The great Irish books you may never have heard of

Overlooked gems, dead bird poems and an ‘unrepentant Fenian b***ard’ – you’ve been missing out

It is all too easy for a good book to disappear into obscurity. Books slip by if critics and prize judges don’t pick up on them. Even a shortlisting might not save them as memories are even shorter and each year a tidal wave of new titles sweeps over bookshops’ shelves. Ironically the second-hand section of a bookshop often contains the most original work.

As in the scope of searchlights in a prison movie, there are always blind spots, two perhaps being writers from the North and the diaspora. (I hope the title of the brilliant What Was Lost by Birmingham-Irish writer Catherine O’Flynn, which won the 2007 Costa first novel award, is not prophetic.) There are also the works of well-known writers that don’t fit their usual mould.

Perhaps in elevating some writers on so high a pedestal, we risk unfairly overshadowing others. It would be almost a cardinal sin to let Bloomsday pass without genuflecting to the greatness of James Joyce, whereas poor old Joyce Cary is so neglected that a reviewer recently misgendered him, so unfamiliar were they with his life and work.

Just as Patrick and Brigid are not the only Irish saints, let us look beyond the usual suspects and celebrate the literary Columbas and Dympnas. Here, many of Ireland’s leading writers champion a treasure that deserves to be unburied.


Sebastian Barry: The History of Ireland by Geoffrey Keating (1630)

The History of Ireland by Geoffrey Keating (1630)

Many people would be familiar with the influences of this work because its contents have poured out into so many tributaries that their origins maybe invisible. But Keating's project is similar to Virgil's in the Aeneid in respect of Rome, to create an origin myth for his country. My generation knew some of this material as stray stories and orphan histories. But reading it now in Dineen's old translation, there is something incantatory and oddly punkish and wild in this work, written by a Catholic priest about whom less is known than Shakespeare, and whom no one in the written record ever remembers meeting.
Sebastian Barry's latest novel is A Thousand Moons

Seán Hewitt: A Garden Diary by Emily Lawless (1901)

A Garden Diary by Emily Lawless (1901)

Ostensibly taking the subject of a garden over a year-long period, Emily Lawless's A Garden Diary (1901) weaves considerations of emigration, belonging, war, politics and the entrancement of the natural world. Taking native plants from the Burren and trying to cultivate them in her Surrey garden, Lawless considers the possibilities of rootedness and exile. As we move through, the prose becomes more searching, more expansive, until we meet nature "face to face". We follow Lawless in hushed awe through the garden to meet its maker: "The air itself seemed changed; sanctified. The familiar little paths one walked along were like the approaches to some as yet invisible Temple."
Seán Hewitt's JM Synge: Nature, Politics, Modernism was published in January. His debut poetry collection, Tongues of Fire, came out last year

John Banville: The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary (1944)

The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary (1944)

The well-nigh total neglect of the work of Derry-born Joyce Cary is inexplicable, for he is one of the finest of the 20th century's Anglo-Irish novelists, fully the peer of Elizabeth Bowen and Iris Murdoch. His masterpiece undoubtedly is The Horse's Mouth, featuring the rambunctious painter Gulley Jimson, partially based on Stanley Spencer. Jimson is a cadger and petty thief, whose energies are divided between his art, his old girlfriends and the pub. The novel is at once gloriously funny and deeply serious, but perhaps its finest achievement is the immediacy with which it renders the sense of what it is to be an artist.
John Banville's latest novel is Snow

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: Tonn Tuile by Séamus Ó Néill (1947)

Tonn Tuile by Séamus Ó Néill (1947)

