Reading Ireland

5 Of My Favourite Irish Authors

We’re almost half way through Reading Ireland Month and I’m having to race to catch up with the weekly prompts devised by by Cathy at 746 Books and Raging Fluff . So expect to see a clutch of Irish-related posts in coming days.

The topic for Week 1 was “My Top 5 Irish … anything to do with Irish culture.” Looking in the archives I discovered that I’d already done a post on favourite Irish novels for Reading Ireland 2020 so to ring the changes, this time I’ll look at my five favourite Irish authors.

The Literary “Dame”

Edna O’Brien‘s skills in observation and her understanding of human nature, are hard to beat.

Cover of The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien, one of my favourite irish authors

My first experience of her writing came through her debut novel The Country Girls, the first part of a trilogy that sent shock waves through rural Ireland when it was published in 1960. This tale of two girls who leave their convent upbringing and small village life in search of life and love in city, was banned in Ireland because it dared to feature sex outside marriage. But the book sold well because its themes chimed with the spirit of the Swinging Sixties in the rest of the UK.

I’ve since gone on to read her memoir Country Girl and her 2015 novel Little Red Chairs, a haunting narrative of a political leader responsible for genocide who tries to flee from justice by hiding in an Irish village. What I’ve come to appreciate is how she writes sensitively about a controversial topic, like war crimes or child abduction, neither demonising or sentimentalising the individuals involved.

Edna was appointed an honorary Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 2018 in recognition of her contribution to literature. She’s now in her 90s so I doubt we’ll have the pleasure of anything new from her now sadly.

The Dying Class

Molly Keane (who also published under the pseudonym of M J Farrell) wrote about the dying decades of the Angle Irish gentry class into which she was born. She regards them with affection but also shows up the folly of their attitudes and beliefs. Nowhere is this more evident than in Good Behaviour which is set in a crumbling manor house occupied by a family who are determined to keep up appearances as befitting their status. It’s a witty novel that shows the consequences for trying to live up to the standards of good behaviour. I think she gets better as she matures as an author, the focus on horses, romance and snobbery giving way to a darker aspect, as reflected in Devoted Ladies which is about the dynamics between two women who have formed a lesbian relationship in 1930s London

The Divided Personality
Cover of Ancient Light by John Banville, one of my favourite irish authors

John Banville is another Irish author who publishes under two names, reflecting his interest in two vastly different genres. As John Banville he writes literary fiction of the kind that resulted in the award of the Booker Prize for The Sea. As Benjamin Black he writes crime fiction. I’ve experienced only his “Banville” work, first with The Sea and then via Ancient Light, both of reflect on the remembered past and its ability to shape our destinies. They’re border on the poetical  in their use of rhythm, imagery and allusion — Banville seems to take particular delight in descriptions about the landscape and the weather.

I’ve not read any of his Benjamin Black out but last year he published a novel, that is a hybrid of his two writing personas. Snow is a wonderful locked house murder mystery, published in Banville’s name that blends literary flourishes with crime fiction tropes. i loved it so much its made me want to immediately begin reading Benjamin Black’s output.

The Darkhorse

I have a publishing intern to thank for introducing me to Donal Ryan. His novel The Spinning Heart had been rejected by numerous publishers and was in the reject pile at Doubleday until an intern picked it out, read it and raved about it to her manager. Her intuition was spot on. This novel about the heartbreaking consequences of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. I’ve since read From a Low and Quiet Sea which is even more powerful; melancholic in part but with touches of humour. Ryan’s third novel, Strange Flowers is queued up for me to read later this month.

The Award Winner
Cover of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, one of my favourite irish authors

As the author of eight novels and the winner of many awards, Maggie O’Farrell hardly needs any introduction from me. I first encountered her when a friend bought me a copy of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

I loved it so much I’ve read several more of her books including Instructions for a Heatwave , The Hand That First Held Mine, Hamnet (winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction) and her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am. I’ve yet to read a book by her that I haven’t enjoyed though I still view “Esme Lennox” as my favourite.

The good news is that she has a new novel — The Marriage Portrait— due out later this year. It’s set in Renaissance Italy and features a daughter of the powerful Medici family. There’s an extract from the book available to read here.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

41 thoughts on “5 Of My Favourite Irish Authors

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  • Thanks for all the recommendations. I have some of the books already on my list, and I agree on Banville’s Snow. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I truly enjoyed it.

