Books that define Ireland

Can our country be summed up by one book? We ask some experts to nominate candidates


The Books That Define Ireland, by Tom Garvin and Bryan Fanning, looks at 30 classic Irish texts, from history and social issues to the fictional worlds of Flann O’Brien and John McGahern. Can Ireland be summed up by one book, and should it be a political handbook, a work of fiction, or one written in Irish? We ask writers, artists and others to nominate a book that they think defines us.

wexford trilogyTHE WEXFORD TRILOGY
By Billy Roche, 1993

Set in a snooker hall, a betting shop and a church, these three plays – A Handful of Stars , Poor Beast in the Rain and Belfry – are unflinchingly truthful and always forgiving. With searing naturalism Roche lays bare the thwarted ambitions, secret loves and tragicomic aspirations of ordinary people in an ordinary town. But there’s nothing ordinary about the stunning emotional impact. The lack of any agenda beyond exposing the joy and wretchedness of the human heart makes The Wexford Trilogy truly admirable – but its lasting influence on a whole generation of writers and actors makes it essential.
- Conor McPherson

The turf-cutter's donkeyTHE TURF-CUTTER'S DONKEY
By Patricia Lynch, 1934

As I was growing up in 1970s Ireland, there was a fashionable train of thought that Irish culture was not quite as good as UK or US stuff. They had Top of the Pops and Doctor Who . We had Wanderly Wagon . The same was true of kids’ books. There weren’t many Irish ones to choose from, and what there were had more than a whiff of diddle-ee-aye tweeness about them. So when my mother gave me a copy of The Turf -Cutter’s Donkey I may have muttered words to the effect of, “Ah, for Jaysus’ sake, Mam. Did you get a bodhrán with that?” But I didn’t give it back. A donkey book was better than no book. I probably read it a dozen times before I turned 13, and it showed me that Ireland was in fact magical. The book was a warm, simple tale about two kids and a magical donkey. It was beautiful, wholesome, exciting and true to the Irish experience, and I learned from it that Irish culture had something to offer, which led on to Jim Fitzpatrick and Thin Lizzy, Paul Brady and The Blades, U2 and Roddy Doyle. At the dawn of the 1980s it became cool to be Irish. Extremely cool until your man Flatley, with the arms, baggsed it up. And the book that opened my eyes to that coolness was The Turf -Cutter’s Donkey . Also, I liked Wanderly Wagon.
- Eoin Colfer, writer

Twisted rootA TWISTED ROOT
By Patricia Craig, 2012

A Twisted Root makes a nonsense of monolithic definitions of Irishness. It is the tracing of a family tree, the branches of which go through multiple changes of religion and affiliation over the centuries, down to the author of the present day. All of the author’s certainties of belonging to a particular nationalist tribe are washed away, proving that what one generation holds on to as a fixed belief another often lightly discards. It’s a memoir full of social and personal histories that thread through the “official” history of the day, showing us that Irishness is a complex layer cake of identities. I love the unforgettable image that the title suggests, and it’s no surprise that it is attributed to a poet – Paul Muldoon – who said, “For history’s a twisted root . . . ”
- Alice Maher, artist

The third policemanTHE THIRD POLICEMAN
By Flann O’Brien, 1967

The tale of a murderer trapped in an underworld of his own making, but just beyond his own perception, was originally titled Hell Goes Round a nd Round . The book’s theme speaks volumes to the national condition: those who forget (or misremember) the nightmare of history are doomed to relive it. There’s something quintessentially Irish about the figure of a genius writer condemned to a life in the civil service in order to support a gazillion siblings. O’Brien had some heavyweight supporters (Borges, Greene, Saroyan), but his publisher thought The Third Policeman too weird to print, and the rejection rattled O’Brien’s confidence. But it is for my money the greatest Irish novel ever written. Shot through with dark comedy and original sin, it is the golden thread that links Joyce, Beckett, Puckoon, Monty Python, Pat McCabe, Dylan Moran and Kevin Barry.
- Peter Murphy, writer