Tonn Tuile (Tidal Wave) is a truly exceptional novel in the context of Irish-language literature. Groundbreaking in its day simply because it deals with what we might call "normal people" – a middle-class couple who live in Dublin during the Emergency. It explores with delicate precision the death of romantic love and youthful dreams under (mostly) everyday pressures. Ordinary urban life was not a common subject in Irish-language 20th-century fiction. Ó Néill's style is simple, understated. He writes a lyrical, accessible prose. A little gem and my favourite novel as Gaeilge.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's latest collection is Little Red and Other Stories (Blackstaff). Look! It's a Woman Writer, which she has edited, is due next month from Arlen House

Joseph O’Connor: The Norwayman by Joseph O'Connor (1949)

The Norwayman by Joseph O’Connor (1949)

It was an enduring and special pleasure of the nine years I lived in London that Charing Cross Road and its laneways and alleyways still had second-hand bookshops. My habit was to drop in if I was in town. In one such establishment, in I think 1994, I was browsing the shelves when I noticed, side by side, two copies of a 1949 novel called The Norwayman by Joseph O'Connor. Feeling slightly that I had wandered into an eerie tale by Edgar Allan Poe, I asked the bookseller how much he wanted for one of them. He responded with the most damning words ever spoken about any book. "Four quid. The pair for a fiver." So, I own two copies of this richly enjoyable, well-written if faintly Ealing Comedy-like novel of a handsome Scandinavian stranger washed up on the shores of a quaint Irish island with all the comforting disruptions and glee-inducingly foreseeable outcomes you'd expect. To be honest, I'd be willing to part with one of them. For a fiver.
Joseph O'Connor's latest novel Shadowplay is published by Vintage

Niamh Campbell: Leaves for the Burning by Mervyn Wall (1952)

Leaves for the Burning by Mervyn Wall (1952)

Leaves for the Burning was published in 1952 but out of print until Swan River Press re-released it last year. Its antihero, Lucian Brewse Burke, a dishevelled civil servant in a godforsaken midlands town, joins his friends on a drunken romp across the country to attend the funeral of WB Yeats. They are motivated in part by the desire to escape the repercussions of a chaotic pub lock-in – during which a man is fatally defenestrated – and partly by the need to mark the end of Romantic Ireland. The book depicts a poor, petty, absurd post-Independence scene that is, nonetheless, savagely funny.
Niamh Campbell is the author of This Happy. She won last year's Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award

Glenn Patterson: The Liberty Lad by Maurice Leitch (1965)

The Liberty Lad by Maurice Leitch (1965)

It ill becomes any of us to speculate on whether other writers are overlooked or underappreciated. The writing life is (you hope) long. Books that were recognised and celebrated at the time of their publication, and for years after, can become with time harder to find. Maurice Leitch won the Whitbread Prize in 1981 for Silver's City. A new edition came out a couple of years ago, but I would wish for all of his novels to be in print and easily available, not least his first, The Liberty Lad.
Glenn Patterson's latest novel, Where Are We Now?, is published by Head of Zeus

Jan Carson: A Streak of Madness by Ian Cochrane (1973)

A Streak of Madness by Ian Cochrane (1973)

Cullybackey-born Ian Cochrane published six novels to great acclaim in the 1970s and 1980s before an injury sustained breaking up a fight on the Tube cut his publishing career short. Aside from F Is for Ferg (reissued by Turnpike in 2018), his books are all now out of print. I'd resurrect his first novel, A Streak of Madness. Its depiction of working-class rural Protestantism, mental health issues and the church's heavy-handed influence has informed a lot of my own writing. Cochrane writes with devastating wit, simultaneously critiquing the community he came from and revealing his fondness for it.
The Last Resort (Doubleday Ireland) by Jan Carson is out next month

Susan McKay: In Praise of Poteen by John McGuffin (1978)

In Praise of Poteen by John McGuffin (1978)

