Are you keen to learn more about Northern Ireland’s culture? Then, I’ve curated for you a list of books set in Northern Ireland that feature themes of sectarian violence, loyalty during difficult times, conflicting family priorities, and slippery moral slopes.
And the characters in the books! How about an intolerable piano teacher, a trapeze artist, a zookeeper, a colonialist linguist, some angsty teenagers, deadbeat dads and one very haunted assassin?
I thought you’d like that last one.
So, scroll on for a list of Northern Ireland fiction that runs the spectrum from historical fiction, to contemporary lit, thrillers and mysteries.
Lit, Contemporary, and Fiction Books Set in Northern Ireland
Trespasses, Louise Kennedy
In 1974, Catholic schoolteacher Cushla lives a fairly quiet live teaching school and helping out at the pub. She meets Michael, a married Protestant barrister at the pub and he invites her to give Irish language lessons to he and his friends.
Cushla falls for Michael, engaging in an illicit affair. When the father of one of Cushla’s students is brutally attacked, sectarianism comes home to roost for her. Tensions build and then bubble over in a sequence of events that will jeopardize not only Cushla’s life but everything and everyone she holds dear.
The Elephant of Belfast, S. Kirk Walsh
The story describes a tender and unbreakable bond between a female zookeeper and a three year old orphaned elephant from Ceylon (what is now Sri Lanka). During a deadly air raid of Belfast by the Luftwaffe, Hettie’s loyalty to the elephant means that she’ll do everything she can to keep it safe.
It’s a story of love and resilience against the backdrop of WWII and brewing sectarian unrest.
Trouble the Living, Francesca McDonnell Capossela
The book moves back and forth between County Tyrone in Northern Ireland in 1997 and Southern California in 2016. In ’97, Brid’s sister Ida wants nothing to do with The Troubles while their mother had always wanted to join the IRA. The family fractures, a tragedy occurs and Brid flees to California.
In ’16, Brid’s daughter Bernie has always been kept on a fairly tight leash by her mom, and Bernie wonders why Brid has always been do depressive and secretive. Bernie experiences her own struggles and, like her mother, she makes decisions that will change her life forever.
The book is both a thriller and a fraught family drama in equal measure.
The Lemon, S.E. Boyd
Popular food/travel TV show host John Doe is found dead in a Belfast hotel. Following the death, a motley crew of friends, journos, publishing-types and chefs all try the seize the narrative for their own selfish purposes.
This satirical, cynical book serves up a serious takedown of celebrity culture with tons of plots, twists and one deranged hotel worker.
The Good Son, Paul McVeigh
While many of these books set in Northern Ireland deal with some aspect of The Troubles, McVeigh’s book drops his main character into Belfast’s most dangerous neighborhood during one of the war’s most dangerous time periods.
Mickey lives in Ardoyne, which is a Republican area tightly bordered by a Protestant stronghold. Simply walking to and from school was a daily exercise in self-preservation. And it doesn’t help that he’s a loner, the other kids think he’s weird and “gay”, and his dad’s a good for nothing drunk. Mickey truly is a good son to his mother (which doesn’t help his rep), but he longs to get out of Belfast and move to America.
I fell in love with Mickey’s quirky character and his optimism in the face of what was a pretty pessimistic time.
The Colony, Audrey Magee
It’s 1979 and life, traditional culture and language on this island in the Atlantic is teetering on extinction.
Then two men arrive with very different purposes in mind. Mr. Lloyd is a painter looking to paint the shores – and also the traditional ways of the locals. Jean-Pierre Masson, has returned to the island to finish his book the Irish language and how it’s being preserved on the island. They are staying with the same host family and conflict arises between the two men.
In the book Magee is making a quiet statement about colonialism, cultural identity and arrogant savior-types who don’t listen to the people they claim to help.
The Yellow House, Patricia Falvey
The timeframe for this book set in Northern Ireland isn’t during The Troubles. But it was indeed a troubling time.
At the beginning of the 1900’s, there is a lot of religious tension, fed by the Irish Revolution. Eileen is reeling from the tragic loss of her family. She works hard to gain financial security and (hopefully) rebuild her family home — the titular yellow house.
Eileen’s a feisty character and the book will help you feel all of her heartbreak, anguish and ambition.
Close to Home, Michael Magee
Even after The Troubles, there was still trouble in Northern Ireland. Sean grew up a working class kid in Belfast. He earned an English degree, hoping for a better economic future. But he can’t get a job, and he just keeps running into the same old, same old in a Belfast that’s hung over from the civil war and in a deep recession.
After Sean loses it and assaults a young man, he’s forced to do community service and reckon with his own self-loathing.
