Want to know about Ireland now? Here are the books to read
A Minister, a historian and 13 Irish writers select the modern works - from Ross O'Carroll-Kelly to Donal Ryan - that capture for them the state of the country
This is Ireland: 12 books that capture the Ireland of now
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
The Spinning Heart gives us a kaleidoscopic view of rural and small-town Ireland in the years after the economic crash. Donal Ryan knows everything about his characters: not just their hopes, dreams and disappointments, but also the numbers on their payslips and social security cheques.
He is a generous writer and the book is filled with light and shade, love and tragedy. There is, for a young male writer, very little disgust. Ryan also believes in the redemptive power of narrative and makes big stories out of small lives in a way that is almost operatic (in much the same as way JM Synge was operatic). Strong emotions, indelible family ties, forensic social detail: if it was a song you could sing it, especially on a day like this.
Anne Enright is the laureate for Irish fiction. Her latest novel is The Green Road
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry
I would heartily recommend Kevin Barry’s brilliant Beatlebone to anyone arriving in Ireland for the first time. Although the action centres on an imagined visit by John Lennon to Clew Bay and Achill in the 1970s, the way Barry captures the utter strangeness of the west seems to me – and I am something of a native to the area – to remain as true of Mayo’s coast and people today as it was back then.
There is such an unusual quality to the atmosphere he creates, with these people clinging to a rock at the end of the world soaked by the rain and drenched in the most glorious language; and yet it is also incredibly evocative of that unique place. Both the book and the region are beautiful, unsettling and riddled with pockets of the unexpected.
Eimear McBride is the author of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians
The Ross O’Carroll-Kelly series
The greatest book about what contemporary Ireland is like is always the most recent Ross O’Carroll-Kelly work. There are occasional rumours that his books are actually works of comic fiction written by a mischievous, very naughty and supertalented Dublin journalist, but any sensible reader knows that this is not so. They are a truthful, accurate and meaningful record of the social class that destroyed Ireland, written from the inside.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine Ross ever writing or (indeed reading) a novel, unless it happened to be written by a rugby player. No full understanding of what Ireland has gone through since 2000 is possible without O’Carroll-Kelly’s monstrous, unapologetic, unforgettable chronicle of a shitstorm foretold, that is sometimes (but rarely) hard to believe.
Joseph O’Connor is Frank McCourt chair of creative writing at the University of Limerick. His latest novel is The Thrill of it All
Amongst Women by John McGahern
John McGahern spent a decade writing Amongst Women, which was published in 1990. It depicts the tortured existence of Michael Moran, a War of Independence veteran, and the experiences of his family whom he manages to alienate and torment and yet endow with a distinct identity. It is about Irish mid-century provincial life, including its darker side, but also raises bigger, national themes.
The question Moran asks about the struggle for independence in the early 20th century – “What was it all for?” – resonates for many reasons. Moran feels he and his comrades had fought for independence at the best time of their lives, only for native misrule to render it somewhat meaningless. When he dies, it is perhaps appropriate that the Tricolour that drapes his coffin is so faded.
For Moran, so alienated from public life, the republican dream has long since vanished, though his involvement in the themes of family, survival, money and the repression of women make him an appropriate symbol of 20th century Ireland.
McGahern did mesmerising work on a small canvas; he was an accurate and graceful wordsmith, and apart from his insights about character and what propels people, he was also able to write beautifully about nature and rural Ireland, small and independent communities and local concerns, employing rich dialogue and an acute sense of place.
McGahern’s book remains both an indictment of the failures of Irish independence and a celebration of Ireland’s distinctiveness.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
Mike McCormack captured something phenomenal in Solar Bones, a novel about an ordinary, decent guy considering various aspects of his ordinary, decent life. Much of this baffles him, some outrages him (the corrupt politician is exceptionally well depicted) but all of it is bathed in his love for his family life, a life which he doesn’t quite grasp is already over, because this is All Souls’ Day, the day the souls of the dead return to their family home.
The scope of McCormack’s experimentalism and his humanity – two qualities which are rarely found in the same author – indicates that the great 20th century Irish prose innovators, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, are in his DNA, but he captures the confusion and turmoil of Ireland’s recent transition from major to minor with such heart and stylistic agility that he can already be considered one of the great 21st century Irish prose writers.
