10 Essential Books to Read Before You Go to Ireland

From Yeats poems to a once-banned novel, these books by Irish writers are must-reads if you’re planning an Ireland adventure.

Howth Beacon on a seaside cliff outside of Dublin, Ireland, at sunset

Get to know the country before you go.

Courtesy of Alejandro Luengo/Unsplash

In a country where pubs are named after playwrights and festivals celebrate poets, the literary tradition is gloriously unavoidable. These books about Ireland by Irish authors and poets make good travel companions.

For a modest-sized island with a small population (5 million), Ireland has produced an impressive wealth of literature, especially in poetry, plays, and short stories.

Before you travel to Ireland, here are 10 books that will help you appreciate its culture and history. Several focus on Northern Ireland. These excellent reads may well lead you to other memorable books.

1. “Being Various: New Irish Short Stories” edited by Lucy Caldwell (2019)

For a one-stop introduction to contemporary Irish writing, sample this anthology, the first appearance of these 24 stories. You may recognize a few of the authors (such as Sally Rooney, author of Normal People, and Adrian McKinty, an acclaimed mystery writer) and you’ll want to read more from authors who may be new to you, like Kevin Barry. (His Night Boat to Tangier was a Booker Prize nominee in 2019.) It’s a delicious literary tasting menu.

2. “The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems” by William Butler Yeats (1889)

The first collection of Yeats’s poetry, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, exemplifies his interest in mythology and romanticism. The title epic helped establish his reputation. For more Yeats, check out his second volume of poems, The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics, which illustrates his love for Sligo. In the Lyrics volume,"The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is a classic example of the Celtic Revival style, which aimed to be uniquely Irish in subject and structure.

3. “The Country Girls” by Edna O’Brien (1960)

Banned upon publication by the Irish Censorship Board as “indecent and obscene” for its depiction of female sexuality, this coming-of-age novel follows two childhood friends from bleak, rural Ireland as they navigate the repressive society of 1950s Dublin. Five other novels by O’Brien were also later banned. The Country Girls, her first novel, is part of a trilogy of novels, including The Lonely Girl and Girls in Their Married Bliss.

4. “Broken Harbor” by Tana French (2012)

All of the novels by French—starting with her debut, In the Woods (2007), to her most recent, The Searcher (2020)—are compelling. And, as in the best mystery stories, whodunnit is less interesting than why. Context counts. Broken Harbor is set in an Ireland where the “Celtic tiger” economy has collapsed. We learn how it has impacted one family in a new housing development. (French was born in the United States but is longtime resident of Ireland.) Already a fan of French? Try Dervla McTiernan; her mysteries are set in Galway.

5. “At Swim-Two-Birds” by Flann O’Brien (1939)

Narrated by a fictional student, the trippy, bawdy novel At Swim-Two-Birds weaves a web of invented writers, their characters, and legendary figures to explore Ireland’s deep ties to its literary legacy. It’s on the Guardian’s list of the 100 best novels written in English (along with several other Irish novels, such as Murphy by Samuel Beckett and Ulysses by James Joyce).

6. “The Stories of William Trevor” by William Trevor (1983)

Trevor was a master of exploring quiet lives, often in rural Ireland. You can hardly go wrong browsing among this substantial collection. His characters live in Ireland and England. If you prefer novels to stories, try Fools of Fortune, which covers decades starting in 1918 and explores the Anglo-Irish conflict. And if you enjoy Trevor, you may also like Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction.

7. “Poems, 1965–1975" by Seamus Heaney (1980)

This poet is the most recent of four Irish writers to receive the Noble Prize for Literature. (Yeats was the first, in 1923; Heaney was selected in 1995.) This collection includes four of Heaney’s early volumes of poetry, starting with his first, Death of a Naturalist, plus Door Into the Dark, Wintering Out, and North. A more recent collection of his work is Selected Poems 1988–2013; his later work is more optimistic than his early writing.

8. “A Star Called Henry” by Roddy Doyle (1999)

“Picaresque” sums up this expansive novel, which traces the life of Henry Smart from a childhood of poverty in Dublin to his evolution into a fighter in the Irish Rebellion. If you’ve read some of Doyle’s other novels (try The Barrytown Trilogy), you won’t be surprised that the story is well laced with humor. And if you prefer a nonfiction account of growing up poor and rough, read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, set in Limerick.

9. “Collected Poems” by Patrick Kavanagh (1964)

In down-to-earth, striking landscape poetry, Kavanagh maneuvers through the often harsh daily realities of life in rural Ireland in the mid-20th century. He once said, “There is nothing as dead and as damned as an important thing. The things that really matter are casual, insignificant little things” and called poetry “a star-lovely art.”

10. “The Ghosts of Belfast” by Stuart Neville (2009)

Among Neville’s notable crime fiction set in Northern Ireland, a standout is this novel. It’s the story of a former hitman for the IRA haunted by his memories of the 12 people he has killed. (The U.K. title is The Twelve.) His response is to avenge their deaths by going after those who ordered them.

Bonus: “Say Nothing” by Patrick Radden Keefe (2019)

If you’ve never quite understood what the euphemistic “Troubles” in Northern Ireland involved, be sure to read Say Nothing, a riveting work of investigative journalism by one of the most compelling U.S. reporters working today. Its starting point is the murder of a woman in Belfast in 1972. But it’s far more than the history of a crime.

This article was originally published in 2017 and most recently updated on November 30, 2023, with current information.

Pat Tompkins has written for AFAR about books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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