30 Books Set in Ireland: Fantastic Fiction

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Crack open one of these best books on Ireland and get inspired to go there. These 30 great Irish reads really deliver on a strong sense of place, moody drama and classic Irish humor.

As you work through the list you will find the sharp stick of Ireland’s history poking its way into contemporary society. These books are full of themes like love and loss, drifting families, Catholic guilt, the Irish diaspora, old enmity and chafing social structures. Although I recommend reading all of them, any one of these books will give you a strong sense of place, setting you right down onto Ireland’s rocky shores.

Books set in the Republic of Ireland, with book covers.

While we are only listing 30 books here (we didn’t want to overwhelm you), it really translates into far more books than that. Many of these authors have substantial back-lists featuring Irish settings or characters.

And because there are so many fantastic Irish authors, we’ve focused this list just on fiction set in the Republic of Ireland. But we’ve also got a list of books set in Northern Ireland. And because, apparently Ireland is very murdery, we also have a list of mysteries and thrillers set in Ireland.

Books on Ireland: Contemporary Lit and Historical Fiction

I recently heard a trio of Irish authors claim that the combination of dreary weather and Ireland’s troubled history produces a very particular kind of fiction that is dark and moody but also funny. The following books on Ireland certainly deliver “on brand” by offering up complicated characters histories, dark themes and tragicomic circumstances.

You’ll also note that quite a few of these books either won or were nominated for the Booker Prize. If you like reading award-winners, check out our book club guides and book lists that feature Booker Prize novels.

The Bee Sting book cover.

The Bee Sting, Paul Murray

The book got all of the accolades: long listed for the Booker, Kirkus prize, NYT bestseller and on and on.

Murray excels at the tragicomic and he really brings it in The Bee Sting. The once prosperous Barnes family is now flying off the rails. Dickie’s car business in in decline and he’s too busy building an armageddon bunker to rescue it. Imelda actually wanted to marry Dickie’s brother, but that didn’t happen and she settled for Dickie. Cass is awash in teen angst and burning down her prospects for college. And poor 12-year old PJ is dealing with bullies and contemplating running away.

They’re all on the brink of breakdown and the book explores their secrets, watches them cope as best they can. Or not.

The Spinning Heart, book cover.

The Spinning Heart, Donal Ryan

This slim volume explores Ireland’s devastating financial collapse of 2008 and how a small Irish town comes violently unglued in the aftermath. The Spinning Heart was a Booker finalist.

Ryan is heavily featured on all of the Irish bookstore staff pics tables and he is also highly regarded by his fellow authors for producing some of the best books on Ireland. Check out his backlist here.

Academy Street, book cover.

Academy Street, Mary Costello

This is the story of a full life. It follows the main character Tess from her childhood in rural Ireland through her adulthood in New York City. The book is full of emotional force and loss, helping you… “get into the mind and heart of a remarkable woman living an ordinary life, handling disappointment, heartbreak and loneliness with extraordinary character, always being true to her inner core”

Normal People, book cover.

Normal People, Sally Rooney

Normal People follows two characters, Marianne and Connell, through their adolescence and into early adulthood where they attend Trinity college together. The two of them lean on each other time and again as they move through a world filled with social expectations. Theirs is a relationship fraught with poor communication, external pressure and self-consciousness. But there is also truth and kindness, as the book covers themes of love, identity and the complexities of growing up.

The book was long-listed for a Booker and Rooney has managed to brilliantly tap into a particular type of millennial zeitgeist. She also has a growing backlist of books, many set in Dublin.

If you’ve already read and like this book, we’ve also got a whole article featuring books similar to Normal People, and also a book club guide for Normal People.

The Rachel Incident, book cover.

The Rachel Incident, Caroline O’Donoghue

This bildungsroman also carries strong Sally Rooney vibes.

Rachel Murray is on the cusp of adulting as she attends university and works in a bookstore. At the store, she becomes besties with James Devlin and they move in together. She also develops a crush one of her professors, and she and James conspire to get the prof into the store for a book signing event.

And to complicate things further, Rachel develops yet another crush on a different James.

The whole story is told from the point of view of the future 32-year old Rachel and she delivers it with a head-shaking kind of insight.

Himself, book cover.

