets, and resentments surface.
Amidst the picturesque setting and carefully planned festivities, a murder occurs, throwing the group into chaos. The book weaves together the perspectives of various characters, unraveling the shocking truth behind the crime in a manner reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s mysteries.
Love & Luck by Jenna Evans Welch
Love & Luck is the second installment in Jenna Evans Welch’s three-part series Love & Gelato. In this story, we follow Addie, a young woman visiting Ireland for her aunt’s destination wedding. She and her brother, Ian, are supposed to travel to Italy after the event.
Instead, Addie’s vacation plans change, and she finds herself on a road trip through the Emerald Isle with Ian and his cute Irish friend, Rowan. Throughout this YA novel, the siblings work to repair their relationship, and Addie learns to heal a broken heart.
Irish historical fiction
1916 by Morgan Llywelyn
1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion follows the journey of Ned Halloran, who survived the Titanic disaster but lost his parents. Returning to Ireland, Ned enrolls at Saint Enda’s school in Dublin under the leadership of Patrick Pearse.
As he becomes deeply involved in the growing movement for Irish independence, this novel delves into the historic events of the Easter Rising in 1916. Through Ned’s experiences, the reader explores the sacrifices of those who fought for freedom against the backdrop of World War I.
Ireland: A Novel by Frank Delaney
Ireland: A Novel is a sweeping epic that follows Ronan O’Mara throughout his lifetime, beginning in the Irish countryside. As a boy, he meets an itinerant storyteller who makes a big impression. Then, when he’s old enough, Ronan actually decides to seek out this mysterious storyteller.
Along the way, he discovers his own gift for storytelling and comes to understand the power of stories to connect people and preserve history. Overall, this New York Times bestseller is a love letter to Ireland and its people. Plus, it’s a popular choice for book clubs around the world.
The Last Storyteller: A Novel of Ireland by Frank Delaney
Although The Last Storyteller is technically part of a series, you can easily read it as a standalone. In this historical fiction book, we follow Ben MacCarthy, a man who travels around Ireland collecting stories for the Irish Folklore Commission.
Although his job usually isn’t dangerous, Ben accidentally becomes involved in the IRA during the tumultuous events of 1956-57. Additionally, his former wife happens to show back up in Ireland with her new husband. Full of Irish legends and folktales, The Last Storyteller is a satisfying read perfect for those interested in the country’s oral tradition.
The Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherfurd
The Princes of Ireland is the first book in the Dublin Saga. It begins with Celtic Ireland and ends in the reign of Henry VIII of England, covering eleven centuries of Irish history. The story follows several fictional families through the generations, weaving in critical historical events in Ireland.
Readers experience the rise and fall of these families as they battle for control of Dublin, as well as their struggles against Viking invaders, English kings, and each other. Through it all, Dublin remains at the center of their stories, changing and growing along with them. Thanks to Rutherfurd’s careful research, this novel is some of the best historical fiction set in Ireland.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
The Heart’s Invisible Furies follows protagonist Cyril Avery, a young boy adopted by a well-to-do couple. Unfortunately, his adoptive parents frequently remind him he’s not a “real Avery.” Luckily, Cyril has his charming best friend and eventual first crush, Julian, by his side.
Readers will follow Cyril on his journey to find himself as he navigates love, loss, heartbreak, and betrayal against the backdrop of Dublin in the 1940s. Moreover, this novel explores what it was like to be a gay man born in an extremely conservative Ireland.
What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon
Anne Gallagher grew up with her grandfather, Eion, who often told her tales of Ireland. After he passes in 2001, Anne decides to travel to his small Irish hometown to spread his ashes. However, something strange happens: she ends up time traveling back to the 1920s. Since Anne is the spitting image of her great-grandmother, she assumes a new identity to survive and navigate the past.
As she explores the Ireland of 1921, Anne becomes close with Dr. Thomas Smith and develops a special bond with Eion as a child. Moreover, she experiences the country on the brink of a revolution, crossing paths with the famous Michael Collins. Especially if you’re a fan of Outlander, What the Wind Knows is one of the best Irish books for you.
Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly
Galway Bay is one of my favorite books set in Ireland, spanning six generations. It begins with Honora Keeley and Michael Kelly, a young married couple in Ireland during the Great Famine. To save their children, Honora and Michael decide to emigrate alongside two million of their fellow citizens to the United States.
Although the family experiences hardships over the years, the reader will enjoy watching them blossom into an extended clan. Interestingly, this historical fiction book is loosely based on the author’s family history. In fact, Honora Kelly is her great-great-grandmother.
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, beginning with his childhood in Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. As a teen, he joins the Irish Citizen Army and fights for Ireland’s independence, participating in 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
The Story of Ireland: A History of the Irish People by Neil Hegarty
The Story of Ireland covers 1500 years of Irish history, spanning from pre-Christian Ireland to the late twentieth century. Readers will learn about the tumultuous events that shaped the country, including the 16th-century religious wars, the Irish Potato Famine, and even the current financial crisis.
Author Neil Hegarty creates one of the best books on the history of Ireland, offering a fresh perspective on the Emerald Isle. Additionally, he includes a timeline and notes section to help you keep track of some of the most important names and events. If you’re a history buff, this book is a must for your Ireland reading list!
How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill
How the Irish Saved Civilization is one of the best Ireland books for history lovers. In it, Thomas Cahill tells the story of Ireland’s role in preserving Western Civilization. After the Roman Empire fell, Irish scholars and clergy became responsible for restoring Christian learning in Europe. Cahill mainly focuses on Saint Patrick and Saint Columba, critical figures in spreading Christianity through Ireland.
Later, Irish monasteries became important centers of learning. The author argues that thanks to the Irish, Western Civilization was able to survive the Dark Ages with access to important pieces of literature, including the writings of Aristotle, Plato, and Euripides.
We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O’Toole
Fintan O’Toole was born in 1958 and raised in the Catholic education system in Dublin. He grew up during a time of great political upheaval in Ireland. Thus, over the course of the next 60 years, he witnessed his country’s transformation from a conservative, insular society to a modern, open nation.
This book is part memoir, part history lesson, chronicling defining moments of Ireland’s modern history and offering an insightful exploration of the Irish national character. Through his personal story, O’Toole provides readers with a unique perspective on Ireland’s past, present, and future.
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland is a work of nonfiction by Patrick Radden Keefe. It centers on the Troubles in Northern Ireland, starting with the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville.
Keefe also focuses on prominent figures such as Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Féin, Brendan “the Dark” Hughes, Officer Commanding of the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade, and Dolours Price, an elite Irish republican. This book also examines the ongoing efforts to uncover the truth about what happened to Jean McConville and other victims of the conflict.
It’s remarkably well researched and a must-read for anyone interested in books on Irish history and, more specifically, the Northern Irish conflict. Remember that Northern Ireland is technically part of the United Kingdom; however, it shares many cultural aspects with the Republic of Ireland.
Irish Fairy and Folk Tales by W.B. Yeats
Irish Fairy and Folk Tales is a collection of Irish folklore and myths that was first published in 1892. Many of these stories have been passed down from generation to generation in Ireland. Thankfully, Yeats took the time to edit these translated or transcribed stories into an accessible book.
To provide some order, Yeats groups each chapter by subject, featuring mythical creatures such as fairies, ghosts, witches, and giants. Overall, Yeats creates a rich treasury of folklore that will continue to be enjoyed by readers for many years to come. Ideally, we suggest soaking in one story at a time instead of trying to read the whole book in one sitting.
Travel books about Ireland
Rick Steves’ Ireland travel guide covers all of the country’s highlights, from the vibrant city of Dublin to the stunning Cliffs of Moher. Along the way, readers will find helpful tips on everything from finding the best pubs and tours to planning a driving route. With its clear and concise instructions, Rick Steves’ Ireland is an essential travel companion for anyone planning a trip to this beautiful country.
Fodor’s Essential Ireland is the perfect guide for anyone planning a trip to the Emerald Isle. It covers everything from Dublin and Belfast to Cork and Galway, with insider tips on where to stay and what to see. Whether you’re looking for information on the best hiking trails or the best food, drink, and entertainment, it’s one of the best books to read before visiting Ireland.
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This article was first published in June 2022 and has since been updated.