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, 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.
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.
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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.
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 might be 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.
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, 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, 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. Her books Beautiful World Where Are You and Conversations With Friends are also set in Ireland.
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.
If you like Kidd’s writing, you should also check out Things in Jars. It’s not set in Ireland, but if you like plucky Victorian heroines and creepy mermaids, then it’s the book for you.
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, 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, 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.
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.
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, 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, 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.
If you like Hogan’s heart wrenching, bittersweet family drama vibe, check out her full backlist.
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
There is no burying the lead in this book because Skippy does indeed die. The story follows the fourteen year old, super-awkward Skippy on his bumbling exploits through prep school. The book explores how and why he dies and what happens next. It’s terribly, terribly funny but in a terribly tragic way.
If you like this one, you should also check out Murray’s newer book, The Mark and the Void.
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, 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 Princes of Ireland, Edward Rutherford
Rutherford excels at long-form, multi-century histories. These are not quiet character studies, but rather sweeping epics that tell a well-researched history for folks who can’t hang with the dry non-fiction histories.
In this history of Ireland, he interconnects a cast of characters which include pagan Druids, Saint Patrick, the makers of the Book of Kells, Henry II’s shenanigans, and the Vikings. As well normal everyday folks who collectively create Ireland’s unique culture.
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.
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.”
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.
Mystery Books Set in Ireland
The best Irish books aren’t necessarily confined to the literary fiction shelves. Irish authors have also put murder at the center of their moody family dramas. The following mysteries deliver fast paced action coupled with commentary on contemporary Irish social issues.
Into the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad #1), Tana French
French’s Dublin Murder Squad series manages to produce a Irish literary hat trick. It’s a cracking good page turner but it also has a complex and sympathetic main character, and it delivers a liberal dose of dark Irish family dynamics.
In the first of the series, a young girl is found murdered in the woods. When detective Rob Ryan is called to the scene, he realizes that it’s the same woods where he experienced a terrifying crime as a child. As he works to solve the murder, he must come to terms with his own long-buried memories.
The Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville
If you were wondering why the civil war still haunts Northern Ireland, reading this book will give you some answers…and the shivers. The main character, Fegan, is (literally) haunted by those he killed during his time as an IRA hit man and he is attempting to appease those ghosts by making it right.
This series is great for fans of dark noir.
Northern Spy, Flynn Berry
It’s been 20 years since the the Good Friday agreement put an end to The Trouble. Or did it?
In this spy thriller, BBC producer Tessa is shocked to learn that her sister Marian has been accused of participated in an IRA raid. She believes her sister, but is recruited by British Intelligence to find out what’s going on.
This page turner builds a lot of tension with its family drama, spycraft and betrayals.
Read this one for book club and use our Northern Spy discussion guide.
The Guest List, Lucy Foley
Storm tossed moody island…check. Bridezilla and Groomzilla…check. Wedding guests with secrets…check. A dead body…check. What more do you need from a thriller? The mystery is now only a whodunnit, but a whogotdone during a wedding set on a remote Irish island.
With all the dark secrets and twisty turns, The Guest List will definitely feed a great book club discussion. And we’ve got a reading guide for The Guest List to get you started.
The Ruin (Cormac Reilly #1), Dervla McTiernan
This tangled web starts with Cormac’s early days as a cop when he had to investigate the death of Hilaria Blake. Fast forward to today and Hilaria’s son Jack is found drowned. It appears to be a suicide but sister Maude isn’t buying it.
Carmac has taken a new position and he’s bumping up against a thick wall of mistrust. And, in addition to whatever political shenanigans are going on at the stations, Carmac once again finds himself embroiled with Maude and Jack, as well as their mother’s cold case.
The Rage, Gene Kerrigan
Bob Tidey is an honest cop doing his best to solve crimes while also trying (and failing) to dodge corruption in his department. While looking into a crooked banker, his investigation is diverted when he gets a tip on an old murder case. This book could have been a typical police procedural but Kerrigan gives it a very contemporary edge by exploring Ireland’s financial crisis and the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal.
All Her Fault, Andrea Mara
When Marissa arrives to pick up her son from his first play date, he’s not there…and neither is the woman he was left with. The woman who answers the door is a stranger and it’s unclear what happened to Marissa’s son.
Is it one of the moms? Is it the nanny? Is it a kidnapping?
This mystery has a lot of layers with plenty of red herrings, and a slow drip of secrets.
Censored Classics of the Irish Literary Canon
You get the best Irish books when strict cultural morays and pious politics are flung aside by artists who are having none of it. The following four authors braved censorship and derision by their self-appointed “betters”. They ultimately got their own artistic revenge by becoming the foundation of Irish literary culture.
Ulysses, James Joyce
We owe a debt of gratitude to Joyce not only for pioneering stream of consciousness prose but also for pushing the censorship envelope so far that his work forced changes to both Irish and American censorship laws.
Follow Leopold Bloom as he wanders Dublin over the course of a single day, ruminating about his life and stopping in on friends. Blooms meanderings and Joyce’s genius have earned Ullysses a spot on every list of the best books on Ireland.
You should also check out The Dubliners, which follows up Ulysses with a series of short stories exploring middle class life in Dublin.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
Wilde also raised the ire of prigs and censors with his story of a character in moral decline. And Wilde was also widely criticized (and occasionally arrested) for being gay.
Dorian Gray’s quest for a hedonistic eternal youth is a deal with the devil which oozes with decadence and decay.
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, it 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.
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift
Who doesn’t want to read a book that was once referred to as “gibbering shrieks and gnashing imprecations against mankind…”, “wicked and obscene” and “…filthy in word, filthy in thought”? These detractors just couldn’t handle Gulliver’s precarious journeys and dystopic shenanigans delivered with the sharp knife of political satire.
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 Colombia, Cuba, Spain, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Australia, Iceland and Paris.
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