St. Patrick's Day is coming up. Can you recommend books for getting into the mood and for appreciating Irish heritage and culture?
February 21, 2007 11:59 AM   Subscribe

St. Patrick's Day is coming up. Can you recommend books for getting into the mood and for appreciating Irish heritage and culture?

One of my little personal traditions is reading Irish-themed books around St. Patrick's Day.

Can anyone recommend any good books for this year's reading? I'm especially interested in any of the following:

* Contemporary Irish authors (I've already read all of Roddy Doyle's published novels but don't know many other authors)

* Stories set in Ireland that really give a feel for the place besides having it as a convenient backdrop

* The early Irish-American experience - what their lives were like

* Contemporary Irish culture

(These are the interests that pop in my head, but I'm up for reading anything. Mainly I'm looking for something different to read this year and not just "Listen to *How the Irish Saved Civilization* again on audiotape".)

posted by cadge to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
There are a whole bunch of blogs and sites listed and linked on my metafilter profile which cover contemporary Ireland. Maybe have a browse through some of them. One of the more interesting aspects of 21st century Irish culture is that we finally have (mainly eastern european) immigrants - that's an aspect of the country a lot of foreigners seem surprised by.

(Also, tune into BBC radio on saturday at around 5:30pm Irish time to listen to us beat England in the rugby ... it is a historic game at Croke Park and the atmosphere will be electric ... if that doesn't get you in the mood, nothing will!)
posted by jamesonandwater at 12:24 PM on February 21, 2007

If you'd like to read about Irish traditional music, try Last Night's Fun by Ciaran Carson.
posted by beowulf573 at 12:28 PM on February 21, 2007

Brian O'Nolan's columns (under the pseudonym Myles naGopaleen) are, to me at least, a great source of insight into the culture of a very young Irish state.

Not a book, but if you can find a source (cough) of the recent BBC FOUR documentary Folk Hibernia, you won't be disappointed.
posted by holgate at 12:35 PM on February 21, 2007

It's got a science fiction element to it, but I recently read and loved Forever by Peter Hammill. It starts in Ireland during the potato famine and follows the life of a young man who eventually moves to New York... where he lives forever.
posted by kimdog at 12:41 PM on February 21, 2007

I've been meaning to read 44: Dublin Made Me by Peter Sheridan - I've heard it's good. Also Nuala O'Faolain's books are enjoyable, specifically Are You Someboday?.

A slight bit different than what you listed as interests, but Michael Patrick MacDonald's books are great -- All Souls and Easter Rising. They definitely speak to the second generation Irish American experience in Boston. Easter Rising has a few chapters in which MacDonald visits Ireland, as well.

Not certain where you are, but if you're around Boston I can tell you some good places to get good brown bread and Irish newspapers, if you're interested (email in profile).
posted by jdl at 1:02 PM on February 21, 2007

The late John McGahern's novels, stories and recent memoir are well worth checking out.

(You know Roddy's got a newish one, right?)
posted by gnomeloaf at 1:10 PM on February 21, 2007

* Contemporary Irish authors (I've already read all of Roddy Doyle's published novels but don't know many other authors)
If you like Roddy Doyle, you might like Eureka Street which is set in Belfast in, I think, the late '90s.

Marian Keyes does fluffy chick-lit, some of which is set in Dublin. Sushi for Beginners is fun, if you like that kind of thing. If the setting doesn't seem all that specifically Irish, it might be partly because Dublin is increasingly cosmopolitan and therefore not that different from other English-speaking big cities.

If you like your books simultaneously funny and very, very disturbing, check out The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe. The book presents a highly un-shamrocky version of rural Ireland, which is probably a good thing.
* The early Irish-American experience - what their lives were like
Are you looking for fiction or non-fiction?

Banished Children of Eve by Peter Quinn is about the New York draft riots of 1863, and I remember it being pretty good. It's a novel, but Quinn has also written history and did a lot of historical research.

On the non-fiction side of things, you could check out Making Sense of the Molly Maguires by Kevin Kenney. It's an academic book, but I think it might appeal to non-academics. It's about labor violence in 19th century Pennsylvania.

