Storytelling is a well-respected Irish tradition, passed down from generation to generation. And it’s no surprise that Ireland has quite a long and illustrious literary history. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we’ve rounded up classics by Irish authors that are worth a read. From novels to memoirs, plays to poetry, these are timeless and beloved Irish classics. Publishers’ descriptions included.
Ulysses by James Joyce
James Joyce’s astonishing masterpiece, Ulysses, tells of the diverse events which befall Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Dublin on 16 June 1904, during which Blooms voluptuous wife, Molly, commits adultery. Initially deemed obscene in England and the USA, this richly-allusive novel, revolutionary in its Modernistic experimentalism, was hailed as a work of genius by W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. Scandalously frank, wittily erudite, mercurially eloquent, resourcefully comic and generously humane, Ulysses offers the reader a life-changing experience.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
From the world’s greatest satirist, the classic adventures of the intrepid Gulliver Broken into four parts, Gulliver’s Travels marks the progress of a gallant explorer as he sails into the unknown, visiting surreal worlds like Brobdingnag, a realm filled with gigantic men; Lilliput, a diminutive land filled with pint-size people; Laputa, a floating island in the sky; and even the fabled land known as Japan. Along the way, Gulliver solves problems, starts and ends wars, and gets into — and back out of — one hot pot after another. Just beneath the surface of Jonathan Swift’s dashing novel is a devastating satire of the world in the early 18th century, and few institutions escape critique. Swift calls into question the worthiness of human society, where the greedy and the wicked thrive. In the end, however, Gulliver’s Travels remains, at its heart, a dramatic adventure filled with the curiosities and feats of daring that have thrilled readers for centuries. Seldom have audiences enjoyed such a balanced mixture of humor, satire, thrills, and philosophy.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray scandalized readers when it was first published in 1890. Written in Wilde’s signature style, the story has gone on to become an enduring tale of man’s hubris and narcissism.
The well-known artist Basil Hallward meets the young Dorian Gray in the stately London home of his aunt, Lady Brandon. Basil becomes immediately infatuated with Dorian, who is cultured, wealthy, and remarkably beautiful. Such beauty, Basil believes, is responsible for a new mode of art, and he decides to paint a portrait of the young man. While finishing the painting, Basil reluctantly introduces Dorian to his friend Lord Henry Wotton, a man known for scandal and exuberance. Wotton inspires Dorian to live life through the senses, to feel beauty in everyday experience. Dorian becomes enthralled by Wotton’s ideas, and more so becomes obsessed with remaining young and beautiful. He expresses a desire to sell his soul and have the portrait of him age, while he, the man, stays eternally young. A tragic story of hedonism and desire, The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only published novel.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Dracula is the ultimate horror story, producing one of literature’s most lasting villains: Count Dracula. A harrowing, memorable, and enduring story about the world’s most famous vampire.
A true masterwork of storytelling, Dracula has transcended generation, language, and culture to become one of the most popular novels ever written. It is a quintessential tale of suspense and horror, boasting one of the most terrifying characters ever born in literature: Count Dracula, a tragic, night-dwelling specter who feeds upon the blood of the living, and whose diabolical passions prey upon the innocent, the helpless, and the beautiful. But Dracula also stands as a bleak allegorical saga of an eternally cursed being whose nocturnal atrocities reflect the dark underside of the supremely moralistic age in which it was originally written — and the corrupt desires that continue to plague the modern human condition.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
So begins the luminous memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank’s mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank’s father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy — exasperating, irresponsible and beguiling — does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father’s tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies. Perhaps it is story that accounts for Frank’s survival. Wearing rags for diapers, begging a pig’s head for Christmas dinner and gathering coal from the roadside to light a fire, Frank endures poverty, near-starvation, and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors — yet lives to tell his tale with eloquence, exuberance, and remarkable forgiveness. Angela’s Ashes, imbued on every page with Frank McCourt’s astounding humor and compassion, is a glorious book that bears all the marks of a classic.
Trinity by Leon Uris
From the acclaimed author who enthralled the world withExodus, Battle Cry, QB VII, Topaz, and other beloved classics of 20th-century fiction comes a sweeping and powerful epic adventure that captures the “terrible beauty” of Ireland during its long and bloody struggle for freedom. It is the electrifying story of an idealistic young Catholic rebel and the valiant and beautiful Protestant girl who defied her heritage to join his cause. It is a tale of love and danger, of triumph at an unthinkable cost — a magnificent portrait of a people divided by class, faith, and prejudice — an unforgettable saga of the fires that devastated a majestic land… and the unquenchable flames that burn in the human heart.