John McGuffin denounced his publisher at Appletree Press in Belfast as a "timorous gentleman" for insisting that "poitín" be spelt in the English way on the cover of his book In Praise of Poteen. McGuffin, the only Protestant interned during the first swoop in 1971, was buried in 2002 in a T-shirt declaring him an "Unrepentant Fenian B***ard". This slim history is the sort of treasure you would expect from such an author – it is wild, anarchic, erudite and hilarious. The caption to one of the photographs urges you to observe the unhappy face of a guard as his colleague takes a hatchet to a still. The poitín produced in Long Kesh prison was, McGuffin notes, called "Special Powers".
Susan McKay's Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground (Blackstaff Press) is out next month

Roddy Doyle: The Self-Made Men by Michael Curtin (1980)

The Self-Made Men by Michael Curtin (1980)

I bought The Self-Made Men in 1982, in London, where I'd gone to force myself into the habit of writing daily. "Ten years earlier Billy Whelan had twelve hundred pounds on deposit with Barclays and yet managed to starve on Christmas Day." The opening chapter takes place in north London, where I was, in an Irish pub, with characters like the men I'd often met. The later chapters are set in Limerick, a city I don't know. Yet it, too, felt familiar. That familiarity, and what Michael Curtin did with it – that was what I loved about the book. It seemed so real, yet eccentric and funny. I read it again recently and, 40 years on, it still glows but, inevitably, it's a different experience. The world has moved, and Whelan hasn't. It's still a great novel and it surprises me that so few have read or even heard of it.
Roddy Doyle's latest novel is Love. His collection The Complete Two Pints was published this month

Colm Tóibín: The New Perspective by K Arnold Price (1980)

The New Perspective by K Arnold Price (1980)

This short, startling novel was published in 1980 when its author, Nella Price, was 84. It is narrated by a middle-aged woman in the Dublin suburbs, a person of great intelligence and subtlety of mind. It deals intensely with marriage and what a private life means and feels like. I love the sharp observation, the rich cadences, the powerful distinctions between levels of feeling. The novel has some of the hallmarks of a Bergman film, dealing with the difficulty of finding meaning and spiritual satisfaction in a northern landscape where the light is scarce.
Colm Tóibín's next novel, The Magician, is due out in September

Anne Enright: An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed, Edited by Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella (1981)

An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (1981)

Now that the thickets of misogyny are being cleared from Irish law and letters, I find myself returning to early ideas of Irishness, that were, in my childhood, put to such poor use. It is a bit of a reach to call this well-known anthology of early Irish poetry "buried", though it does contain antique treasure. The poems are not all brilliant, as poems go, but they seem distilled by time, and the voices that reach us from centuries ago are so human and likeable. There are two poems here written to dead birds; one a drowned pet blackbird, the other a bittern that died of thirst. What's not to like? An Duanaire, collected by Seán Ó Tuama and translated by Thomas Kinsella, should be on every Irish bookshelf (and probably is, but see above re: thickets).
Anne Enright's latest novel is Actress

Danielle McLaughlin: The Watched and Other Stories by Dora Murphy (1992)

The Watched and Other Stories by Dora Murphy (1992)

Dora Murphy's short story collection was published by Carlow Writers' Group in 1992 when Murphy was 90, and has been translated into Italian by Rosangela Barone. It includes a story called Saturday, first published in the Kilkenny Magazine in 1969, which features a young Irish woman making arrangements to travel to England for an abortion. The story ends with a one-word sentence: "Waiting." I can only imagine the bravery required to write that story in 1960s Ireland.
Danielle McLaughlin is the author of the short-story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets, and a novel, The Art of Falling

Martina Evans: Here Comes John by Bridget O'Connor (1995)

Here Comes John by Bridget O’Connor (1995)

Bridget O'Connor's first volume of short stories, Here Comes John (Picador), landed like a meteor in 1995. Stylish, cruelly funny, utterly physical – her tightly structured stories are crammed with poetry. Tell Her You Love Her followed in 1997. Every O'Connor story is a performance, a live fight with time and decay, disgust and the human body. She wrote intensely from her time and place; to read her now is to be catapulted back to 1990s London. Yet the voice, the themes are more relevant than ever. No wonder she was so preoccupied with temporality: she was before her time.
Martina Evans's next collection, American Mules (Carcanet), is due out in May

