What is the most popular Irish book?

Ulysses? The Book of Kells? The Country Girls? Thom’s Directory? The answer may surprise you

Children from St Mary’s, St Michael’s and St Patrick’s national schools in Trim read from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in advance of the Trim Swift Festival in 2011. Photograph: Alan Betson

What is the most popular Irish book? Ulysses? Thom’s Directory? The Book of Kells? The Country Girls? Who is the most popular Irish author? James Joyce? Maeve Binchy? Eoin Colfer?

The answer, of course, is that “it depends”. It depends on how you measure popularity. Sales? Number of copies published?

One way of measuring popularity is to look at library holdings: the number of appearances by an author or work in library collections worldwide. Libraries reflect popular interest. However, they also reflect scholarly interest and have collected the published output of nations over time. Library collections are where world literature is stewarded and defined.

Using WorldCat, a database of library catalogues, we can actually look at aggregate library holdings from around the world. WorldCat is produced by OCLC, a global library co-operative headquartered in Dublin, Ohio, working with individual libraries and library organisations. It knows about the collections of more than 16,000 libraries, representing about 400 million publications or other individually catalogued items (maps, CDs, etc), which in turn represent about 2.5 billion holdings in individual libraries. WorldCat is probably the best approximation we have anywhere to the published record.


So what does WorldCat say? Library data tells us that Jonathan Swift is the most popular Irish author, and the work for which he is best known, Gulliver’s Travels, is the most popular work by an Irish author in world literature.

Our findings certainly confirm the remarks of Dr Aileen Douglas, Head of the School of English at Trinity College Dublin, in The Irish Times recently. “Gulliver’s Travels belongs not just to Irish literature, but to world literature and its relevance only increases over time.” It is a particularly timely finding as Dublin is marking the 350th anniversary of Swift’s birth with its Swift350 celebration throughout 2017.

Rounding out the top five most popular works by an Irish author are Dracula by Bram Stoker; The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith; The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; and Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. Oscar Wilde, Eve Bunting [born in Maghera in 1928, the US-based author of more than 250 novels, most for children], George Bernard Shaw and Oliver Goldsmith follow Swift in the ranking of the top five most popular Irish authors.

These findings confirm the strong literary focus in the Irish published record. Works of the imagination feature very strongly in Irish literature. Similar work in Scotland for example shows the importance of Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott, but also underlines the preponderance of David Hume, Adam Smith and other writers of the Scottish Enlightenment. The Scottish published record has a rather different profile. The most widely held “non-fiction” works by Irish authors are by Edmund Burke and George Berkeley.

An approach based on library holdings favours classics – works that are now published in multiple versions, are translated, are retold for younger readers and are widely distributed in core collections.

We can correct for this by limiting the analysis to a particular time period. So, for example the most popular contemporary (ie born after 1945) authors are Eoin Colfer, Darren Shan, Alister McGrath [Belfast-born Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University], John Connolly, Roddy Doyle, Michael Scott, Cecelia Ahern, Colm Tóibín, Marian Keyes and Emma Donoghue. It is interesting to see the strong presence on the list of young adult fantasy fiction authors, alongside more broadly known names.

We can also correct by looking at particular time slices – looking at materials only published in a specified period. So, limiting to materials published between 1900 and 1904, the most popular authors (or other creators associated with works, such as musicians or performers) are George Bernard Shaw, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, James Bryce, WB Yeats, LT Meade, Jonathan Swift, Charles Lever, Justin McCarthy, and Charles Villiers Stanford.

Jumping forward to the period 1950 to 1954, one sees Joyce Cary, Cecil Day Lewis and Elizabeth Bowen join Shaw, Wilde, Swift, Joyce, Yeats and Goldsmith. Also featuring here is Jimmy Kennedy, the lyricist who put words to Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Iris Murdoch, Sheridan Le Fanu and Norma Burrowes feature among others in the 1975 to 1979 list. Moving forward to 2000-2004, Maeve Binchy, Eoin Colfer, Bram Stoker and Marian Keyes join Wilde, Shaw, Swift, Joyce and Yeats. We also see the first appearance of Samuel Beckett.

So again, we can see the dominance of now classic authors. However, it is also interesting to see the time-bound reputation of the once popular Justin McCarthy or James Bryce. Of particular note is how reputations can fluctuate. LT Meade was a prolific Victorian writer of children’s literature and detective stories. Her work recently saw a modest revival of interest as one of her creations featured in the TV show, the Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. More starkly, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker are much more popular now than they were when they were writing.

Library collections are also important repositories of music and films. What is the most popular Irish musical work? Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, followed by Watermark and A Day Without Rain by Enya. And film? Not unsurprisingly, The Quiet Man, followed by Philomena, My Left Foot, The Crying Game and Once.

These findings are part of OCLC Research's continuing work exploring cultural patterns and trends through library bibliographic and holdings data. This is a form of "reading at scale", identifying patterns in how countries project their cultural, intellectual, literary and musical traditions through the published record. OCLC Research has developed methods for identifying a national presence in the published record, encompassing materials that are published in, are authored by people from, and/or are about a particular country. We rely on WorldCat for library data and use DBpedia, a more structured version of Wikipedia data, to identify Irish authors. We define Ireland as the island of Ireland. Earlier studies have applied these methods to Scotland and New Zealand. We will publish a report on our Irish work, authored by research scientist Brian Lavoie, later this year. I presented preliminary findings from the Irish study at the recent CONUL annual conference in Athlone. CONUL is a consortium of Ireland's main research libraries.
Lorcan Dempsey is vice-president, membership and research, and chief strategist, OCLC