Let’s be honest, when you think of all the ways you’re going to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year, curling up with a stack of must-read books by Irish authors probably isn’t going to fall at the top of your list — but it totally should. While The Emerald Isle has long been the homeland of some pretty fantastic authors (think: Oscar Wilde, James Joyce) there’s something really exciting going on in contemporary Irish literature right now. From the edgy, totally experimental writing of Irish authors like Eimear McBride to the heartstrings-pulling emotional resonance of Irish writers like Frank McCourt, the luck of the Irish has definitely extended to the country’s literature (plus, these writers are so talented they probably don’t even need luck.)
So sure, while it can be great fun to don some light-up shamrock earrings and spend the weekend washing down those bangers and mash with a half dozen mugs of green-tinted beer, the holiday is also a great time to kick back with the work of some of the best contemporary Irish authors out there — and you’ll spare yourself that killer hangover all your pals will be nursing come Monday morning.
Here are (lucky number) 13 books by Irish authors to read this St. Patrick’s Day.
1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
In the summer of 1974, performance artist Philippe Petit risked his life walking a tightrope strung between the World Trade Center towers, and it is this history-making event that sets the stage for Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin . This novel is filled with determined, big-hearted characters, from a family of prostitutes and an Irish monk, to a professional computer hacker and a Guatemalan nurse; and their stories are unexpectedly intertwined in a way that perhaps only exists in a city like New York.
2. Foster by Claire Keegan
Appearing first as a short story in The New Yorker before expanding into this award-winning novel, Claire Keegan’s Foster tells the story of a young foster child who is sent by her father to live with the Kinsella family on a farm in rural Ireland, while her mother gives birth to a new sibling at home. Touching and eerie, each of Keegan’s characters seem just a little repressed, a little secretive, and a little on-edge about what the unknown future holds for them. And once you dive into their story, you’ll want to know too.
3. The Lives of Women by Christine Dwyer Hickey
When Elaine Nichols returns to her suburban childhood home to care for her aging father, she has all but forgotten what life used to be like for the women who surrounded her as she grew up during the 1970s. But even her years in spent in New York City haven’t entirely wiped away the memories of frustrated housewives, and the stifling suburban society Elaine grew up in — nor her memories of the one woman who tried to change it all. The Lives of Women is a powerful coming-of-age story about what things we leave behind in childhood and what stays with us for a lifetime.
4. A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
In edgy, hazy, stream-of-consciousness prose, Eimear McBride transports you directly into her narrator’s mind and heart, making this experimental, award-winning novel totally unforgettable. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing tells a sensitive and brutal story about the relationship between a young girl and her brother, as they navigate experiences of sexual violence, family crisis, and mental and physical illness.
5. Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín
Nora Webster is a recently-widowed young mother of four sons, who doesn’t seem to have enough of anything — time, money, affection, freedom, hope. Her suffocating, gossip-filled small Irish town does little to help her situation, and without the partnership that enabled Nora’s true self to flourish, she worries she’s going to drown in her stifling environment. Nora Webster is a novel about what it takes to build, and rebuild, a life in the wake of tragedy.
6. The Green Road by Anne Enright
Rosaleen Madigan is some kind of woman — mother of four and leader of her family, she watches and worries as each of her children take intensely different paths in their own lives. One to the United States, another to Africa, and two others to cities across Ireland, all reunite in their childhood hometown one Christmas, where their unbreakable loyalties to their family surface. The Green Road is a story about finding your individual identity, enduring family drama, and the gravity of love.
7. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
Sure, Jonathan Swift is not exactly a contemporary Irish writer (OK, not at all) but what is a list of must-read Irish lit without a few classics thrown in for good measure? If you didn’t quite manage to finish Gulliver’s Travels when it was assigned to you in high school, pick it up again in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Fantasy meets satire in this tale of a shipwrecked traveler who encounters a bit more than he bargained for on the island where he's landed.
8. How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston
Alec and Jerry, though very different — one is Protestant, and the heir to a family fortune and the other a Catholic, from a working-class family in a small Irish village — have been friends for as long as they can remember. But in the tumultuous days before World War I, both find themselves enlisting in the army — on opposing sides. How Many Miles to Babylon? is a story of the evolving, tumultuous relationship between to friends, set against the equally tumultuous backdrop of an Ireland on the verge of transformation.
9. Tender by Belinda McKeon
Set in Dublin in the late 1990’s Tender tells the story of two friends — Catherine and James — who meet when both are at a crossroads in their coming-of-age journey. Through James, Catherine learns to take more risks, and embrace life more fully. But as Catherine is growing into herself, James suddenly finds it increasingly difficult to express himself truthfully. This book will resonate with anyone who has struggled with wanting to be anything other than what they are, and the difficult journey toward finally celebrating one’s true self.
10. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
Another classic of Irish literature, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy , Gentleman is a meandering satire of the life of antihero Tristram Shandy — a Don Quixote-type character who finds himself in one amusingly dire straight after another, and who somehow cannot seem to finish a story once he’s started telling it. The result is a kaleidoscope of storytelling, digressions, and characters as vividly imagined as those in any great fairy tale.
11. Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
You’ve probably already read at least one book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes sound familiar?) but if you haven’t yet devoured all his memoirs, you’ll definitely want to check them out. Beginning years after Angela’s Ashes ended, Teacher Man tells the story of McCourt’s decades-long career as a teacher, and how those years have informed his subsequent writing. A definite must-read for teachers and writer alike; and anyone who just loves great storytelling.
12. The Inland Ice and Other Stories by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
The creative force behind each of the stories in The Inland Ice and Other Stories is none other than Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, a writer still relatively unknown in the United States — but who surely won’t be so for very long. The Inland Ice and Other Stories is a collection filled with stories about strong, daring, and unforgettable women, who engage fully with the passion, and oftentimes poverty, of their lives.
13. Miss Emily by Nuala O'Connor
The American literary debut of award-winning Irish writer Nuala O’Connor is Miss Emily , a novel about the life of Emily Dickinson, as told from the perspective of 18-year-old Ada Concannon, the Dickinson family’s Irish maid. As Ada develops a friendship with the isolated Dickinson, she watches as the poet’s creative passion begins to consume her entire life.
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