Five Irish Writers You Should Be Reading

Photo Credit: Somadjinn (Stock.Xchng)


Ireland is a small island of a country. I discovered this while driving its main roads from Galway to Dublin and its coastal roads from Cork to Wicklow in no time at all.

But Ireland is a giant in the world of literature. Think of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Frank O’Conner. And those are only the names you’ve heard in college classrooms.

Irish fiction proves astounding again and again, pages both deeply perceptive and quietly challenging. A sense of rebellion brooding just beneath the surface.

In preparation for St. Patrick’s Day festivities tomorrow, here’s a small cross-section of the contemporary Irish literary movement to get you started:


ONE: William Trevor

I’ll rave of his stories until the day I die. Tim Adams of The Observer once described Trevor as “the most astute observer of the human condition currently writing in fiction.” An understatement if I ever heard one.

Read “The Dressmaker’s Child,” which won him yet another O. Henry Prize, Love and Summerthe novel that earned him his fifth Booker Prize nomination, and this interview with him in The Paris Review.


TWO: Jennifer Johnston

There’s something off about the fact that Johnston is still unknown in the United States. Her Shadows on Our Skin caught the attention of Booker Prize judges back in 1977. Of the 1972 The Captains and the Kingspolitical speechwriter Mark Salter noted Johnston’s “empathy for her characters shorn of all sentimentality, a truthful and moving appreciation that withstands the depredations of human frailty and history.”

Read The Old Jestwinner of the 1979 Whitbread Book Award.


THREE: Colum McCann

This man had his own column in The Irish Press by the time he turned 21 years old, before he moved to the United States to write the Great American Novel. His Let the Great World Spin won the 2009 National Book Award for fiction, “a gravity-defying defeat.”

Read “Everything in This Country Must” and Let the Great World Spin.


FOUR: John Banville

This man can’t do a bit of harm in the literary community. His 1989 The Book of Evidence, deemed as flawless as Lolita by The Observer, caught a Booker Prize nomination, and in 2005, Banville’s The Sea finally took that award. He caught the eyes of folks behind the Nobel Prize but settled for the Kafka Prize instead. This is a man to emulate.

Read, of course, The Sea and The Book of Evidence, and save room in your reading queue for his latest, The InfinitiesAnd then read his interview with The Paris Review.


FIVE: Seamus Heaney

Strictly a poet and translator, this master has been called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats walked the green Irish countryside. He’s taken T.S. Elliot Prize, the Golden Wreath of Poetry, and the Nobel Prize for Literature among a wealth of other honors.

My love for Heaney’s poetics began in eighth grade English with the reading of “Blackberry Picking.” I can still remember those words, the desk I sat in, and the outfit I wore on that Friday afternoon. And I can still remember reading his translation of Beowulf in college, turning page after page in anticipation, no matter that I had read the epic countless times before.

Read Seeing Things, Wintering Outand his most recent, Human Chain.


Since I began this post with a dozen Irish writers in mind, here are additional names to look for: Emma Donoghue, Roddy Doyle, John Boyne, Claire Keegan, Colm Toibin, Tana French, and the late John McGahern.


Which writers have I missed? What are your plans for St. Patrick’s Day this year?