Himself, Jess Kidd

There are a lot of lies, secrets and murder in Mulderrig, most notably the mysterious murder of Mahoney’s mom Orly. She was a young, promiscuous unmarried mom with an affinity for talking to ghosts and outing the villager’s secrets. Mahoney returns to the village as a young man, determined to find out what happened to his Orly. Along the way, he deploys his charm, assembling a crew of Irish ladies who are willing to help him. And because he too can talk to ghosts, he stirs up some dark business in Mulderrig.

It’s a magical, vengeful fairy tale infused with the right amount of devilish humor.

Midwinter Break, book cover.

Midwinter Break, Bernard MacLaverty

Follow retired couple, Gerry and Stella as they fly to Amsterdam for a long weekend break. On the surface, all seems well. However, the reader will discover that the couple is deeply divided and memories of troubled events (including The Troubles) from their early days in Ireland are brought to the surface.

And while they have had a loving, long and intimate relationship, there are also secrets, deceptions and everyday deceptions.

“It’s bitter realism may excoriate us, but it’s a wonderfully written novel, written with great elegance and acumen.”

The Heart's Invisible Furies, book cover.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

We begin in 1945, with the pregnancy of sixteen-year-old Catherine Goggin, and her public shunning by the unbelievably hypocritical parish priest. Her son, Cryil is adopted out to a couple from Dublin who provide…shall we say…an emotionally dry upbringing.

The book regularly skips forward in seven year intervals, exposing Cyril’s life from birth to old age. During that time, he grew up during Ireland’s political upheavals and The Troubles, and also had to navigate a very conservative Ireland as a gay man.

We see Cyril struggle to find love and understanding, but the book delivers it all with a healthy dose of Irish humor.

“Maybe there were no villains in my mother’s story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing.”

Boyne is another Irish author with a worthwhile backlist.

Small Things Like These, book cover.

Small Things Like These, Claire Keegan

Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker.

It’s 1985 and Bill Furlong is living a happy, but uneventful life with his family. But times are hard and when he makes a delivery to a local convent, he discovers something that simply doesn’t sit well. The convent runs one of what are now known as the infamous Magdalen laundries. What should he do about it? Can he ignore his conscience and continue as if nothing has happened? He has to choose between doing what’s right…and what’s easy.

The book is a slim volume that somehow manages to say everything about Bill’s life.

Read it for book club and use our Small Things Like These discussion guide.

Grown Ups, book cover.

Grown Ups, Marian Keyes

This lighthearted Irish family drama will immerse you in the Casey family, which includes three brothers, their assorted marriages, children and extended families. Johnny’s wife Jessie is the family’s big earner and she’s always funding big get togethers.

Ed’s wife Cara is suffering from a recent head injury and concussion. At a family gathering, the result of her injury triggers an unfiltered outpouring of family truths and secrets. The family is left aghast and broken.

It’s a fun book if you like delight in rich people problems and a lot of messy family dynamics.

And if you like Keyes’ vibe, she has a deep backlist.

PS. I Love You, book cover.

PS, I Love You, Cecelia Ahern

Holly and Gerry were the perfect couple. But when Gerry dies of a terminal illness, 30-year-old Holly is set adrift, unable to pick up the pieces.

Then her mom calls, informing her of a package addressed to her. Within it are a series of letters from Gerry, all ending with “P.S. I Love You”. Between the letters and help from her friends and family, Holly slowly begins to re-discover herself.

Bright Burning Things, book cover.

Bright Burning Things, Lisa Harding

This is an honest, often brutal look at alcoholism and its effects on children of alcoholics.

Sonya used to perform. She used to date handsome men. She used to have a life. But the bottle is getting the best of her. She loves her son Tommy, but her blackouts and their aftermath affect him gravely. The story follows the for a few fragile months as Sonya is forced to confront her drinking problem by going to rehab.

Solar Bones, book cover.

Solar Bones, Mike McCormack

And here’s yet another great Irish read longlisted for the Booker.

It has a most unusual format as all 225 pages are told in one very long run on sentence and so we’ll do the same for this synopsis in which Marcus takes an opportunity on All-Souls day to have at seat at the kitchen table and reflect upon his life, his marriage and children, his work, politics, and other stream of consciousness reminiscences.

The Sea, book cover.

The Sea, John Banville

Booker Prize winner for 2005.

The Sea is a profound reflection on love, loss, regret, and the role memory plays in the grieving process. Max is mourning his wife’s death as he returns to the seaside town where he spent his boyhood summers. He reflects upon that past and how it has affected this future.