I haven't read Easter Rising yet, but I'd second jdl's recommendation for All Souls.
posted by craichead at 1:14 PM on February 21, 2007

Do you like critique? Mostly about the Irish Americans, these books are pretty good: How the Irish Became White, Irish America: Coming into the Clover and Irish America.
posted by oflinkey at 1:32 PM on February 21, 2007

I recommend McCarthy's Bar. We picked it up in Ireland and laughed a lot.
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:32 PM on February 21, 2007

Dubliners by James Joyce is a set of short stories set in 1910s Dublin. It's extremely accessible and left a long-lasting imprint on me.
posted by randomination at 1:46 PM on February 21, 2007

Hood and everything else by Emma Donoghue. The Wig My Father Wore and everything else by Anne Enright. I Went Down and everything else by Conor McPherson. I Went Down was made into a terrific film. The General is good too.
posted by rdc at 2:24 PM on February 21, 2007

Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization. I've not read it, but I've read some of his other work, and would recommend it based solely on that.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 2:43 PM on February 21, 2007

Okay. It's not clear for all to see that I have had a long day at work, and read the OP in a hurry.

I am not a moron.

posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 2:50 PM on February 21, 2007

You know, I've been meaning to ask a question very similar to this for a while now. It surprises me how much I have to say on the subject.

I recommend Colm Toibin's The Heathers Blazing and The Blackwater Lightship. He's a very good writer.

Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane is an excellent read.

I'll second John McGahern--particularly Amongst Women.

Lisa Carey is an American author who wrote two very good books situated in the immigrant experience (one is historical fiction and the other tells the story of three generations of Irish women) called The Mermaids Singing and In the Country of the Young.

Damian McNicholl is an Irish expat living in Doylestown, PA who wrote a wonderful novel called A Son Called Gabriel.
posted by monochromaticgirl at 2:52 PM on February 21, 2007

For the early American Irish experience check out this massive anthology Making the Irish American.
posted by mattbucher at 2:54 PM on February 21, 2007

I don't know how well she is perceived among others, or among the Irish, but a while back I found Morgan Llewellyn's 1921 in a bargain bin in Barnes and Noble for $1.00. I had never heard of her, nor did I have any exposure to good historical fiction at the time, but I did have a great interest in Ireland and its culture, history, and people. I figured for a dollar, it wasn't a huge loss if it turned out to be bad. I could either sell or give it away.

I ended up loving it, which was a pleasant surprise. I learned and remembered far more about recent Irish history than I did when I had to read The Course of Irish History, a well-respected but exceedingly dry book. Llewellyn's novel gave history life, relevance, and personality through story and characters, and it made me seek out more of her work, although I found the other books in the series to be less memorable, although still well done.

After I read 1921, I attempted to read one of the most famous novels about Ireland, Leon Uris's Trinity, but could not make it past the first 100 pages. Many people like it, however, so you may want to give it a try.

I'm sure you've probably already read Frank McCourt's work, but Angela's Ashes really is a fantastic book. The sequel was not nearly as good, but still quite readable. I have not yet read his most recent book. However, his works would fit your criteria of both contemporary Irish authors, and a slightly more recent Irish-American experience.

Also, if you don't mind reading literature for Young Adults, I felt like I learned a little bit about the early Irish American experience from Avi's Beyond the Western Sea. It isn't nearly as good as some of his other work, but I thought the portrayal of the journey on board the ship and the initial arrival in New York were quite convincing. I just thought I would put it out there, in case you were interested.

I've heard Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds is supposed to be very good, but it is difficult to find, so I've not had a proper chance to read it yet. There are also the classics, and you can't go wrong with some W.B. Yeats or Samuel Beckett.

Also, some of the famous revolutionaries for Irish Independence had fantastic speeches. Robert Emmet's final speech is one that is well-known, and very deservedly so, as it is a fantastic speech. Padraig Pearse was also a writer and teacher (he founded St. Enda's), and left behind a large amount of work.

I too will be watching this thread, as I'd love to know more about contemporary Irish authors beyond the ones that happen to become well known in the U.S.

On preview, I had an opportunity to see an excellent adaptation of one of the stories in Joyce's Dubliners. It looks to be out of print, and not on DVD, so maybe you could find it somewhere else.

There are some good movies out there if you're in the mood for Irish stuff. The Secret of Roan Inish is good if you're in the mood for a fantasy/fairy tale sort of thing. I have heard good things about Waking Ned Devine from someone that I trust, as well.

