World Literary Tour: Visit Ireland in 5 Books

It’s St Patrick’s Day and though the pubs are closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we can celebrate in other ways. So lets take the opportunity to honour the rich literary heritage of Ireland with a short literary tour.

There are hundreds of novels I could pick for this tour. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the 746books blog. Cathy has created three separate lists based on her extensive knowledge of her country’s literary scene. So you can choose from 100 Irish novels, 100 novels by Irish women writers and 100 titles by authors from Northern Ireland.

I’m going to limit myself to just five novels. They’re all books that have made a deep impression upon me.

Edna O'Brien

Edna O’Brien didn’t enamour herself to people in Ireland when her first novel The Country Girls was published in 1960. It was banned by the Irish censorship board and faced significant public criticism because of its portrayal of sex outside marriage. The Catholic Church called it “filth”

O’Brien has since redeemed herself to the extent she was honoured in 2015 as a Saoithe of Aosdána, Ireland’s highest literary honour. She is still going strong though now in her early eighties and has continued to write about controversial subjects.

The Little Red Chairs is a haunting novel that takes its title from a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs. Her main character – a fugitive war criminal  – is discovered hiding in a backwater village on the west coast of Ireland.

Colm Toibin

Colm Tóibin won the 2009 Costa Novel Award with his novel Brooklyn, the first half of which is set in the small Irish town of Enniscorthy. I enjoyed it but not as much as his later novel Nora Webster.

Where Brooklyn gave us a portrait of a young single girl, Nora Webster focuses on a middle-aged widow who is struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband. Though the focus is very much on the individual, there is a political background to the novel. We’re in the 1960s when political troubles north of the border are on the rise. Nora’s husband had a history of involvement with Fianna Fáil (Republican) politics, and now she discovers her daughter is taking part in protests in Dublin.

Donal Ryan

The Spinning Heart was one of my favourite novels from 2014. It would never have been published but for an intern who found it in a ‘reject’ pile and raved about it so much she persuaded the publishers it needed to see the light of day. The Booker Prize jurors agreed with her, longlisting it for their award in 2014.

Donal Ryan’s novel dives into a community that is reeling from the sudden end of a period of boom in Ireland, a time when the country was labelled as Celtic Tiger. A local building firm goes bust having over-stretched itself. The boss flees the country, leaving behind unpaid employees and no money in their pension funds. The repercussions are told through the voices of 21 characters who are directly or indirectly affected by the collapse. It’s a masterful work of characterisation.

Lisa McInerney

Bold, brash and edgy; Lisa McInerey’s debut novel portrays a side of Ireland that never features in any tourism brochures. The Glorious Heresies takes us deep in the seedy underworld of Cork; into its grim housing estates populated by schoolboy drug dealers and malicious thugs.

It might sound grim but McInery make us both weep and laugh at the sheer muddle of the lives of the misfits that inhabit this small city. For sheer exuberant story-telling, this is a novel that would be hard to beat.

Anna Burns

Milkman is a novel I didn’t think I would finish. But I did and it was one of the highlights of my reading year in 2018.

It’s a strange novel. The location is never named (though we are led to believe it’s Belfast); nor is the narrator. In fact none of the characters have real names; they’re given soubriquets instead which can make the novel confusing. But once you’ve worked out who “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend” are, and have read between the lines to appreciate what’s actually happening, the book proves riveting.

Burns tackles a problematic period in the history of Ireland, the years known as The Troubles, when paramilitary forces took their fight for independence onto the streets, dolling out summary justice to anyone standing in their way. The narrator is a teenager who catches the unwelcome attention of a paramilitary leader, turning her into a figure of distrust and fear in her community.

It’s a tremendous novel, unconventional but unforgettable.


It’s hard to do justice to a country with such a rich culture and history in just 5 books. I know there are many other books that deserve a place on this list. What would you put on your list?

About BookerTalk

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

Posted on March 17, 2020, in Irish authors, Virtual country tours and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Good choices. I LOVED Milkman. I also read Brooklyn this year by Colm Toibin

  2. Good list and good reviews. I loved Brooklyn and now want to read Nora. I also LOVED Milkman, but I can understand why some people thought it was crazy. For me it was like poetry and I adored it.

  3. Great lineup of novels. I have never heard of any of them. but they all sound good.
    Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. Thanks for offering this armchair travel. Please stay safe

  5. I’d put Elizabeth Bowen on the list. Her short story collection The Demon Lover is outstanding! 😀

  6. I, too, enjoyed both Norah Webster and Milkman. I would add John Boyne’s “A History of Loneliness” which deals with the crisis in the Catholic Church following the revelations about abuse by priests.

    • He’s someone I’ve not read yet Frank. I have a different one by him lurking on the shelves – The Absolutionist. Have you read that – would you recommend?

  7. Great choices! The Spinning Heart is one of my favourites.

  8. Well, I would certainly have both Nora Webster and Milkman on my list. In their very different ways I think they’re both works of genius. In fact, before it was called off, I was due to be leading a discussion on milkman this evening. It’s gone down so well with the other members of the group that they are insisting that as soon as we can get back together it’s the first book on our list. Another author I would put in there, is Claire McGowan. Her series of crime novels featuring Paula Maguire are a really interesting exploration of the difficulties faced by the PSNI as they try to police V count is on the border with the Republic in the light of the aftermath of the disbanding of the are you see. They might not be great literature, but they are a closely observed exploration of the problems facing the people of Ireland in the aftermath of the Troubles described by Anna Burns.

    • I had hoped our book club would choose Milkman but someone said ‘its difficult’ and that put the rest of the group off it…. well yes you have to work your way into it but describing it as difficult I think is an over-statement

  9. The only one of these I’ve read is Nora Webster and I enjoyed that more than Brooklyn too. I’d have Maggie O’Farrell on my list – The Hand That first Held Mine and After You’d Gone are both good and I also enjoyed Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden. There are others too, but these two authors came to mind when I read your post. I didn’t fancy reading Milkman, but you’ve tempted me with your description.

    • Darn it, I could have chosen O’Farrell too. My favourite is The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, maybe because it was the first one by her that I’d read. But I also loved her recent memoir I am I am I am…..

  10. Thank you for this. I often feel that, being in the U.S., I don’t read enough about literature of other countries.

    • I can sympathise Mary. I made a conscious effort a few years ago to find books from parts of the world other than UK and USA…. It’s been enlightening…

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