6 Great Books Set in Ireland That We Love

6 Great Books Set in Ireland That We Love

Wednesday, 17 February, 2021

Ah, the Emerald Isle. It conjures visions of nights spent in the pub, telling tales, singing songs, and entertaining thoughts of ghosts, both friendly and, perhaps, malevolent.

Home to poets and revolutionaries, Ireland’s history is fascinating and troubled in equal measure. So it’s no surprise that stories set there are tinged with melancholy, along with (dark) good humor and a sense of the beauty found in the everyday.

Here are six books set in Ireland that took us there on the page: a larger-than-life biography, a history of The Troubles, an atmospheric short story collection, a contemporary thriller, and a poignant historical novel set in Dublin.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Ireland: It’s Not Good, It’s Grand.


The Pull of the Stars - Emma Donoghue

The Pull of the Stars
> Emma Donoghue

Almost all of the action in this historical novel takes place in one room over three days: a hospital ward for pregnant women afflicted with the Spanish flu in 1918 Dublin. It’s suspenseful, exhilarating, and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Through our narrator Julia, a capable and kind nurse, we’re dropped into the day-to-day grind of the frontline workers in an overwhelmed city hospital. As the other nurses fall prey to fever, Julia is thrust into leading the ward. She becomes almost the sole contact for women who are scared and suffering. They’re mostly poor and young and all ill with the flu. One is beaten by her husband. Another is unwed.

Angered and saddened by the plight of her patients — too many pregnancies, not enough food — Julia is almost as exhausted as her charges. She’s joined on the ward by two other remarkable women: Bridie, an orphan and Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who was a real-life rabble-rouser in turn-of-the-century Ireland.

This is historical fiction that reads like a thriller with a page-turning plot that hinges on both quiet moments and heroic feats with life and death consequences. {more}

I gazed up at the sky and let my eyes flicker from one constellation to another, to another, jumping between stepping stones. I thought of the heavenly bodies throwing down their narrow ropes to hook us. I’ve never believed the future was inscribed for each of us the day we were born. If anything were written in the stars, it was we who joined those dots, and our lives were the writing. — Emma Donoghue

The Immortal Irishman - Timothy Egan

The Immortal Irishman
> Timothy Egan

Get ready for a raucous romp through history with one of the most colorful and remarkable Irishmen of the 19th century. Meet Thomas Francis Meagher, an unforgettable character who also possessed a great deal of character.

Engage even a little bit with world history, and one of the themes that will emerge almost immediately is colonization. This deeply researched and precisely written book makes something abundantly clear: The English began their long and problematic habit of colonization with the people closest to them, the Irish.

Onto this fractured and messy historical stage strode our hero Thomas Francis Meagher. The son of a wealthy man, Thomas is smart, eloquent, and a gifted writer. He’s an idealist and a romantic and a troublemaker. He’s also hungry, thanks to the Irish potato famine — and soon after that, he was radicalized.

Tried for treason at 26, he was sentenced to ‘transportation for life’ — an exile to Tasmania. After high adventure in his new home, he scarpers off to the United States — after an audacious and daring prison break — and that’s where his legend takes on even more epic proportions: the newspaper business, the Civil War, a stake in Montana, and a devastating steamboat mishap.

Detailed, entertaining, and inspiring, this 200-year-old story feels both intimate and fresh. {more}

For the better part of seven centuries, to be Irish in Ireland was to live in a land not your own. You called a lake next to your family home by one name, and the occupiers gave it another. You knew a town had been built by the hands of your ancestors, the quarry of origin for the stones pressed into those streets, and you were forbidden from inhabiting it. You could not enter a court of law as anything but a criminal or a snitch. You could not worship your God, in a church open to the public, without risking prison or public flogging. You could not attend school, at any level, even at home. And if your parents sent you out of the country to be educated, you could not return. You could not marry, conduct trade or go into business with a Christian Protestant. You could not have a foster child. If orphaned, you were forced into a home full of people who rejected your faith. You could not play your favorite sports – hurling was specifically prohibited. You could not own land in more than 80 percent of your country; the bogs, barrens and highlands were your haunts. You could not own a horse worth more than five pounds sterling. If you married an Englishman, you would lose everything upon his death. You could not speak your language outside your home. You would not think in Irish, so the logic went, if you were not allowed to speak in Irish. — Timothy Egan

That Old Country Music - Kevin Barry

That Old Country Music
> Kevin Barry

The stories in this collection tell tales of longing and home and the complicated simplicity of country life. Mostly set in western Ireland, they’re like prose poetry, photographs crafted with precise words rather than light and pixels.

The stars of these 11 stories are loners and oddballs. They’re like no one we’ve met before, but Kevin Barry’s writing lets us know them quickly and intimately. In the poignant first story, ‘The Coast of Leitrim,’ we meet 35-year-old Seamus, a man with ‘the misfortune in life to be fastidious and to own a delicacy of feeling. He drank wine rather than beer and favored French films.’ We know immediately how adrift he must feel in his small town and how that town might feel about him. He falls helplessly in love with the Polish girl who works at his local café, and the human foibles and frailty unfold from. Seamus thinks he can ‘handle just about anything, shy of a happy outcome.’