Oh, also, you may or may not be interested in this, but one other book I purchased from the bargain section with 1921 was one of Kevin C. Kearns', who is an oral historian. His books mostly cover the recent folk history of Dublin, but if you are into oral history, there are some fascinating stories to be had.
posted by wander at 3:11 PM on February 21, 2007

Seconding Last Night's Fun. And a great story about the music, the pubs, and the people: Ireland, a Bicycle, and a Tinwhistle.
posted by mendel at 3:16 PM on February 21, 2007

Speaking of movies, The Wind that Shakes the Barley is finally opening in the U.S. on March 16.
posted by craichead at 3:23 PM on February 21, 2007

Colum McCann's Everything in This Country Must is two short stories and a novella about Northern Ireland.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:44 PM on February 21, 2007

For something different, try The Country Girls Trilogy, by Edna O'Brien. It has a distinctly Irish voice, and is set at first in the Irish countryside, but then meanders to London and broods. Were I making a Hollywood pitch, I would call it The Joy Luck Club meets In the Name of the Father with a soundtrack by the Chieftains. It's fiction, not history, but will get you in an Irish mood.
posted by Slap Factory at 4:05 PM on February 21, 2007

The Garments of Christ by Doctor Ian Paisley.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:03 PM on February 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Finnegan's Wake.

or not
posted by mjbraun at 5:35 PM on February 21, 2007

Tim Pat Coogan is an author you should check out. Wherever Green Is Worn is a comprehensive look at the Irish diaspora. If you don't have tha kind of time he's written some very good books on the IRA and Michael Collins that are well worth the read.

As far as movelists I second the recommendation for Colm Toibin, imho the best novelist alive today. I would recommend The South myself. Edna O'Brien is fantastic too, albeit incredibly depressing. How that woman drags herself out of bed in the morning is a mystery to me.

If you like poetry look at Paul Durcan or Evan Boland.
posted by fshgrl at 6:06 PM on February 21, 2007

Oh man, I wish I had time to give this question the giant sprawling answer it deserves. Instead let me do what I can quickly, and try to remember to return later.

This semester I have a course called Irish-American Literature (early through contemporary culture). The reading list:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
Studs Lonigan, James T. Farrell (either Young Manhood of or the whole trilogy)
Empire Rising, Thomas Kelly
Long Day's Journey into Night, O'Neill
Ironweed, William Kennedy (and possibly the rest of the Albany series)
True Confessions, John Gregory Dunne
All Souls, Michael Patrick MacDonald
After This, Alice McDermott

The professor teaching this course contends that Gatsby (of, you know, The Great Gatsby) was Irish, or at least that the novel was based on Fitzgerald's experiences as an Irish Catholic. Yeah, I'm not completely sure about that either.
posted by booksandlibretti at 8:20 PM on February 21, 2007

At Swim-Two-Birds is a work of sheer genius, and quite possibly one of the funniest things I've ever read. Get it, if you have the chance.
posted by bokane at 10:02 PM on February 21, 2007

Seconding Edna O'Brien.

Neither of these are new, but what about Charming Billy by Alice McDermott or Shade by Neil Jordan?
posted by Violet Hour at 10:04 PM on February 21, 2007

I'll second wander's recommendation of Morgan Llywelyn & add a few titles that I've read & enjoyed: Lion of Ireland, about Brian Boru; Pride of Lions, about his sons; 1916,A Novel Of the Irish Rebellion; 1949, The Irish Republic & I'm currently reading Finn Mac Cool with Grania: She King of the Irish Seas up next.

And if you want to get really hardcore you can read a translation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, an ancient text that's part of the Ulster Cycle.
posted by scalefree at 10:16 PM on February 21, 2007

A book by a contemporary Irish author that is damn fantastic: Tenderwire, by Claire Kilroy. Not set in Ireland, but whenever people ask me for a good Irish author, this is a book that I point them to, because it's awesome. Also, check out John Banville for another contemporary Irish author... though that dude seriously *writes*... it's all about the words for him. The Sea, in particular, was quite a piece of literature.
posted by antifuse at 2:14 AM on February 22, 2007

Response by poster: You guys are fantastic! It's going to be St. Patrick's Year with all these excellent-sounding books. Many thanks!
posted by cadge at 8:06 AM on February 22, 2007

(a little late, but...) Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks is my favorite book about Ireland.
posted by nitsuj at 10:00 AM on March 14, 2007

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