“Yes, this is what I thought adulthood would be, a kind of long Indian summer, a state of tranquility, of calm incuriousness, with nothing left of the barely bearable raw immediacy of childhood, all the things solved that had puzzled me when I was small, all mysteries settled, all questions answered, and the moments dripping away, unnoticed almost, drip by golden drip, toward the final, almost unnoticed, quietus.”

The Snapper, book cover.

The Snapper, Roddy Doyle

Doyle writes the best Irish novels depicting everyday blue collar life. The Snapper is the second in his Barrytown Trilogy which also includes The Commitments and The Van. When Sharon Rabbitte’s friends and family discover her unplanned pregnancy, everyone is bugging her to name the father. Sharon’s unwillingness to spill the beans frustrates everyone, especially her father.

The book explores their sassy family dynamics with wit and candor, but as with so many other great books about Ireland, there is also a dark and painful side to the story.

The Ladies' Midnight Swimming Club, book cover.

The Ladies’ Midnight Swimming Club, Faith Hogan

Elizabeth’s husband has died, leaving her near bankruptcy. She calls on her friend Jo for help, who in turn brings in her divorced daughter Lucy. Each woman has their own troubles to work out and they all take to frigid swims in the Irish Sea as a way to gather their thoughts, talk, laugh, and listen.

The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club is a beautifully paced and plotted story about the indomitable spirit of friendship told from the points of view the five major characters.

Boys Don't Cry, book cover.

Boys Don’t Cry, Fiona Scarlett

Joe is an artistically-gifted seventeen year old who has a promising scholarship to a private school. He also looks out for his little brother Finn. They live in a gritty neighborhood and their dad is involved in the local criminal gangs.

Boy’s aren’t supposed to cry, but Finn has seen his Da do it when he thinks no one’s looking. Things go sideways when Finn becomes ill and Da ends up in prison. Joe has tried hard to break out the the mold and avoid a criminal life. But this unexpected turn of family events presents him with some difficult choices.

“The dialogue is light, comic and colloquial, but emotion runs deep and I found myself fully invested in the characters and the story.”

Strumpet City, book cover.

Strumpet City, James Plunkett

This book is set in Dublin during the infamous labor lock-out of 1913. The dispute was brought on by harsh working conditions forced upon a powerless workforce. The story explores the traumatic events from the point of view of fed-up workers who are mired in stifling poverty.

The Silent People, book cover.

The Silent People, Walter Macken

The Silent People is set in the mid 19th century, during the Irish famine. It was a time of particularly high unrest due to the degradation of the people by tyrannical landlords and British indifference.

The protagonist Dualta, is a young man when he flees for his life after standing up to the son of a corrupt landowner. He initially joins a group of rebels intent on destroying the property of the landed gentry. He then eventually gets his own plot of land, but he struggles during the famine.

The book show the breathtaking beauty of western Ireland but also the hardship and brutalities to be found in the Ireland during this difficult period.

The Lady of Galway Manor, book cover.

The Lady of Galway Manor, Jennifer Deibel

Lady Annabeth De Lacy is the daughter of daughter of Galway Parish’s newest landlord. Bored and looking for a creative outlet, she asks to be apprenticed out to the local jeweler, Seamus Jennings. However, her apprenticeship becomes much more than she expected as she becomes engaged in the local community and involved with Seamus’ son Stephen.

On the surface, the book seems like a sweet romance in a lovely setting. It is indeed that. But it also explores religious tension between the British and the Irish and the rot of colonialism.

Star of the Sea, book cover.

Star of the Sea, Joseph O’Conner

This story of the Irish diaspora follows hundreds of refugees fleeing famine and injustice on board the New York bound Star of the Sea. They may be fleeing Ireland, but they have brought their troubles with them and the story surges with passions, thuggery and resentments.

“That each man is the sum of his choices is nothing less than the truth. And each, perhaps, is also something else.”

Queen of Dirt Island, book cover.

Queen of Dirt Island, Donal Ryan

This is the story of the Aylward women, four generations living together through the years in a small house in rural Tipperary. They spend their days dealing with the stuff of life– the births, deaths– their joys and triumph, and their heartbreak and losses in equal measure. They love each other, but they also want to throttle one another.