In the other stories, we get to know a young girl who’s just beginning to explore her sexual power — and another young woman caught up in a messy romantic entanglement, only to be rescued by her mum’s love and forgiveness.

These stories flow from a part of the world with a long memory. It can be hard to escape the past or make a different future. Barry is a master of scene-setting, arranging just the right words in just the right way, so we feel the breeze roll off the hills, smell the salt in the air, connect with the old Irish soil under the characters’ feet. {more}

His cottage looked across a bog to the Bluestack Mountains; the ocean was nearby, unseen but palpable. There were huge granite boulders around the fields, as if giants had been tossing them about for sport. The ocean hissed at the edges of the scene like a busy gossip. There was salt on the air and the local cars wore coats of rust. I felt somehow a little hardier and tougher in myself as I looked out from the doorway of the place. — Kevin Barry

Say Nothing - Patrick Radden Keefe

Say Nothing
> Patrick Radden Keefe

To understand Ireland – beyond its convivial pub life, lilting language, and literary tradition — you need to understand The Troubles. For the thirty years between 1968 and 1998, Belfast was the epicenter of a violent conflict that radiated throughout Northern Ireland, the UK, and across the Atlantic.

At its heart, this is the tale of Jean McConville, a 38-year-old mother of ten, who was dragged from her home in Belfast in 1972. Masked intruders ripped her away from her children, and she was never seen again. Her crime: She was a Protestant who married a Catholic and was suspected of being an informant.

New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe transports us directly to 1970s Belfast and does the hard work of telling a larger story by focusing on this one event: who was there, what happened, and why. The story unfolds like a novel with real-life figures as its characters. We follow along as mild mischief-makers evolve into full-blown terrorists (or revolutionaries, depending on your point of view) who keep notes in their diaries about car bombs and kidnappings.

It’s a marvel of journalism and storytelling. {more}

Much of the Irish landscape is dominated by peat bogs; the anaerobic and acidic conditions in the densely packed earth mean that the past in Ireland can be subject to macabre resurrection. Peat cutters occasionally churn up ancient mandibles, clavicles, or entire cadavers that have been preserved for millennia. The bodies date as far back as the Bronze Age, and often show signs of ritual sacrifice and violent death. These victims, cast out of their communities and buried, have surfaced vividly intact, from their hair to their leathery skin. The poet Seamus Heaney, who harvested peat as a boy on his family’s farm, once described the bogs of Ireland as ‘a landscape that remembered everything that had happened in and to it.’ — Patrick Radden Keefe

The Guest List - Lucy Foley

The Guest List
> Lucy Foley

What’s more fun than a destination wedding? A destination wedding on a rocky Irish island where everyone has secrets. Sure, it all looks like glossy perfection on the surface, but soon, a storm will break, and the possibility of happily ever after will disappear into the mist.

All of the elements are in place for a perfect day: a beautiful bride and her handsome groom, their old friends and closest family, a fairy-tale setting that includes a miniature castle ‘perched over a few shelves of rocks and the crashing sea below.’ This event was custom-made for a glossy magazine spread. Except that, in addition to traditional fish chowder and small-batch whisky, jealousy and betrayal are on the menu.

The large cast of suspects — the soon-to-be-marrieds, old school chums, troubled siblings, a wedding planner who’s wound just a bit too tight, and the island itself — are vividly drawn. And the desolate atmosphere of the island — craggy, isolated, foggy — is a marked contrast to the bubbly anticipation of the guests arriving by boat.

And then, of course, someone turns up dead. Hooray! Let’s dance! {more}

I look up and see it there: a big cormorant perched on the highest part of the ruined chapel, its crooked black wings hung open to dry like a broken umbrella. A cormorant on a steeple: that’s an ill omen. The devil’s bird, they call it in these parts. The cailleach dhubh, the black hag, the bringer of death. Here’s hoping that the bride and groom don’t know this… or that they aren’t the superstitious sort. — Lucy Foley

The Comet Seekers - Helen Sedgwick

The Comet Seekers
> Helen Sedgwick

The characters in this poignant novel — set in France, Ireland, and Antarctica — are haunted… by family, by what might have been, by their desire for something more.

The story begins when François, a chef, and Róisín, a scientist, meet for the first time: They’re both part of an astronomy mission in the harshly beautiful, white landscape of Antarctica, waiting for a comet to pass overhead.

New to each other, they’re also a mystery to us.

As the story unfolds, short chapters reveal their lives through sharply rendered vignettes, each one punctuated by the sighting of a comet in the sky. We flashback to Róisín in her Irish village, burning with a passion for science that eclipsed everything else in her life. We meet François’ mother and the ancestral ghosts that share her home in France.

The comets follow their inevitable orbits, and we learn about the choices the characters have made, the connections they’ve missed, and why François and Róisín were destined to meet in this particular spot at this specific time. {more}

She was expecting fireworks, a series of bright explosions like timpani in light, but she should have realised that destruction takes time; that damage lingers on the surface before leaving a lasting impression. — Helen Sedgwick

Top image courtesy of Isaac Burke/Unsplash.

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