The book brings all the Trainspotting and Shuggie Bain vibes (two books with also feature on our list of books set in Scotland.)
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore
Your little stipend from your dead aunt isn’t enough to live on, you’ve had to move into a new boarding house. You hate teaching piano, your “friends” like you far less than you realize (it’s your judgy tone dear) and your genteel Belfast upbringing is long in the rear view.
But she’s hopeful, that Judith. Hopeful that she can (finally) meet a man.
“This was draining, wretched, bitter and wonderful to read.”
All the Walls of Belfast, Sarah J. Carlson
Even after The Troubles ended, there was a forty-foot-tall peace wall separating Fiona’s father’s Catholic neighborhood from Danny’s Protestant neighborhood. Fiona’s mom took her to the US when she was little, but she’s returned at 17 to finally meet her father and his family. When she meets Danny, it’s a fated encounter that will change both of their lives…if they can survive the consequences.
This character-driven story brings strong Romeo and Juliet vibes.
Flying Tips for Flightless Birds, Kelly McCaughrain
Finch and Birdie are the twin trapeze act in their family’s circus school. When a terrible accident sidelines Birdie, Finch teams up with his new trapeze partner, Hector.
Finch’s professional separation from his twin is difficult enough. But he’s also starting his journey of acceptance as a gay guy, something that doesn’t land well in rural Northern Ireland.
The book offers a sweet slow burn friends-to-lovers story, and it uses an interesting narrative device in the form of Birdie’s blog posts.
Thrillers and Mysteries Set in Northern Ireland
Northern Heist (Ructions O’Hare #1), Richard O’Rawe
In this plan inside a plan, Ructions is planning the biggest bank heist in Belfast’s history. But he’s also trying to keep the IRA out of it so that he doesn’t have to give them a cut of the proceeds. The book has plenty of deceit, cold-blooded kidnappings, double-crosses, loyalty plays, and hanky panky. It builds to a very tense conclusion with plenty of surprises.
O’Rawe is an actual convicted IRA bank robber, so you can bet his…er…job experience gives him the cred to (fictionally) craft this caper.
The Ghosts of Belfast (The Belfast Novels #1), Stuart Neville
If you were wondering why The Troubles still haunt 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’s attempting to appease those ghosts by making it right.
This series is great for fans of dark noir.
The House of Ashes, Stuart Neville
In this stand-alone book, Neville also brings his gothic, haunted sensibility. After Sara attempts suicide, her (overbearing, manipulative, gaslighting) husband moves them to Northern Ireland, ostensibly for a fresh start. But Sara is even more isolated than ever. When a distraught elderly woman comes knocking, Sara finds that the house has a very disturbing history.
This is not an easy read and it tells an intense story about abuse, friendship, self resilience, family secrets, and (ultimately) empowerment.
Just a side note: Neville is published by SOHO Crime, which is my favorite press for thrillers and mysteries. They have a very diverse set of authors with books set all over the world.
Northern Spy, Flynn Berry
This spy thriller is also set in Northern Ireland.
It’s been 20 years since the the Good Friday agreement put an end to The Troubles. Or did it? BBC producer Tessa is shocked to learn that her sister Marian has been accused of participated in an IRA raid. She wants to believe in her sister’s innocence, and is recruited by British Intelligence to find out what’s going on.
This page turner builds a lot of tension with its family drama, spy craft and betrayals.
Read this one for book club and use our Northern Spy discussion guide.
The Liar’s Daughter, Claire Allan
Joe McKee is dead of cancer. He was known as a pillar of the community, but his daughter Ciara and stepdaughter Heidi know better. As the family reunites for Joe’s funeral his secrets start bubbling out. When Joe’s autopsy reveals that it may not have been the cancer that killed him, the recriminations, lies and hurt explode.
The book is dark and twisty with a corker of an ending.
The Cold Cold Ground (Sean Duffy #1), Adrian McKinty
Set during the height of The Troubles, Catholic policeman Sean Duffy serves in the Royal Ulster (Protestant) Constabulary, so you can bet that he isn’t trusted by anyone. IRA prisoners are engaged in a hunger strike in protest to recent actions of the hated British government, and each time a “martyr” dies, the riots, bombings and other protests accelerate the tension. The presence of British troops isn’t helping.
With that backdrop, Duffy is assigned to investigate the murders of two gay men. He finds that there is something larger at play and takes a lot of risks to see it through.
More Armchair Travel
If you like reading books set in far flung destinations, we’ve got you covered. Try the following:
- Books set in Australia
- Books set in Sri Lanka
- Books set in Colombia
- Books set in Cuba
- Books set in Jordan
- Books set in Scotland
- Books set in Spain
- Books set in Iceland
- Books set in Paris
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