    • I wasn’t sure about Snow either but it kept me engaged all the way through

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  • I had hoped to read Hamnet for the Begorrathon but have left it a bit late. I can’t say I’ve read any of the other authors but Instructions for a Heatwave really impressed me.

      • I’ve been considering her for a while and your recommendation might well tip the balance! 🙂

  • Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    I’m a relatively new convert to Maggie O’Farrell, but I thoroughly enjoyed Instructions For A Heatwave – her new one sounds really interesting, good tip! Thank you!

    • i hadn’t realised she had a new book coming out this year. Oh happy days…

      • Yes, I’ve pre-ordered a copy, but I’m also trying to get the ARC.

  • Good on that intern! I hadn’t heard that story – I hope they went on to great things.

    • I’d love to think she was given a permanent role on the strength of her intuition

  • I really must read more Banville – I’ve only read one of his earlier novels which was quite difficult, which put me off him for a bit – but that was ages ago and I’m sure I’ll enjoy his books now. Maggie O’Farrell I must get to too – I’ve only read her memoir, not her novels as yet. O’Brien and Ryan were both in my top five too as you know. A lovely selection.

    • I can understand your reaction to Banville – some of his writing can be quite dense with layer on layer of meaning.

  • I’m with you on all of these except Maggie O’Farrell, who I tried once but abandoned. Banville is usually great fun, Donal Ryan More serious. And Edna O’Brien is, as you say, at the pinnacle.

      • Aaagh, I’ve confused her with someone else. I read After You’d Gone and I really liked it, and of course I have Hamnet on the TBR.
        But *frowns* there is another very popular Irish writer who wrote a dreary memoir… and now I am not sure who it was.

        • Bet you the name will come to you at 3am one day in the future. But you’ll have forgotten why you were trying to remember the name

    • Maggie O’Farrell would probably suit your tastes most Rosie

  • I loved Esme Lennox so much – that ending still haunts me. So looking forward to the new Donal Ryan later this year.

    • I didn’t know he has a new one coming out. Just found a synopsis of it and it sounds wonderful. Roll on August….

  • Well, I know and love all these authors – with the exception of Donal Ryan, whom I haven’t met at all. So he’s down on the list, and I’ll put this right soon. Thanks!

    • He has a new novel coming out in August which sounds fabulous

        • I’ve now just started Strange Flowers. What a powerful writer. I’m totally absorbed, only a few pages in.

        • I started it last night and yes I’m hooked too

  • I’ve yet to read Edna O’Brien, I may have to remedy that in the near future.

    I had a quick look at the new Maggie O’Farrell be sure I’m currently slowly reading a book of history on Catherine de Medici, the way in which young women (and men) of auspicious birth were traded and used as negotiating tools, is incredible. I’m already intrigued by her new title.
    Sadly Good Behaviour totally put me off Molly Keane.

    • Catherine would be a fascinating subject for a biography – her methods were often suspect but without her firm grip, it’s unlikely the dynasty would have survived.

  • My favorite Irish novel of all time, with the possible exception of ‘Ulysees’, is ‘At Swim-Two-Birds’ by Flann O’Brien. Molly Keane is also a favorite of mine.

    • I have a feeling Flann O’Brien’s book contains too many non realist elements for my taste. Sorry!

  • Great – lists like this are always good inspiration. Besides from Maggie O’Farrell, I haven’t read any of these authors. Banville intrigues me. As you may remember, I am currently looking for crime fiction of the more literary/character-driven variety. Seeing that he writes crime as well as literary fiction, his Benjamin Black labeled books might work well for me.

    • Yes, and if you like crime, give April in Spain a go after you’ve finished Snow. It took me straight back to San Sebastián.

      • Thanks for the recommendation. I do read crime now and again but am very choosy which authors to read (I find a lot of crime fiction to be so-so). Banville will definitely go on my list

        • I quite agree. But Banville makes the cut because it’s about so much more than the crime itself.

    • Snow by John Banville would fit your interest perfectly since it’s not really about who committed the murder. It’s more about the character if his detective and the tension between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland at the time


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