Wendy Erskine: Women are the Scourge of the Earth by Frances Molloy (1998)

Women Are the Scourge of the Earth by Frances Molloy (1998)

Ann Brady, who wrote as Frances Molloy, died aged 44 in 1991. Her best-known work is No Mate for the Magpie, a funny, serious and original novel centred on a female, working-class character and told, first person, in rural Derry dialect. But I also love her short-story collection, Women Are the Scourge of the Earth (White Row Press). It is said that Molloy worried about being a "proper author", the kind who dealt with big concerns. And yet in this collection, which is also mostly set in rural Derry, there is, beyond Molloy's control and empathy as a writer, such beauty, violence and pain. She had no need, in fact, for any meretricious supersizing.
Wendy Erskine is the author of Sweet Home (Stinging Fly). A second collection is due next year

Anakana Schofield: The Men Who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy by Ultan Cowley (2001)

The Men Who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy by Ultan Cowley (2001)

This is a vital history. Ultan Cowley's book collates and compiles oral history, sociological data, anthropological detail, photographs and historical fact to give a comprehensive and accessible overview of the labour that went into creating Britain's roads, railways and canals and the harsh toll it took on the Irish men who built them. The Men Who Built Britain was first published by Wolfhound Press but is now available directly from the author's Potter's Yard Press imprint.
Anakana Schofield's latest novel is Bina

Donal Ryan: The Ballad of Mo & G by Billy Keane (2013)

The Ballad of Mo & G by Billy Keane (2013)

The Ballad of Mo & G is a novel that contains in its aimless, lovesick narrator, its tragic, unforgettable heroine, and its capricious, murderous antihero all the turmoil and fear of a nation in a state of abject self-reproach. It's not a straight-up allegory – human dysfunction and obsession are the author's fascination and rich seam – but post-boom Ireland is laid out on these pages with honesty, wit and love. The Ballad of Mo & G deserves an international audience, a big-budget adaptation and a place in the canon. It needs to be read, by everyone.
Donal Ryan's latest novel is Strange Flowers

Elaine Feeney: Marina by Aoibheann McCann (2018)

Marina by Aoibheann McCann (2018)

"The first time I met him was at the bottom of the sea," opens chapter one of Aoibheann McCann's original short novel, Marina. McCann's debut is the kind of writing that seizes you and doesn't let go. It's a tragi-comic first-person tale of the troubled life of a young woman. The novel traces, with great wit and brevity, Marina's troubled Irish childhood through into a dissociative adulthood in London. It is a superb work, filled with wry humour; a painful lament on how fractured children grow and exist in the world, striving to belong. Her prose is luminous. To begin with McCann's work, try her short story Fumes on The Stinging Fly's website.
Elaine Feeney's debut novel, As You Were, has just won the Kate O'Brien Award

Martin Doyle

As a Troubles teenager, I gravitated to fiction that faced up to the horror, few finer than Nothing Happens in Carmincross (1985) by Benedict Kiely, and No Country for Young Men (1980) by Julia O'Faolain. The Revolution Script (1971) by Brian Moore is not so much true crime as true terror – it compellingly fictionalises the kidnapping of James Cross, an Irish-born British diplomat, by a Quebecois separatist group. Getting Used to Not Being Remarkable (1998) by Michael Foley, and Lead Us Into Temptation (1978; Lig Sinn i gCathú, 1976) by Breandán Ó hEithir are delightful coming-of-age tragicomedies. Duffy Is Dead (1986) and Open Cut (1988) are unsentimental but hugely entertaining working-class, emigrant novels by JM O'Neill, laureate of the London Irish, which should not only be read but adapted for the screen.
Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times. He is one of the contributors to The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices (Unbound), edited by Paul McVeigh, which is due in July

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times