OT: Ireland 103 – Literature


Sound advice

Next on my list in Irish Week: Literature. Which ties in nicely with the fact that it’s World Book Day today. However, it does not tie in so nicely with Mr A or Pilgrimage, other than saying he seems to be a reader. Mostly connected to his research, though, and for that purpose we have already been given plenty of reading tips from Pilgrimage‘s scriptwriter, Jamie Hannigan. But *should* Mr A want to indulge into some unconnected reading pleasures, “Ciontach” has another totally subjective list of recommendations at the ready.

The Irish have – yet again – an astounding wealth of literary culture and heritage for a country so small. Four literature Nobel laureates (Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, Heany) and a thriving literary scene, many unawarded literary heavy-weights. Where does it come from? Well, the Irish have a way with words. Or as they say themselves “the gift of the gob”. Where does it come from? Maybe it is the strong oral tradition of the Gaelic, or even the enforced bilingualism due to colonisation? Or perhaps they have only just all kissed the Blarney Stone…

I won’t even mention the obvious must-reads here; they are part of the canon, anyway. Contemporary Irish literature is more accessible than most of the “classic” Irish books, and continues to fascinate and enthrall with their offerings. In order to cut an endless list short, I’ve broken it down into four categories: Irish on Irish Topics, Irish Factual, Irish on Non-Irish Topics, and Light Entertainment. Here are my recommendations:

Roddy Doyle

First shot to prominence in the late 1980s with his Dublin trilogy, particularly The Commitments which was made into an internationally successful film in 1991 of the same name. Doyle’s stories are always set in Dublin, charting the Irish capital at the turn of the 21st century almost as well as Joyce did a century earlier. His characters are *real*, they are typically Irish “chancers”, quick of the tongue, inventive, resourceful people, his plots always interesting, and his stories ultimately Irish. My favourite book of his is A Star Called Henry, the first part of a trilogy that follows Henry Smart from his childhood in the Dublin slums in the early 1900s until his involvement in the Easter Rising and the war of independence. (Part 2 and 3 follow on through the decades.) Although accessibly written, Doyle received recognition of his literary talent when he won the Booker prize in 1993 with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (incidentally the one book that I never got into…)   If you want to read about contemporary Ireland, Doyle is the go-to man.

Joseph O’Connor

Ok, let’s get the trivia out of the way first: Joe O’Connor is singer Sinead O’Connor’s brother. But he is a well-known writer in his own right, focussing on Ireland in his writing, and doing so in a fluid, often humourous style (a bit like Roddy Doyle). While he is best known for his novels – he’s tried all genres, from initiation story (Cowboys and Indians) via thriller (Inishowen) to historical novels (The Star of the Sea) – I particularly love his early non-fiction writing. The Secret World of the Irish Male (1994) is a collection of short essays/columns on the quirks and habits of Irish men – and is laugh-out-loud funny, whether you *know* Irish lads or not.

Colum McCann

McCann’s topics are not Irish. Maybe that is because he has been living outside of his country of birth for twenty years, currently residing in New York? But his books are stunning. His novel Dancer is based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev and stunning, even for non-dancers ;-). In Let the Great World Spin he wove several story lines into one compelling plot, all set in New York. His latest, Transatlantic (2013) uses a similar strategy of interweaving stories that are all held together by the first trans-Atlantic crossing by plane – from New Foundland to Connemara (!) – and has therefore more of an Irish touch to it.

Maeve Binchy

Ireland can do fluffy pretty well, too. Although that is an unfair label to put on Maeve Binchy. Despite writing the Irish version of Rosamunde Pilcher, her stories and characters are well-developed and rounded. No smut, though – things are kept firmly above the waistline. That doesn’t take away from her stories, though – her books are a pleasant way of spending an evening or two. She’s the mother of chick-lit, in my book, and many of her novels have actually made it to film.  I really enjoyed Scarlett Feather but really, all her novels feature strong heroines who find themselves in challenging situations.

Hugo Hamilton

Hamilton is put in here just for the resonance of his background with my own life. Growing up in 1950s Ireland with an Irish father and a German mother, Hamilton was acutely aware of his outsider status. This was even heightened by the fact that his strict and nationalist father insisted on bringing up Hugo and his brother exclusively speaking Irish – which made them stand out even more in the English-speaking environments of South County Dublin. His autobiography The Speckled People is equally funny as sad – the speckled people refer to himself and his siblings as speckled by their mixed nationality.

Sorry for the dearth of women writers in this list. These were the five Irish contemporary writers that came immediately to my head without any prompting, and they happen to be mainly men. I’ve also left out all the playwrights, the poets, the classic authors, but otherwise the list would be endless.

To get back to Mr A now, I have a little bonus recommendation up my sleeve. Unfortunately it does not concern an Irish writer, but his topic is both Irish *and* medieval to boot. In that sense it may vaguely serve as research – but an extremely entertaining one. Pilgrimage is billed as a thriller, but a medieval who-dunnit may come closest to that: The Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne is set in the early middle-ages (yeah, I know, a bit too early for Pilgrimage) and follows the eponymous nun on her hunt for the perpetrators of crimes. The first in the series Absolution by Murder sees Sister Fidelma track the killer of her abbess. The series now comprises 25 books, another one is due out this year. Tremayne is a historian by degree, which gives his books a nicely authentic touch.



I’m off myself now, celebrating World Book Day with a little trip to the local book store, brought on by recently reading Ian McEwan’s latest (The Children Act – bloody brilliant!) and realizing how much I have been missing. I’m trying to get back into bookworm mode – I have not read enough in the last three years. Hm, funny, that seems to coincide with the sudden appearance of a particular person on my RAdar… Good thing that I have already ordered Edith Wharton’s Summer. I hear that is pretty hot?