Claire Kilroy’s novels include Tenderwire and The Devil I Know
Inventing Ireland by Declan Kiberd
It’s a brilliant excavation and exploration of the Irish psyche through the prism of our literature. It starts with Wilde and goes right through to Friel with other chapters setting historical and social context. If my description sounds dry, the book is not. It is written with great humour, erudition, aplomb and a healthy dose of irony on the invention of ourselves, the nation, who we think we are and who we might possibly be. What Kiberd captures brilliantly is the tragic grandeur of the Irish imagination and the harking back to vanished times: harps, bards, Tuatha dé Dannan, Cúchulainn,
Kathleen Ni Houlihan and many more. All the touchstones of our mythic and mystic past that that still seep like fog through our veins despite our best efforts to cut them out. Like Nell in Beckett’s Endgame our refrain still seems to be: “Ah yesterday . . . ”
And maybe that’s the best of us . . . and if we’re lucky, it may take us to the future.
Inventing Ireland is a must-read for anyone who wants to know who we are, what we were and, with the grace of God, what we might one day become.
Marina Carr’s latest play was an adaptation of Anna Karenina at the Abbey Theatre. She has just won the $165,000 Windham-Campbell Prize
Martin John by Anakana Schofield
What is particularly intriguing about Martin John, Anakana Schofield’s second novel, is that it feels as if the Vancouver-based Irish author might have set to work by drawing up a list of factors which make a book potentially unreadable. It’s disjointed and repetitive, the subject matter generally deeply disturbing.
The protagonist is a registered sex offender at large in the city of London after being expelled from his home in the west of Ireland by his haranguing mother. For most of the novel, we are trapped inside his cycle of struggle and stumble and remorse.
Martin John is a work of marvellous contradiction: the uncomfortable content belied by ravishing style, irresistible rhythm and exquisitely murky humour. This is risk-taking fiction at its most insightful; what it tells us about the Ireland of today is superbly devoid of rose-tinted spectacles.
Sara Baume’s latest novel is A Line Made by Walking
Young Skins by Colin Barrett
There is no truer portrait of post-millennium small-town Irish life than Colin Barrett’s sublime landscape-in-portraits short story collection Young Skins. The protagonists are largely rudderless, misfiring young men, but there are young women too, adrift or foiled by circumstance, and communities muddling through, and longings unexpressed, and sometimes a fierce and jolting awareness of the limits in living one’s life on a damp rock in the north Atlantic.
This is Ireland at its most frustrating and inhibiting but also at its most sincere and brutally real. I know every one of these characters, every road they walk, every car they hop into, every pub they end up at, every retort they spit at their nemeses. For the reader who wants to see and know Ireland’s soul, this is it, this is the book.
Lisa McInerney’s debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, won the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction and the Desmond Elliott Prize. The sequel, The Blood Miracles, is out next month
The Gathering by Anne Enright
The Gathering, which won the Booker Prize in 2007, does what only the best fiction can manage: it makes something coherent out of impossible contradictions. And impossible contradiction is where contemporary Ireland is at.
The book is postmodern in its extreme globalisation but often premodern in its struggles to come to terms with a deep, dark past. Economically and culturally it is extremely open, yet it is full of silences and secrets.
Enright’s gripping novel gets to the heart of this duality. It is, on the surface, a very traditional Irish novel: a funeral, exile, a big family, secrets. But it takes this traditional form and pushes it into the hyper-consumerist world of the boom time Ireland of the mind-2000s.
It’s a beautifully written fiction rather than a work of sociology, but it gives you a very acute sense of a society that is utterly adrift in some ways yet still anchored to the past in others. It has a lot of sadness, some glee and a kind of hypnotic energy, which is pretty much what Ireland feels like in the 21st century.
