Ten of the best Irish books you probably haven't read, plus another one
With St Patrick's Day coming up, here’s some lesser-read Irish writing that deserves to be better known
There's a lot of great Irish writing, but even if, like me, you happen to be Irish, it sometimes seems as though Irish writers (especially the male ones) have decided that the repertoire of tropes that constitute 'Irish writing' could half-fill a fairly small bucket, and if you're not that interested in the spiritual torment of middle-aged alcoholics, then get the hell out of the canon. But there's more to Irish writing than novels about sons and plays about lakes. Here are 10 brilliant Irish books that buck the trend, plus one more, just because.
Anne Enright – The Forgotten Waltz (2011)
Gina, a married woman in her 30s, has an affair. That’s the whole plot, but Gina’s voice precisely nails the peculiar bewilderment of the developed world in the 00s; she’s too smart not to notice when she’s lying to herself, but she can’t help doing it anyway. Enright is the smartest, wisest and most stylish of living Irish novelists.
Anon, trans. Lahney Preston-Matto – The Vision of MacConglinne (c. late 11th/early 12th century)
This brief Middle Irish satire tells of King Cathal, who gets possessed Exorcist-style by a demon that compels him to eat, and a bad-tempered scholar named MacConglinne who figures out a cure. Funny, brutal and trippy, if nothing else it will make you crave bacon.
Mary Mulvihill – Ingenious Ireland (2002)
The late Mary Mulvihill was a gifted science writer and educator. This, her masterpiece, is the sort of book every nation deserves, a fascinating gazetteer to the scientific and technological marvels of her country, covering everything from coastal geology to the invention of the quaternion.
Kate O’Brien – The Last of Summer (1943)
On the eve of WWII, the Kernaghan family’s cherished older son Tom falls for his glamorous French cousin Angéle. O’Brien took a standard theme and inverted it: the most sympathetic character is not Tom but Angéle, while Hannah, Tom’s mother, is one of the great monsters of Irish lit, gracious, soft-spoken, protective, and stunningly ruthless and selfish.
Hubert Butler – The Children of Drancy (1988, written between 1930 and 1978)
Urbane, whip-smart, fiercely anti-authoritarian and wisely aware of his own privilege, Hubert Butler wrote almost nothing but scrupulous and closely argued essays on current affairs and literature. Imagine a more learned, more cosmopolitan, less messed-up Orwell, and you're close to Butler's style of impassioned sanity.
Theobald Wolfe Tone – Memoirs (1796)
Ireland's coolest revolutionary, Wolfe Tone led the 1798 rising which nobly tried but failed to unite Catholics and Protestants against British rule. His humane and intelligent memoirs are cocky, funny and surprisingly sexy; he admits that he originally wanted to be a soldier because girls liked the uniform.
Garth Ennis – Preacher (nine volumes, 1995–2000)
If you haven't read Preacher, what're you waiting for, the TV series? Ennis has carved out an impressive comics career in the US. Preacher contains its share of crass silliness, but a one-joke character named Arseface is given the chance to become a genuine hero. For all his macho scepticism, Garth Ennis is a soppy old romantic.
Angela Bourke – The Burning of Bridget Cleary (1999)
Bourke's harrowing but brilliant book recounts an 1895 case in which a Tipperary man murdered his dressmaker wife because he believed she wasn't his real wife but a changeling put there by the fairies. The contemporary details (her sewing machine, his police mugshot) make it all the more chilling.
Laurence Sterne – The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1760)
Sterne was a Clonmel clergyman who, even as the Great Tradition of the English novel was getting started, relentlessly took the piss out of the very idea of serious fiction. Tristram Shandy is not so much a novel as a piece of conceptual art. You have to love any book that could anger FR Leavis so much that he refused even to discuss it.
Eimear McBride – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013)
McBride’s electrifying style is in the service of the fractured consciousness of its damaged heroine, and her debut novel is a rare example of a young writer genuinely not conceding a comma to saleability. It’s been given a second life in an equally brilliant stage adaptation, but the book is truly extraordinary.
James Joyce – Finnegans Wake (1939)
Well, didn't we promise you books you haven’t read? Finnegans Wake is the most democratic novel ever written, because everyone reading it is at an equal disadvantage. The multilingual punning gives mythic dimension to the story of an anxious pub landlord, his disappointed wife and their restless kids. If ever a novel anticipated the internet – not just in its HTML-like structure, but for the pervading theme of gossip damaging lives – it's this one.