Ireland is best enjoyed slowly. That’s how to really appreciate the haunting Celtic notes of its traditional music, the lilt to everyday discourse and the intricacies of the minutely featured countryside – undulating bogs and sheep-flecked green fields criss-crossed by uneven stone walls, silent slate-toned lakes framed by steep-sided valleys, mist-shrouded mountain peaks and filigreed coastline concealing scalloped bays and sandy strands.
Here are ten books – some novels, some non-fiction – to help you get into the spirit of Ireland before you visit, or to enjoy as an armchair traveller.
In this collection of 15 short stories, James Joyce captures of the voice and lives of the dark streets and homes of his native city at the start of the 20th century. Themes within the stories include the disappointments of childhood, the frustrations of adolescence, and the importance of sexual awakening. Joyce was twenty-five years old when he wrote this collection of short stories, among which 'The Dead' is probably the most famous. Considered at the time as a literary experiment, Dubliners contains moments of joy, fear, grief, love and loss, which combine to form one of the most complete depictions of a city ever written. The stories remain as refreshingly original and surprising as they did when they were first published in 1914.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, Trinity tells the story of intertwining families and a love story that crosses the social and religious boundaries between them: The Larkins are Catholic hill farmers from Donegal. The MacLeods are Protestants shipyard workers from Belfast. The book centres on Conor Larkin, a young idealistic Catholic rebel. Conor falls for a valiant and beautiful Protestant girl who defies her heritage to join the Republican cause. Though fictional, the historical background to Trinity is brilliantly researched and makes for a captivating read..
The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam. It wasn’t the drink that killed him – although that certainly helped – it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house, in the winter of 1968. The Gathering is a family epic about love and disappointment, about thwarted lust and limitless desire, and how our fate is written in the body, not in the stars.
This recommendation comes from the team at Vagabond Tours of Ireland: ‘Written in colloquial, foul-mouthed slang, Roddy Doyle’s The Barrytown trilogy capture the essence of 1980s and 1990s Dublin. All three have been made into movies. All three are hilarious! The Commitments is a raucous tale about the coming together (and subsequent falling apart) of an Irish soul band. The Van portrays the 1990 World Cup through the eyes of two friends selling fish’n’chips from a food truck. The Snapper covers the shame and scandal caused by a one night stand and unwanted pregnancy. https://vagabondtoursofireland.com/books-to-read-before-going-to-ireland/
As the twentieth century dawns on the island of Rathlin, a place ravaged by storms and haunted by past tragedies, Nuala Byrne is faced with a difficult decision. Abandoned by her family for the new world, she receives a proposal from the island's aging tailor. For the price of a roof over her head, she accepts. When Nuala is sent to cook for a group of engineers who have been sent to Rathlin by Marconi to conduct experiments in the use of wireless telegraphy, she encounters an Italian named Gabriel, who offers her the chance to equip herself with new skills and knowledge. As her friendship with Gabriel opens up horizons beyond the rocky and treacherous cliffs of her island home, Nuala begins to realise that her deal with the tailor was a bargain she should never have struck. A great read if you’re planning to visit Rathlin.
The late Irish novelist Maeve Binchy was best known for her sympathetic and often humorous portrayal of small-town life in Ireland and her descriptive characters. In Quentins, she tells the story of a generation and a city through the history of a Dublin restaurant. Ella Brady wants to film a documentary about Quentins that will capture the spirit of Dublin from the 1970s to the present day. After all, the restaurant saw the people of a city become more confident in everything from their lifestyles to the food that they chose to eat. And Quentins has a thousand stories to tell. But as Ella uncovers more of what has gone on at Quentins, she begins to wonder whether some secrets should be kept that way.
In its landscape, history and folklore, Connemara is a singular region: ill-defined geographically, and yet unmistakably a place apart from the rest of Ireland. Tim Robinson moved from Aran to Connemara nearly twenty years ago. This book is the result of his extraordinary engagement with the mountains, bogs and shorelines of the region, and with its folklore and its often terrible history: a work as beautiful and surprising as the place it attempts to describe.
Frank McCourt's sad, funny, bittersweet memoir of growing up as a child to Irish immigrants in Depression-era Brooklyn and then in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. It is the story of extreme hardship and suffering. Frank's mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children as his father Malachy’s drinking bouts constantly bring the family to the brink of disaster. Wearing shoes repaired with tires, begging a pig's head for Christmas dinner, and searching the pubs for his father, Frank endures poverty, near-starvation, and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbours. It is a story of courage and survival against apparently overwhelming odds.
Despite the many exotic places Pete McCarthy has visited, he finds that nowhere else can match the particular magic of Ireland, his mother's homeland. In McCarthy's Bar, his journey begins in Cork and continues along the west coast to Donegal in the north. Travelling through spectacular landscapes, but at all times obeying the rule, 'never pass a bar that has your name on it', he encounters McCarthy's bars up and down the land, meeting fascinating people before pleading to be let out at four o'clock in the morning. McCarthy's Bar is a wonderfully funny and affectionate portrait of a rapidly changing country.
A foolhardy attempt to win a drunken bet led to Tony Hawks having one of the most unforgettable experiences of his life. Joined by his trusty travelling-companion-cum-domestic-appliance, he found himself in the midst of a remarkable, inspirational and, at times, downright silly adventure. In their month of madness, Tony and his fridge surfed together; entered a bachelor festival; and met the poorest king on Earth. An absurd story of an extraordinary adventure, Round Ireland with a Fridge follows the fearless pair as they battle towards Dublin and a breathtaking finale that is moving, uplifting, and a fitting conclusion to the whole ridiculous affair.
Main image: Grand Canal Dock, Dublin, Ireland by Giuseppe Milo, Creative Commons 2.0