Fintan O’Toole is co-editor of Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks
Children’s Children by Jan Carson
If you’re coming to Ireland, then a visit to Northern Ireland is essential. We can of course package the Troubles for you with bus and taxi tours but best to avoid a history that makes little sense and is usually just tribal mythology. For real history you can take one of our numerous Game of Thrones tours, wear a cloak, arm yourself with a sword. And if you want a book to read on your trip north choose Jan Carson’s Children’s Children to get an original portrait of Belfast’s citizens. In its world of magic realism you’ll meet a human statue that loses the ability to move, a floating child tethered to a backyard fence and a man who starts to brush the street outside his door and then keeps going. Darkly humorous, the stories are living proof that our world is just as crazy and beautiful as anyone else’s and up here at the top of the island that’s all we ever wanted,
David Park’s latest work is Gods and Angels
Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack
Notes from a Coma, published in 2005, was the first Irish novel to address the incipient effects of technology on the psyche, juxtaposing small-town realism with 21st century babble.
The central character is JJ O’ Malley, a troubled youth who grows up in west Mayo after being rescued from a Romanian orphanage. Cursed with a brilliant but unquiet mind, JJ suffers a breakdown after the death of his best friend and volunteers as a guinea pig in a controversial pilot EU penal scheme called the Somnos Project, which proposes deep coma as an economically viable alternative to present systems of incarceration.
Floating in a prison ship docked in Killary Harbour, his comatose form constantly monitored online, JJ becomes a national icon. In one memorable scene, assembled masses at a music festival bow before his image on the big screens, chanting, “We are not worthy.”
The book’s structure is contrapuntal: straightforward testimonies from key figures in JJ’s life alternate with a stylised and hyper-cerebral parallel narrative rendered in a form of Coma-speak whose vaulting complexity suggests Philip K Dick undergoing regression therapy.
McCormack wrote the book under the influence of totem works such Gravity’s Rainbow, Crash, Riddley Walker and Neuromancer, as well as books by Christopher Priest and Richard Powers. A speculative novel located in a medieval landscape, Notes from a Coma was one of the few boom-time novels to reject the tourist-board sanctioned version of Irish fiction in favour of a postmodern (and dystopian) vision of 21st century life.
Peter Murphy’s latest novel is Shall We Gather at the River
Telling, Selected Stories by Evelyn Conlon
No one has a voice like Evelyn Conlon. You never know what she is going to say next. She comes from an odd angle that suddenly seems like the only angle worthwhile.
With stories ranging from the intensely lyrical memory of a flashlamp playing on a ditch the night Kennedy was shot to the contraceptive wars of the 1980s, rebellious women in a writing workshop and millennium hype, Conlon is truly modern yet rooted in the history of Irish women.
Once you’ve experienced her grip, you won’t want to stop, like the narrator of Taking Scarlet as a Real Colour: “I’ll tell you what it says in books, Susan. I never wanted to read and I wish I’d never started, but that’s like an alcoholic moaning about Christmas pudding, it’s too late now.”
Martina Evans is a novelist and poet. Her latest collection is The Windows of Graceland
The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith
The people still living who were involved in the enslavement of unmarried mothers and the terminal neglect and sale of their children apparently remember nothing of their deeds. Luckily, the memories of some of their victims are intact and have been committed to print. The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith tells the life story of a woman who was held at the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea when she fell pregnant in 1950. After three years of caring for her son at the abbey he was stolen from her and sold, with a little girl, to an American couple. Philomena and her son Michael spent their lives searching for one another. This heartbreaking story will help anyone just landed here to understand why we’re currently in the process of facing up to the fact that our country is cankered with unmarked pits full of little bones.
Donal Ryan’s latest work is All We Shall Know
Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
One of the books that rattled me out of my comfort zone was Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. The Ireland she creates is thoroughly familiar and yet it felt to me that I hadn’t been there before, at least not in the country of literature. I also really loved what Edna O’Brien did in her novel The Little Red Chairs. She extends her notion of Ireland right out into, and indeed beyond, Europe.
Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann will be published in May
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray is a masterpiece of many genres. Deftly
weaving comedy, tragedy and satire through the life and death of
Skippy, this novel has entertained and deeply moved me since
publication in 2010. The horizons of this work are so wide, stretching
from the physics of string theory, to first love and even touching on
the dangers of doughnuts. Set in the Seabrook College for Boys, the
tale of Skippy and his room-mate Ruprecht made me laugh and then wince
with sadness. At over 600 pages, it was also initially published as
three volumes. However, this should not deter any potential reader. It
begins and ends with death. But there is so much bustling life in
Paschal Donohoe is the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform
Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times