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.
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
Appearing first as a short story in The New Yorker
before expanding into this award-winning novel,
Claire Keegan’s Foster
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
story about finding your individual identity, enduring family drama, and the
gravity of love.
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.
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
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.
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.
You’ve probably already read at least one book by Pulitzer
Prize-winner Frank McCourt (Angela’s
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
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.
The creative force behind each of the stories in The Inland Ice and Other Stories
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
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.