The truth commissionerTHE TRUTH COMMISSIONER
By David Park, 2008

This book explores the possibility of a Northern Ireland truth-and-reconciliation commission, established along the lines of the one in South Africa. The premise is in some ways idealistic, but David Park’s imagining is compellingly realistic: in this novel the commission and its commissioner are highly flawed. The novel enacts its own peace process, and Park manages, with great skill and convincing sympathy, to get inside the heads of both an IRA soldier turned minister for culture and an RUC officer responsible for grooming young informants. In the light of the failed Haass talks, the novel reads as almost prophetic. As with all of Park’s books, The Truth Commissioner is beautifully written – a must-read for all citizens, north and south, now more than ever.
- Sinéad Morrissey, poet

Cre na CilleCRÉ NA CILLE
By Máirtín Ó Cadhain, 1949

This is the great, essential document about the Irish way with death. No major distinction is made between living and dead, with the result that each newly buried corpse in a Connemara graveyard is quizzed by all other dead souls about what is going on above ground. The result is a comic masterpiece of magic realism, filled with contesting voices. It illustrates the truth of Yeats’s contention that “in Ireland the dead may not even know that they are dead” and of Beckett’s great lines in Waiting for Godot “All the dead voices . . . They make a sound . . . To have lived is not enough for them . . . They have to talk about it.” Irish drama is filled with corpses that sit up and talk again in a style of sudden truculence and with characters intent on addressing their dead. All of this may be a centuries-long infraction of The Book of Common Prayer , whose funeral service insists that the dead can no longer be talked to – they can only be talked about, since they must be presumed to be beyond human contact. But Cré na Cille is the grand climactic statement of the fact that in Ireland the dead have not just voices but votes, not just unresolved grudges but unfulfilled loves.
- Declan Kiberd, Keough professor of Irish studies, University of Notre Dame

Burning bridget clearyTHE BURNING OF BIDGET CLEARY
By Angela Bourke, 1999

The Burning of Bridget Cleary explores a lag in the crossover between the “old” and “new” belief systems at the end of the 19th century. By examining the religious, political and sociological pressures that lead to the question of whether it was murder or an act of faith being taken seriously, Bourke uncovers the roots of many of 20th-century Ireland’s woeful attitudes towards women, religion and science, as well as offering a fascinating portrait of a too- often-sentimentalised aspect of our history.
- Eimear McBride, writer


Dead as doornailsDEAD AS DOORNAILS
By Anthony Cronin, 1976

I tried to imagine pressing a book into the hand of an alien life form and telling them that within those pages lay Ireland, and the only book I could entrust with the gig was Dead As Doornails . The stories in Anthony Cronin’s memoir of postwar literary life and temps perdu with Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan are hysterically funny, unbearably sad, compassionate and acutely observed. I carry with me to this day the desperately sad image of a trail of liver salts on the pub floor leading to the abandoned bar stool of the ravaged Kavanagh. It is a story of men. If I could give the aliens a second memoir it might be Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody? Enjoy, my Martian overlords. And go easy on us, won’t ya?
- John Butler, writer/director

City of BohaneCITY OF BOHANE
By Kevin Barry, 2011 

City of Bohane has to be one of the most iconic contemporary books to come out of Ireland. I admired Barry for his ambition and insight, and for writing something that bordered several genres but became none of them. It celebrated an important new voice in Irish literature, someone who could continue the traditions of our historical heavyweights while bringing something refreshing to the table. The wit, darkness and language of City of Bohane were characteristic of the best Irish novels, yet it gave us something edgy and bright, something seeking a new reach into the reader’s imagination.
- Dani Gill, Cuirt director

Langrishe go downLANGRISHE, GO DOWN
By Aidan Higgins, 1966

There’s an unfair criticism that modernism never came to Ireland and that writers are stuck in the past. Aidan Higgins is a good counter to that. Langrishe, Go Down is one of the best Irish novels since At Swim-Two- Birds , and Higgins is a missing link from Joyce to contemporary writing. It’s a novel on the death of a country house, and of a love affair, and although a particularly Irish novel (from the “sickly sweetish smell of Guinness’s porter” and through the language, “the dear Lord knows we had it baiten into us often enough”), it has enough going for it to appeal to a wider audience.
- Susan Tomaselli, editor, Gorse


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