The novel is constructed as a series of short vignettes illustrating the drama of their lives.

The Green Road, book cover.

The Green Road, Ann Enright

None of the Madigans really want to come home for Christmas. They gladly left their small seaside town for Dublin, Africa and North America, but they have returned for one last visit before their mother Rosaleen sells the family home. The Madigan’s fractured family dynamic and struggles with intimacy are laid bare as they try to engage with one another once again.

The Country Girls, book cover.

The Country Girls Trilogy, Edna Obrian

This trilogy follows two ambitious country girls as they set out to conquer the world. They ditch their repressive rural atmosphere and find love, loss, liaisons and misadventure in Dublin.

O’Brien boldly bucked the prevailing censorship and when Country Girls was originally published in 1960 The book raised the ire of the Irish censors and condemnation from her local priest. So you know that it’s going to be a rollicking read.

Poulnabron Dolmen in Ireland, ancient rock sculpture.

Spec Fic and Fantasy Books Set in Ireland

City of Bohane, book cover.

City of Bohane, Kevin Barry

This book is supposed to be set in the near future, but it also reads like Ireland’s recent past. The once great city of Bohane (which is kind of a stand-in for Galway) is now a tense, not-quite-war-zone teetering on a sharp line that divides those who have from those who don’t. The city has been ruled by gangster Logan Hartnett but his girlfriend and henchmen are getting antsy just as his old nemesis rolls back into town.

If this appeals to you, then be sure to work your way down Barry’s backlist, as most of it is set in Ireland. Try Beatlebone, which creates an alternative reality in which John Lennon retreats from New York to a private Irish island.

Prophet Song, book cover.

Prophet Song, Paul Lynch

This version of Dublin is dark, dystopic and totally totalitarian. And it won the 2023 Booker Prize, so there’s that.

In the meta premise, Ireland has elected a neo-Fascist nationalist government, and union leaders and other “enemies” of the regime start disappearing. The country starts a rapid slide into civil war.

But it’s presented with a more personal touch, featuring Eilish Stack as our main protagonist. She’s a respected microbiologist, a mother, a daughter and the wife of a union leader. When she answers a knock at the door, she finds the secret police have arrived and they arrest her husband. She struggles to keep her family (including the kids and a father with dementia) together even as civil society falls apart.

The Children of Gods and Fighting Men, book cover.

The Children of Gods and Fighting Men, Shauna Lawless

(#1 of the Gael Song series)

This series mixes the fantasy magic with some serious Irish Viking history. Its set in the 900s when the various clans were battling for the kingdom of Ireland. The story centers around two women who belong to two different long-lived (and opposing) magical groups. The Descendants wield healing magic, and the Formorians yield fire magic.

There’s no clear good vs. bad in this story as both women navigate tricky political machinations.

The Magician's Daughter, book cover.

The Magician’s Daughter, H.G. Parry

Magic of an entirely different sort is afoot on this remote Irish island. The magic is largely gone in the wider world. But it’s all that Biddy has known growing up on her hidden island. She’s raised by Rowan, and as she reaches 17 years old, she’s itching to spread her wings and explore more of the world. But Rowan forbids it.

When he suddenly disappears, Biddy learns that he’s in danger and she sets out to save him.

The book has lots of cozy vibes, smart dialogue, and (bonus!) a magical rabbit familiar.

Daughter of the Forest, book cover.

Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters #1), Juliet Marillier

Sorcha is the first daughter who should have been the seventh son. After her mother dies in childbirth, her father remarries…and to the worst sort of evil stepmother. Evil stepmom puts a spell on the brothers, and it’s up to to Sorcha to take on a difficult task in order to lift the spell.

The story is chock full of monsters, betrayals, danger and heartbreak, and Sorcha’s quest permanently changes her.

Lion of Ireland, book cover.

Lion of Ireland (Celtic World #5), Morgan Llywelyn

This is a tale of history and legend, focused on the origins of Brian Boru. He’s considered the Charlemagne of Ireland who defied the odds by defeating the Norse and unifying most of the Ireland under a single rule.

Expect a lot of treachery, intrigue, struggles, doubts and conflicts.

More Armchair Travel

If you like armchair travel and books in translation, boy have we got you covered. You can start with our compendium of books set in global destinations. Or get location-specific with our books set in ColombiaCubaSpainSri LankaJordanAustralia, Iceland and Paris.

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