There are so many great Irish books it is hard to know where to start. But if you would like to sample some Irish writing, without plunging straight into Finnegans Wake, or if you fancy exploring beyond Joyce, Beckett, Wilde and Yeats, here are a few ideas. A good place to start is the Collected Short Stories of Frank O’Connor (1982). Some, like “Guests of the Nation” – which inspired the movie The Crying Game – are set against the backdrop of political upheaval in Ireland at the start of the twentieth century. Others, like ‘The First Confession’ and ‘My Oedipus Complex’ are witty and poignant observations of childhood experiences, based on O’Connor’s own upbringing in working-class Cork, but resonant with readers everywhere.
Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour (1981) takes place in a very different Ireland of the early twentieth century, that of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Told through flashback by the unlovely Aroon, heiress to a bankrupt estate, who has killed her mother with a dish of baby rabbit, it is the story of the deeply dysfunctional St Charles family and their code of ‘good behavior’: willful disregard for the changing world beyond the gates, and rigorous emotional repression within. An elegant and darkly funny satire, it reads like an especially barbed Jane Austen.
Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy (1958) is an autobiographical novel, based on his experience of three years in a British juvenile prison, convicted of smuggling explosives for the IRA. Much of the story is told through the speech of the inmates and wardens, and Behan’s acute ear for accents, slang, jokes and songs takes us into the everyday routine, the violence and also the friendship he finds there – and also got it banned in Ireland on publication.
Though written a century ago, James Stephens’ The Crock of Gold (1912) seems stranger, funnier and more modern than ever. Inspired by traditional Irish fairy tales, and his own vivid imagination, it is set in the wood of Coilla Doraca, inhabited by two philosophers with parchment-like skin, a thin woman and a grey woman and their children. They encounter leprechauns, a talking spider, the god Pan and a host of other legendary and invented characters, in pursuit of the crock of gold, while making sure to stop for a good breakfast along the way.
Dermot Bolger’s Father’s Music (1999) is the story of Tracey and Luke, a young Londoner of Irish descent and a mysterious Irish criminal. This graphic and intelligent thriller takes in the Irish clubs of London, and rural Donegal, but is above all a portrait of a brash modern-day Dublin where rich businessmen and drug dealers rub shoulders. His is an Ireland that seems on the surface to have changed dramatically, but where echoes of the past remain ever-present.
Michael Staunton, Ph.D., is a lecturer in history at University College Dublin. Born in Dublin and educated at University College Cork and Cambridge University, he previously worked at Cambridge University and at St. Andrew’s University. He is the author of The Lives of Thomas Becket.