Irish Books That Everyone Should Read

©George Milton via

Ireland, ‘The land of Saints and Scholars,’ has a long history of literacy geniuses going back to 5AD, when Ireland was at the forefront of European literacy. The list of Irish literacy legends is long and extensive, and choosing a few to showcase is not an easy task. I was born in Belfast, Ireland, back in the mid-1980s and did not realize until much later how many of my favorite authors hailed from this tiny green island; ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ was written by Belfast-born C. S. Lewis and ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ was written by Dublin native, Jonathan Swift. Combining Irish history, filled with sadness, drama, and turmoil, along with the Irish love of romanticism and lamenting, has cemented our unique way of telling a good story that surpasses time and cultures.

From Oscar Wilde to Bram Stoker, from the Bronte sisters to James Joyce, the Irish author encompasses many centuries across social classes, colonialism, famine, mass immigration, loss, and gain amidst the backdrop of the permanent Irish rain and the forever rolling green glens. He has captured a global audience by entertaining them with Irish wit and tragedy.  

In honor of the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, and a general celebration of Irish culture in the month of March, I have compiled a list of my favorite Irish stories for both adults and children. The books I have chosen are not listed in any order and are not from one book genre. I picked them solely because I enjoyed them for one reason or another. I have also included some lesser-known books and authors. Be assured that this is not a complete representation of Irish authors, and I hope you use it as a starting point for exploring the full library of Irish literacy. I hope that it may even inspire you to take a trip to Emerald Isle and take an Irish literacy tour. 

Angela Ashes, Frank McCourt, 1996

I recently began re-reading this book after reading it in my early teens. Angela’s Ashes is a memoir of Frank McCourt’s childhood growing up in a poverty-stricken community in Limerick. The book, named after his mother, details how difficult life was for Angela, the wife of an alcoholic. It highlights the discrimination the family faced relating to poverty and not having support from her husband, Malachy. This bleak tale illustrates the hardship that came with being a newly free Ireland and finding its own way and why so many Irish people felt that emigration was their only way out.

The Yellow House, Patricia Flakey, 2010

This story tells the tale of Ireland, which is still in the grips of colonialism and the fight for a free Ireland. Set at the beginning of the 20th Century, Eileen O’Neill lives in what will become Northern Ireland. Her story takes us through the Republican fight and the discrimination that she experienced as a Catholic in a predominantly Protestant world. This political tale not only takes on the passion of the Irish Republican mind but also gives us glimpses into the British mindset and how the separation of a country affects everyone within it.

Circle of Friends, Maeve Binchy, 1990

As a young teenager, I was obsessed with Maeve Binchy’s series of novels full of gossip and transgressions set mainly in Dublin, the Irish capital city. Each book in her collection has a connection to the others, with recurring characters and themes throughout. Featuring Benny, the only child to parents living in rural Ireland, and Eve Malone, an orphan raised within the confines of the Irish Catholic Church, the story focuses on a group of friends from different backgrounds who meet during their time at University College, Dublin in the 1950s. It is a gripping book with twists, turns, and scandals in a simpler time and era.

Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel, 1990

Dancing at Lughnasa is a play set in the 1930s in rural and remote Donegal. It details the plight of a group of sisters who live hand-to-mouth. All the sisters are unmarried and, therefore, rely on each other financially and emotionally. It’s a heartwarming story, highlighting the inequalities of women at a time when Ireland was newly independent and still finding its way. 

P.S. I Love You, Cecelia Ahern, 2004

This Cecilia Ahern (the daughter of the Irish President, Bertie Ahern) story is much more famous for its movie version starring Hillary Swank and Gerard Butler. However, the book is set solely in Ireland, not New York, as in the movie. The book introduces us to 29-year-old Holly, who loses her first love and soulmate, Gerry, to a brain tumor. She surprisingly discovers that Gerry has written her a note with instructions every month for a year. This is a romantic and heart-wrenching book that I have read and watched many times.

Across the Barricades, Joan Lingard, 1990

As a child, I grew up in the divided city of Belfast during a 30-year civil war between the Irish and the British communities. Across the Barricades is one in a series of books detailing Kevin and Sadie’s love for each other despite being from different sides of the conflict. This book is written for young adults and depicts the struggles of young love when the whole world is against it and how exploring a love across two communities was dangerous and life-threatening.

Under the Hawthorn Tree, Maria Conlon-McKenna, 1990

This is a fictional book set during the Irish potato blight in the 1840s and is primarily written for children. A group of siblings, after losing their parents to starvation, are forced to find their great-aunts. The book will take you on a historical journey that depicts survival and loss. It illustrates the harsh realities of potato blight and poverty in one of the darkest periods of Irish history.