Ireland by Frank Delaney
In the winter of 1951, a storyteller, the last practitioner of an honored, centuries-old tradition, arrives at the home of nine-year-old Ronan O’Mara in the Irish countryside. For three wonderful evenings, the old gentleman enthralls his assembled local audience with narratives of foolish kings, fabled saints, and Ireland’s enduring accomplishments before moving on. But these nights change young Ronan forever, setting him on a years-long pursuit of the elusive, itinerant storyteller and the glorious tales that are no less than the saga of his tenacious and extraordinary isle.
Collected Poems by William Butler Yeats
The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats includes all of the poems authorized by Yeats for inclusion in his standard canon. Breathtaking in range, it encompasses the entire arc of his career, from luminous reworkings of ancient Irish myths and legends to passionate meditations on the demands and rewards of youth and old age, from exquisite, occasionally whimsical songs of love, nature, and art to somber and angry poems of life in a nation torn by war and uprising. In observing the development of rich and recurring images and themes over the course of his body of work, we can trace the quest of this century’s greatest poet to unite intellect and artistry in a single magnificent vision.
The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien
It is the early 1960s in a country village in Ireland. Caithleen Brady and her attractive friend Baba are on the verge of womanhood and dreaming of spreading their wings in a wider world; of discovering love and luxury and liquor and above all, fun.
With bawdy innocence, shrewd for all their inexperience, the girls romp their way through convent school to the bright lights of Dublin — where Caithleen finds that suave, idealized lovers rarely survive the real world…
The Commitments by Roddy Doyle
In the first volume of the Barrytown Trilogy, Roddy Doyle, winner of the Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, introduces The Commitments, a group of fame-starved, working-class Irish youths with a paradoxical passion for the music of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and a mission — to bring Soul to Dublin. Doyle writes about the band with a fan’s enthusiasm and about Dublin with a native’s cheerful knowingness. His book captures all the shadings of the rock experience: ambition, greed, and egotism — and the redeeming, exhilarating joy of making music. The Commitments is one of the most engaging and believable novels about rock’n’roll ever written, a book whose brashness and originality have won it mainstream acclaim and underground cachet.
Amongst Women by John McGahern
Michael Moran is an old Irish Republican whose life was forever transformed by his days of glory as a guerrilla leader in the Irish War of Independence. Moran is till fighting — with his family, his friends, and even himself — in this haunting testimony to the enduring qualities of the human spirit.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
From an inauspicious beginning at the tiny Left Bank Theatre de Babylone in 1953, followed by bewilderment among American and British audiences, Waiting for Godot has become of the most important and enigmatic plays of the past 50 years and a cornerstone of 20th-century drama. As Clive Barnes wrote, “Time catches up with genius … Waiting for Godot is one of the masterpieces of the century.”
The story revolves around two seemingly homeless men waiting for someone — or something — named Godot. Vladimir and Estragon wait near a tree, inhabiting a drama spun of their own consciousness. The result is a comical wordplay of poetry, dreamscapes, and nonsense, which has been interpreted as mankind’s inexhaustible search for meaning. Beckett’s language pioneered an expressionistic minimalism that captured the existential post-World War II Europe. His play remains one of the most magical and beautiful allegories of our time.
The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy
First published in Paris in 1955, and originally banned in the United States, J. P. Donleavy’s first novel is now recognized the world over as a masterpiece and a modern classic of the highest order. Set in Ireland just after World War II, The Ginger Man is J. P. Donleavy’s wildly funny, picaresque classic novel of the misadventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, a young American ne’er-do-well studying at Trinity College in Dublin. He barely has time for his studies and avoids bill collectors, makes love to almost anything in a skirt, and tries to survive without having to descend into the bottomless pit of steady work. Dangerfield’s appetite for women, liquor, and general roguishness is insatiable — and he satisfies it with endless charm.
Lion of Ireland by Morgan Llywelyn
King, warrior, and lover Brian Boru was stronger, braver, and wiser than all other men — the greatest king Ireland has ever known. Out of the mists of the country’s most violent age, he merged to lead his people to the peak of their golden era.
