The 12 Best Irish Novels for St. Patrick’s Day
In honor of Saint Patrick’s Day, Allen Barra picks the 12 best postwar Irish novels, from Edna O’Brien to Sebastian Barry.
1. Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O’Brien (1964)
The third of The Country Girls trilogy which began with The Country Girls (1960) followed in 1962 by The Lonely Girl (republished as Girls With Green Eyes). The first was banned by the censor, i.e. the Catholic Church—God bless ’em, for they helped catapult O’Brien into the forefront of Irish literature. The trilogy follows Kate and Baba, two lasses from the Shannon bogs, from convent school to the bright lights of London. They finally get what they set after, only to find that they cannot go home again.
2. Birchwood by John Banville (1973)
From Seamus Deane’s A Short History of Irish Literature: “[Birchwood] is one of the most startling of the century’s varied achievements in Irish writing. It is a narrative, told by Gabriel Godkin”—I love that surname, and I’m sure Nabokov did, too—“the child of an incestuous relationship, of the hero’s quest for his twin sister in an Ireland which is by turn that of the Civil War period and that of the nineteenth century famine.” Ferociously dark with a terrifying array of freaks, mutants, and outcasts. This was Banville’s first great novel.
3. The Great Victorian Collection by Brian Moore (1975)
In 1994 when Moore was awarded the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Los Angeles Times, many critics shook their heads and asked who he was. He was one of the most underrated novelists in the English language since World War II. Why have the Irish not put out a stronger claim for him? Because he emigrated from Belfast to Canada at age 27 in 1948? Because he wrote most of his novels after moving to California in 1959?
The heavily praised Great Victorian Collection is Moore at the height of his powers, but a reader would be just as rewarded to start with his first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (first published in 1955), which reveals, in the words of Seamus Deane, “an Ireland unenhanced by a pronounced style, its atmosphere fumigated by the sense of heroism, myth, historical crisis, nostalgia for a better time.”
4. The Past by Neil Jordan (1980)
Neil Jordan’s reputation as Ireland’s most prominent filmmaker has overshadowed his superb fiction. The Past, his first and longest novel, is almost a template for all his subsequent work, particularly the themes of memory, identity, history, and the nebulous nature of truth. A nameless narrator probes his past, beginning with his grandparents just before World War I. As he progresses, he fills in the parts of their lives and his mother’s life that he doesn’t know with a fictional story that completes them. A great novel recently republished by Soft Skull Press.
5. Hidden Symptoms by Deirdre Madden (1986)
Madden, a brilliant writer of short stories, is a master of a spare but evocative prose. Hidden Symptoms, her first novel, set in a Roman Catholic university in Belfast, is her best longer work; three students find the foundations of their religious faith—in one case atheism—tested by tragedy. The novel’s themes—north and south, Catholicism and Protestantism, belief vs. atheism, culture in a time of nihilism—are subtly and intricately woven into her plot. At her best, Madden reflects the poet Patrick Kavanagh’s vision of the Irish: “We are a dark people, Our eyes are ever turned. Inward.”
6. Amongst Women by John McGahern (1991)
In his list of top ten Irish novels, Frank Delaney—author, journalist, broadcaster, and self-described most elegant man alive—placed Amongst Women by John McGahern as number seven. “I know,” he wrote, “that I am perhaps making a literary misjudgment, but I merely wanted more and more of this wonder writing.”
Delaney need not have sounded so apologetic. This novel, about a small Irish farmer and his family and their (writes Delaney) “subcutaneous, needless, heedless anguish,” may be McGahern’s finest work.
7. The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe (1992)
Is Patrick McCabe the illegitimate son of Flann O’Brien? This is as good a place as any to jump into his oeuvre. The Butcher Boy, shortlisted for the 1992 Man Booker Prize, won the Irish Times Literature Prize for Fiction the same year.
Frank Delaney called it a “twisted tale about one young boy’s murderous rampage in small town rural Ireland. As a literary feat it is exceptional: the first-person narrative of Francie’s descent into madness is captured so well that it brings goosebumps to my skin just thinking about it.”
8. Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor (1994)
Are Trevor’s novels underappreciated because he left Ireland long ago for England or because he is probably the finest short story writer in the English language? To simply praise him as “the Irish Chekov” misses his talent for writing heartbreakingly beautiful short novels, such as this one, written in a seductively sinister tone about an 18-year-old pregnant Irish girl blindly searching for her lover in industrial England.
9. A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle (1999)
Joyce bragged that if Dublin ceased to exist, it could be recreated brick-by-brick from the pages of Ulysses. If you wanted to recreate the sewers, you’d have to consult Roddy Doyle’s IRA gunman, Henry Smart (later Star), who escapes execution after the 1916 Easter Uprising by lifting a manhole cover and going underground.
This the first of three books that comprise The Last Roundup series, followed by Oh, Play That Thing! and The Dead Republic. They are all marvelous—follow Henry through Prohibition in America and meet Louis Armstrong, Al Capone, and John Ford as he and Henry go to Ireland to make The Quiet Man.
10. The Guards by Ken Bruen (2001)
Down the mean, green streets of Galway a man goes who is somewhat tarnished but definitely not afraid. Ken Bruen’s alcoholic, coke-snorting highly literate private detective Jack Taylor is the best dick in Irish lit, and no author in the country is more fearless when it comes to taking on the twin sacred cows of the Church and the police.
11. The Master by Colm Tobin (2004)
In time, The Master, Tobin’s fictional portrait of Henry James, may well be applied to Tobin himself, who emerged fully formed—as if from the head of Zeus—with The South (1990). The genuine of the book is how sexual repression can be rendered as a fascinating literary topic.
12. A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (2005)
Sebastian Barry’s achievement—a series of novels and plays tracing the history of three generations of an Irish family from the first World War to America in the 1970s—is unmatched by anything in Irish, English, or American literature. A Long Long Way is the story of Willie Dunne, a representative of a forgotten segment of the Irish race—the boys who volunteered for service in the British Army in World War I. His ghost appears in Barry’s play The Steward of Christendom.