If I have made you curious about any of the recommended mentioned books and you are thinking of buying them, please consider ordering them via RAnet’s Amazon links. Ali donates the accrued referral fees to Richard’s sponsored charities on a regular basis. She has donated the amazing sum of almost 7,000£ (9,000€ or 10,300$) since February 2012!!! Go raibh maith agat (thanks) to all of you!

Happy World Book Day, everyone!!!

17 thoughts on “OT: Ireland 103 – Literature

  1. Thanks for the great recommendations! I only know the Sister Fidelma books (or at least three of them) but maybe that’ll change in the near future. My Erebor (that’s the name for my mountain of unread books) always appreciate new ones *lol*


  2. Thanks for the reading suggestions! Last year I bought in Gatwick airport with the last pounds I had in my pocket a book from Irish author Sebastian Barry and I did enjoy the book very much. In a National Theatre podcast Ciaràn Hinds was asked about what was the reason why Ireland gives so many good storytellers and he answered “drink” 😀 I put Roddy Doyle in my neverending books-to-read list

    Liked by 3 people

    • LOL – Hinds could be right! there does seem to be a correlation between drink and creativity…
      I am just back from the book shop, and I actually had Sebastian Barry’s latest in my hands. But then I also already had Hugo Hamilton’s latest and new Irish author Christopher Bland’s book, so I left it.
      Doyle is always worth reading. And if you liked him, you will definitely also like O’Connor. Avoid “Redemption Falls” for the moment, though.

      Liked by 1 person

    • *ggg* I know. I haven’t forgotten him. (Wrote my university thesis about him – I could never forget him.) Yesterday I bought tickets for the annual Bloomsday Celebration – Stephen Fry in conversation with Senator David Norris, Ireland’s foremost Joyce scholar (and wonderfully eccentric man. Can’t wait.) But Joyce is subsumed under “heavyweights” and not really contemporary. Plus, he’s not really “enjoyable” reading either.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Guylty, Love that image you used. I would sometimes ask a date (maybe I thought he was worth the extra effort?) when I was single of course, if I could read them a short story before we went out. It was one good way to weed out the men from the boys. 😀


  4. Thanks for the book recs, The O’Connor and Tremayne books appeal so I’m going to look for them to read.
    I read Summer. I did quite like it, it was something unlike anything I usually read. Any ‘hotness’ was only implied or alluded to, did I find it at least tepid then? well not even that in my view, but then I’ve probably read way too much fan fiction. Summer is worth a read though, I was strangely hooked once I started it and RA’s face was firmly planted in my mind as Lawyer Royall (I assume that would be the role he would play should he be cast). I would have liked to have known more about Mr Royall, I felt sympathetic to him and he was a good man I think, though with his faults, but I did not like Charity, stupid girl in my opinion, and I had to keep reminding myself that she was very young and uneducated……………the whole thing reminded me of Sparkhouse actually xx.


  5. Such riches here. Did you know Mr. H. is a Joseph O’Connor fan? He’s read most of them if not all. I didn’t know about the “Irish Male” book. Definitely a must read!


    • No, I didn’t know that!!! Well, kudos to both CH and O’Connor. I’ve been reading O’Connor since Cowboys and Indians, so ca. 1992, and watched his slow development from journalist with literary ambitions to full-blown writer. His work is really great – well articulated, smooth, a lot of humour. As an American I would also recommend you check his book “Sweet Liberty” which charts his coast-to-coast tour through the US, visiting all the towns that are called Dublin. Highly entertaining!!!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks so much for the recommendations! everything sounds tempting! not sure if i told you but Englisg language literature is my biggest gap, did my own and all German growing up, French and some Russians at home and of own interest in language quite a few Spanish and Latam but with English bar a few classics never got to much; at first as not much else translated and now it’s just a daunting infinity of books! Where to start, what to read? what to choose, what to read if even if it is a hard read, what is entertaining, what is too grim.. so great to have these suggestions 🙂


    • I recommend all of those authors without reservation. They are a joy to read (in terms of language) and tackle interesting and funny subject matters in imaginative ways.
      And don’t get bogged down by the feeling you are standing in front of an insurmountable heap of literature. We all do. Just pick and choose. It’s not necessary to have read *all* of Dickens in order to get an understanding of English Lit.

      Liked by 1 person

      • yes, you are right, i feel no compulsion to do Bleak House again 😉 it helps when people with shared tastes recommend what they like. I’d love to get them in paper but no room so i’ll follow your advice and use amazon via RAnet 🙂 two good deeds in one 😉


        • Great idea. I hadn’t even thought about the Kindle versions of the books. (BTW, I buy a lot of books on ebay these days. Second-hand versions suit me fine, and they are always cheaper than the new ones. At this point I am still waiting for my copy of Whartons “Summer” to arrive…)

          Liked by 1 person

          • i will be very curious to hear what you think of it, i have to say the subject itself put me off tremendously and the idea of him playing that character even more… (male dominated society, he sort of abuses his position and authority and wealth to achieve his ends, even if supposedly well intended; to me it sounded like a demoralising and depressing story of how few options girls and women had at the time and being always at the mercy of supposedly well intended men like that…shudders)


            • I am not a huge fan of Wharton’s writing, anyway – The Age of Innocence was on my college reading list, and I yawned my way through it. But well, I am curious about potential future projects, so I’ll sit through this, too. At least it makes me read *something*…

              Liked by 1 person

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