10 great books by Irish women
In the final part of our series on influential books by women writers, we focus on Irish authors
Author Elizabeth Bowen
Novelist and playwright Kate O’Brien (1897-1974). Photograph: Sasha/Getty
Author Edna O’Brien at a handprinting ceremony at the Gaiety Theatre in 2011. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill
Author Iris Murdoch.
Author Jennifer Johnston. Photograph: Alan Betson
Author Marita Conlon McKenna. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill.
Author Maeve Binchy at home in Dalkey, in 2010. Photograph: Eric Luke
Author Anne Enright. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Author Claire Keegan. Photograph: Kenneth O’Halloran.
Author Emma Donoghue. Photograph: Eric Luke
The Last September, Elizabeth Bowen (1929)
Set against the backdrop of the Irish War of Independence, Elizabeth Bowen’s novel was published less than a decade after the conflict had ended. Noting the huge impact it had on her as a writer, Bowen says in a preface to the work that of all her books and short stories The Last September was “nearest to my heart, and had a deep, unclouded, spontaneous source. It is a work of instinct rather than knowledge.” Centred on the lives of the Naylor family, resident in the Cork country mansion Danielstown, the book is big house fiction at its best.
Without my Cloak, Kate O’Brien (1931)
A Victorian family saga, O’Brien’s debut novel tells the story of an upper class Irish Catholic household from the fictional town of Mellick. Set in the 1870s and drawing heavily on the author’s Limerick background, the book was awarded the James Tait Memorial Prize for its powerful portrait of family life and the tensions that exist between duty and self-fulfilment. The Considine dynasty begins with horse-thief Anthony and is passed down to his son Honest John and again to John’s eight children, each of whom must come to terms with their role within the clan.
The Country Girls, Edna O’Brien (1960)
Banned in Ireland on publication, Edna O’Brien’s debut novel gave a voice to the marginalised Irishwoman of 1960s Ireland. Tackling issues of gender inequality, sexual taboos and the prevailing Catholic mentality of Irish society responsible for such attitudes, O’Brien’s book paved the way for future female writers. The story focuses on Kate and Baba, two girls from rural Ireland, who learn new truths about life and friendship in the city.
The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978)
Winner of the Booker prize, the Dublin born author’s novel is steeped in a world of theatrics and vanity. Holed up in his coastal haven, renowned director Charles Arrowby attempts to escape the drama of London life and write his memoirs. Egocentric Charles meets his first love Hartley in the nearby village and is convinced he can revive his idealised memory of their relationship. The sea is a welcome and ever-present reality amid all his fancies and fantasies.
The Old Jest, Jennifer Johnston (1979)
Eighteen-year-old Nancy’s untroubled existence is set to change as she becomes an adult in 1920s Ireland. The violent backdrop of the Irish Rebellion makes for interesting reading as Nancy’s innocence is threatened by the arrival of a fugitive IRA rebel seeking shelter. Dreams and hopes are thwarted as the characters in this Whitbread award-winning novel fall prey to the “old jest … Death that comes to everyone.”
Under the Hawthorne Tree, Marita Conlon McKenna (1990)
One of Ireland’s best loved children’s books, Under the Hawthorne Tree is the first in Conlon-McKenna’s famine trilogy. Relating the trials of the O’Driscoll siblings as they battle poverty and hunger in nineteenth century rural Ireland, the book continues to be a bestseller almost twenty-five years after publication. Taking inspiration from Irish mythology, the author brings this tragic period of Irish history to life and has been translated into numerous languages for foreign audiences.
Scarlett Feather, Maeve Binchy (2000)
With a writer as popular as Binchy, it is hard to choose one particular title. Her novel Scarlett Feather was a favourite among readers, winning the WH Smith Book Award for Fiction. The plot centres on friends Cathy Scarlett and Tom Feather and their attempts to make a success of their catering business. Class divisions, unhappy relationships and broken families are examined with Binchy’s knowing eye.
The Gathering, Anne Enright (2007)
Described by its author as “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie", The Gathering is a Booker-winning novel centred on the themes of memory and death. The eponymous gathering occurs for the funeral of Liam, the older brother of the book’s protagonist Veronica. An unreliable narrator, Veronica struggles to remember their close relationship as children and the secrets of their shared past that haunted them as adults.
Foster, Claire Keegan (2010)
Claire Keegan’s long short story was published as a stand-alone book in 2010 and has since made its way onto the curriculum for the Leaving Cert. Set on a farm in Co Wicklow, Foster is a beautifully rendered account of a young girl who is placed with her aunt and uncle for the holidays while her mother prepares to give birth. Themes of loss and neglect are central to this story, with the temporary family set-up helping each member to discover new versions of themselves.
Room, Emma Donoghue (2010)
The Irish-Canadian author came up with the idea for her novel after reading about the Joseph Fritzl case in Austria. Five-year-old Jack has been held captive since birth in the titular room, along with his mother who spends their tortured existence conceiving of ways to entertain and educate her son. A suspenseful read, it is told from the perspective of the innocent Jack who barely understands Old Nick’s nightly visits or Ma’s desperate attempts to escape.