Young love, history, the complexities of living in a fractured state: these are our favorite books by modern Irish authors.
When I was growing up, I had an obsession with Ireland. The same way K-Pop stans today feel Korean and become “Koreaboos” (itself a name taken from “Weeaboo,” when anime fans become obsessed with Japan) and want to visit Korea, eat the food, see the spots, and become preoccupied with the entire country, I felt about Ireland. If Koreaboos are this way because of their favorite group, I was like that because of mine: Westlife.
I would sit at the computer, turn up the dial-up internet connection (this was the early 2000s), sit and read every tidbit of news I could about the group, and when that was done, I just started reading about Ireland. Soon enough, I knew about Irish history, Irish politics (Nicky, the eldest member of the group, was dating the Irish Prime Minister’s daughter), the potato famine, the war for independence, Irish mythology, Irish literature…you name it, I probably knew it.
This knowledge served me well in high school. I had a teacher in English class who loved assigning Irish authors: James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, et all. And each time he’d ask the class questions about Ireland and its culture, I knew the answer: for example, W. B. Yeats is buried in Sligo, and I know all about Sligo because three members of the group are from there.
I knew so much about Sligo in fact, that even my parents are aware of the place. To this day, when my dad randomly meets Irish people, the first thing he’ll often blurt out at them is “Oh, my daughter wants to go to Sligo one day!” It’s especially embarrassing when he does it in front of me because often the first reaction of Irish people is “Why the hell do you want to go to Sligo?” And then I have to explain “Um, because of Westlife…”
All this knowledge about Ireland helped endear me to that English teacher, by the way. In my college recommendation letters, he wrote that “it would be a failure for any institution to not accept someone with such a fierce commitment to literature.” All because of Westlife!
Despite all of this, I have truly come to appreciate Irish authors. Here is a list of my favorite books set in Ireland, by contemporary Irish authors.
Sally Rooney – Normal People and Beautiful World, Where Are You
The queen of Ireland (and millennial intimacy) herself, Sally Rooney’s three books are all set in the Emerald Isle: Conversations With Friends (2017), Normal People (2018), and the latest, this year’s Beautiful World, Where Are You. Of the three, her first is set solely in Dublin, so if you want descriptions of rolling Irish fields and stormy seas, the other two are your best bet.
Consider this description in Beautiful World, Where Are You of what I assume is somewhere around Sligo, because Rooney’s father is from Sligo, and the fictional Carricklea in Normal People is loosely based on the seaport town: “Slowly, the breath of the sea drew the tide out away from the shore, leaving the sand flat and glimmering under the stars. The seaweed wet, bedraggled, crawling with insects. The dunes massed and quiet, dune grass smoothed by the cool wind.” Doesn’t it make you want to see the place? There’s also a scene in the book when they start singing sad, traditional songs at a birthday party because apparently, these are things that tend to happen in Ireland.
Rooney also wrote contributed to the writing of the BBC/Hulu adaptation of Normal People, which is the best chance we have nowadays of seeing Sligo. Actress Daisy Edgar-Jones, who plays Marianne, said of the place: “One of my favorite places to film would probably have been Sligo. It was just the most jaw-dropping entrance to any place I’ve ever experienced.” Hilariously, all the moments Daisy and Connell (Paul Mescal) spend in coitus had the more conservative clutching their pearls.
John Boyne – The Heart’s Invisible Furies
For any Ireland-boo (aka, me), The Heart’s Invisible Furies is truly the most perfect book. The novel focuses on Cyril Avery, from the days before his childhood in the 1940s to the present day, but the entire saga is as much a story of mid-century Ireland to the new millennium. Touching and propulsive, I found myself reading with bated breath, excited for more yet simultaneously aware of the sense of foreboding I felt when reading. Cyril’s life has many twists and turns as the country he calls his home.
Anna Burns – Milkman
Further up north (as in, Northern Ireland), Anna Burns’s Milkman is set in Belfast, during the period of Irish history known as The Troubles, a conflict that took place within Northern Ireland between loyalist Protestants (citizens of Northern Ireland who are descendants of British settlers) who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Irish Catholics (citizens with republican tendencies) who were for the cause of Irish independence.
Rife with paranoia, the sociopolitical situation of that era in Belfast is getting worse, and no more is this more evident in the close-knit, pro-republican community that the unnamed narrator of Milkman is living in. Burns employs clever techniques to show this: everyone’s behavior is politicized, including mundane ones like the names given to children (Clifford, Lesley, or Peverill are too “from over the water”, as in, English), or whether the car engine was made in England. In the midst of all of this, the narrator finds herself suddenly being stalked by a paramilitary officer from the state-sponsored loyalist side.
Burns grew up in Belfast during this time, and so some of the experiences in the book are based on hers. It was a tough read because it’s a book that uses non-conventional writing methods (no character is named, some pages go on and on without a break, the chapters are very long, etc), and in fact when the book won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for fiction, people questioned its readability. It took me five months myself to finish, but I’m glad I did. Afterward, I realized my brain was now wired for reading more so-called “difficult” books, which I think as a reader is great: you always want to improve. Ulysses next! Just kidding.
Naoise Dolan – Exciting Times
I know I said this list was going to focus on books set in Ireland only, but that’s a lie because I had to include Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, which is set in the far-off, exotic climes of…Hong Kong.
The main character, Ava is Irish though. An ex-pat teaching English to spoiled Hong Kong children, she meets Julian a rich British banker who exemplifies the exact kind of man she doesn’t want: a particular, closed-off kind of British person who brushes off her concerns and feelings on everything from what she wants out of him, from emotions to political leanings. He is rich though, which offers her life out of her cramped apartment and miserable job.
When he flies back to London for his Job, Ava finds herself hanging out with Edith, a young ambitious lawyer, very different from Ava and all the more interesting for it. Edith also lives luxuriously, and spoils Ava, who realizes she has feelings for her new friend. And then Julian comes back. Now Ava has to choose between two very different people she has found herself falling for.
Wryly uncompromising, Dolan writes the navigations of love in a truly realistic way: oftentimes we don’t base our decisions purely on feelings anymore. There are a million other considerations that need to be made nowadays, and Dolan doesn’t look down on her characters for the way they act and feel when it comes to this. She lets them decide without judgment.