His women were as remarkable as his adventures: Fiona, the druidess with mystical powers; Deirdre, beautiful victim of a Norse invader’s brutal lust; Gormlaith, six-foot, read-haired goddess of sensuality.
Set against the barbaric splendors of the 10th century, this is a story rich in truth and legend — in which friends become deadly enemies, bedrooms turn into battlefields, and dreams of glory are finally fulfilled. Morgan Llywelyn has written one of the greatest novels of Irish history.
Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
It began with Benny Hogan and Eve Malone, growing up, inseparable, in the village of Knockglen. Benny — the only child, yearning to break free from her adoring parents. Eve — the orphaned offspring of a convent handyman and a rebellious blueblood, abandoned by her mother’s wealthy family to be raised by nuns. Eve and Benny — they knew the sins and secrets behind every villager’s lace curtains… except their own. It widened at Dublin, at the university where Benny and Eve met beautiful Nan Mahlon and Jack Foley, a doctor’s handsome son. But heartbreak and betrayal would bring the worlds of Knockglen and Dublin into explosive collision. Long-hidden lies would emerge to test the meaning of love and the strength of ties held within the fragile gold bands of a… Circle of Friends.
Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
“I do know how to behave — believe me, because I know. I have always known…”
Behind the gates of Temple Alice the aristocratic Anglo-Irish St Charles family sinks into a state of decaying grace. To Aroon St Charles, large and unlovely daughter of the house, the fierce forces of sex, money, jealousy and love seem locked out by the ritual patterns of good behavior. But crumbling codes of conduct cannot hope to save the members of the St Charles family from their own unruly and inadmissible desires.
The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen
The Last September is Elizabeth Bowen’s portrait of a young woman’s coming of age in a brutalized time and place, where the ordinariness of life floats like music over the impending doom of history.
In 1920, at their country home in County Cork, Sir Richard Naylor and his wife, Lady Myra, and their friends maintain a skeptical attitude toward the events going on around them, but behind the facade of tennis parties and army camp dances, all know that the end is approaching—the end of British rule in the south of Ireland and the demise of a way of life that had survived for centuries. Their niece, Lois Farquar, attempts to live her own life and gain her own freedoms from the very class that her elders are vainly defending. The Last September depicts the tensions between love and the longing for freedom, between tradition and the terrifying prospect of independence, both political and spiritual.
How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston
Born to an aristocratic family on an estate outside of Dublin, Alexander Moore feels the constraints of his position most acutely in his friendship with Jerry Crowe, a Catholic laborer in town. Jerry is one of the few bright spots in Alec’s otherwise troubled life. The boys bond over their love of swimming and horses, despite the admonitions of Alec’s cold and overbearing mother, who scolds her son for venturing outside of his class. When the Great War begins, he seizes the opportunity to escape his overbearing mother and taciturn father, and enlists in the British army. Jerry, too, enlists — not out of loyalty to Britain, but to prepare himself for the Republican cause. Stationed in Flanders, the young men are reunited and find that, while encamped in the trenches, their commonalities are what help them survive. Now a lieutenant and an officer, Alec and Jerry again find their friendship under assault, this time from the rigid Major Glendinning, whose unyielding adherence to rank leads the two men toward a harrowing impasse that will change their lives forever.
Tarry Flynn by Patrick Kavanagh
A man’s mother can be a terrible burden sometimes. For Tarry Flynn — poet, farmer and lover-from-afar of beautiful young virgins — the responsibility of family, farm, poetic inspiration, and his own unyielding lust is a heavy one. The only solution is to rise above all — or escape over the nearest horizon. Like The Green Fool, his autobiography, Patrick Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn is an idyllic and beautifully evocative account of life as it was lived in Ireland earlier this century.
At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien
At Swim-Two-Birds is a 1939 novel by Irish author Brian O’Nolan, writing under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien. It is widely considered to be O’Brien’s masterpiece, and one of the most sophisticated examples of metafiction. The novel’s title derives from Snámh dá Én (Middle Ir.: “Swim-Two-Birds”), a ford on the River Shannon, between Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge, reportedly visited by the legendary King Sweeney, a character in the novel.
Which Irish classics do you want to read? Share in the comments!
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