10 Irish Novels About The Irish Fighting It Out That You Can Read For St. Patrick's Day
I'm Irish in that fun, American way. My ancestors came here to flee famine and when Irish people catch me claiming my Irishness, they raise an eyebrow and dare me to name one Irish county (I squeak "Cork!" and, like my ancestors, I flee). But I maintain that I am indeed Irish because of a few key traits embedded in my DNA: I have never, nor will I ever, tan. I'm probably going to live for 100 years despite a questionable amount of drinking. And I have an implacable hatred of elitism, whimsy, and class — which some might equate with the English. It's a grand old Irish tradition, hating the English. We've been doing it ever since Oliver Cromwell stepped a dainty toe onto the coast of Drogheda and said, "Let's kill them all until they learn English! And Protestantism!" And in the centuries that followed, we got very, very good at it. If you want to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in true Irish form, please don't get drunk before breakfast and barf in a trashcan along the parade route. That's not Irish, it's just tacky. Instead, curl up in a pub with a pint and read a book about the soul-crushing, land-stealing, famine-causing British and how bravely we (everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's, right?) fought them off.
Thy Tears Might Cease by Michael Farrell
Michael Farrell wrote only one book in his lifetime and this is it. An Irish-Catholic boy abandons his religion when he is abused by his priest. In the wake of the void of faith, he finds meaning in nationalism and the fight for Irish freedom. Both acts are a rebellion. Neither comes easy. This is the telling of Ireland's struggle for independence from a man who truly lived it. And won't sugarcoat it.
The Price of My Soul by Bernadette Devlin
You want to know how you know that you're badass? You lead one of the biggest riots ever to rock Ulster. You are given the key to New York City and you pass it along to the Black Panthers. You become the youngest woman ever to be elected to Parliament and serve your time in prison for the revolution you started while in office. Oh, and you champion gay rights in a staunchly Catholic nation. This is the memoir of a woman who is fundamentally brave and unequivocally cool.
Fools of Fortune by William Trevor
William Trevor is the master of writing the enormous tragedies of small families. In Fools of Fortune, an Anglo-Irish family is ripped apart by rebellion — they pay the price for their loyalty to Ireland. This novel tells of a family's struggle to live after winning the fight for their lives. Their lost innocence feels like a tragedy. It feels like the lost innocence of the entire nation.
The Red and Green by Iris Murdoch
Somehow, Iris Murdoch manages to use the Easter Rising as a backdrop for a comedy. In this novel, a sprawling Irish family, with opposing views on home rule, experiences the 1916 rebellion with laughter, with tears, and with the complete self-awareness that oftentimes they are ridiculous. With her nimble prose, Murdoch commits to paper the strange-yet-true contradiction that people who make war with each other can love one another quite deeply.
The House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O'Brien
Edna O'Brien writes of the Irish Republican Army's war for Belfast without sympathy or sentimentality. An IRA soldier is on the lam and flees to Limerick. He takes an old woman hostage and the two battle it out. In O'Brien's view, with Ireland is a tired old woman with a sad story and not a lot of hope. Those who supposedly fight for her freedom just antagonize and torment her. If only poor Ireland could just be left alone.
1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion by Morgan Llywelyn
This one's quite a bit more fun. It's the action movie version or the Dickens novel version of the Easter Rising. You've got your sinking ships, plucky orphans, and brave men and women fighting together for freedom. If you like this one, Llywelyn follows it up with 1921, 1949, and 1972.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
There is a law that when writing about Irish writing, you must mention Yeats or Joyce or risk being clocked upside the head with a full pint of Guinness. I will not tempt the fates. Joyce's story of young Stephen Daedalus coming into manhood and battling the ghosts of his nation's past is a classic. And it seethes with fury over the convoluted mess that is the relationship between Eire and her oppressor. Only where you and I might be inclined to express our anger by sputtering, blushing, or the kicking of a lamp post, Joyce channels his rage into some of the most poetic prose ever to touch the page.
Troubles by J. G. Farrell
The first in J.G. Farrell's Empire Trilogy, Troubles takes on the crumbling British rule in Ireland post-World War I. The action of this comedy unfolds in a dilapidated Anglo-owned hotel in an Irish village that is succumbing to the chaos of loose feral cats and a buckling foundations. Farrell takes on the British by making them look ridiculous. Their attempt to maintain order is as useless as herding cats.
Trinity by Leon Uris
Leon Uris is the godfather of the brick-sized, historical fiction paperback. Don't get on an airplane without him. Again, you've got your young Catholic rebel (it's a trend because it works) only now he's in love with a beautiful Protestant. Oh no! This story is just like Romeo and Juliet only no one talks in iambic pentameter and it is by no means important literature. What can I say, I take my fiction like I don't take my orange juice — nice and pulpy.
Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life by John Conroy
John Conroy's telling of life in 1980s Belfast isn't a novel, but it reads like one. He first came to Northern Ireland to report on the conflict between the Catholics who wanted independence and the Protestants who stood by the Queen. It was war. But Conroy quickly moved away from basic conflict reporting. He absorbed himself instead in the lives people live in a city at battle with itself. The real tragedies aren't the hunger strikes or the riots, says Conroy. The tragedy is how they slowly became the norm.