You are probably getting ready to celebrate the holiday commemorating, according to tradition, the burial of Saint Patrick 1,558 years ago today–Saint Patrick’s Day! This year, do the holiday some justice—ditch the shamrocks and leprechauns and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by diving into one of Ireland’s greatest gifts to the larger world: its literature. Oh, and have a Guinness—one of Ireland’s other great gifts—while you’re at it. Here are some Irish and Irish-adjacent suggestions:
By Samuel Beckett
This short audiobook is nominally about a guy named Molloy who lives in his mother’s room, writes in her bed and sends the written pages to someone who demands more. Then there is a detective, Moran, who sets out find Molloy, but instead murders someone and goes back to his house. There isn’t much of a plot, there are only a few characters and they all kind of seem similar. So, what do I think about this book? Brilliant. Intrigued? If you like Molloy, check out the second book in the trilogy, Malone Dies, and if you can work out what is going on in the third book, The Unnamable, write to me and let me know because I’m dying to figure it out.
By Emma Donoghue
Jack, a five-year-old, is the narrator of this novel. He and his mother are being held captive in an 11 by 11 foot room by a man called Old Nick, who has held Jack’s mother against her will for seven years. Though the intense subject matter and small setting could bog the story down, instead it works in reverse, giving Jack the opportunity to use his imagination with the help of his mother. This is one of those stories where the seeming hopelessness of the tragedy brings into stark relief all the breathless surprises of joy that small things, such as a rug or a bed or a lollipop, can supply.
By John Banville
This Man Booker Prize-winning novel reads like an impressionistic painting, one that isn’t too concerned about the particulars or accuracy of the subject matter, but is more interested in creating an atmosphere around the subject matter. It is about loss and the unreliability of memory, to the point where the invention of a memory actually becomes more important, more real, even, than the event that originally evoked the memory. The narrator is middle-aged Max Morden. He returns to the seaside town of his youthful summers in order to cope with the recent death of his wife. The narration is unreliable in the way that a story your good storyteller friend is telling around the table to all your other friends is unreliable—perhaps in truth it didn’t go exactly how he told it, but those extra flourishes he put on it sure made the story a better one.
By Edna O'Brien
This memoir by Edna O’Brien has many ghosts floating about it. Her mother is the most prominent one—brooding and wondering if her Edna was good girl or not. Which brings us to the second ghost in the book, the Irish Catholic Church. All throughout this memoir you can feel the constant pull between good and bad, heaven and hell. What’s interesting is that religion and literature are interested in the same questions. O’Brien chose the latter as her medium; it didn’t sit well with the former. Her first novel, The Country Girls, came out in 1960 and was promptly banned and burned by the church for its frank depictions of sex. O’Brien later went on to have an illustrious and prolific writing career, becoming one of Ireland’s greatest writers. Find out about O’Brien’s fascinating life and then go read her fiction.
By Eimear McBride
“If you like books that mess with language, that corrupt the grammar of language for the sake of revealing character, then this is a book for you. The title of this book is a big clue to the content. As the narrator ages and forms, dealing with the shock of her brother’s brain tumor, her sometimes-abusive-sometimes-affectionate mother, a sexual encounter with her uncle, and the all-encompassing presence of the church, so too does the language form. The book isn’t really concerned with conventional storytelling tools. (None of the characters are named, and there aren’t any concrete details that set this in a time period.) Instead, the language is the conduit to get the story across.
By Colum McCann
This novel centers around Phillipe Petit’s high wire walk between the world trade center towers in 1974 (if you aren’t familiar with the event, they made a movie about it, but the documentary is better). Told from multiple points of view, with the many storylines intersecting each other, this novel not only depicts through its characters Ireland, but also the trek many Irish have made to America.
By Dennis Lehane
Which brings me to the final book on the list. This one is a little different in that the author isn’t Irish and the story doesn’t take place in Ireland, but rather Boston, perhaps the most prominent city of the Irish diaspora. In this crime noir, friends Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were playing in the street as kids when a car pulled up beside them. Dave got in, while Sean and Jimmy didn’t. Because of the tragedy that followed, years later, the three are estranged as adults. But when Jimmy’s daughter is murdered, they are thrown back into each other’s lives. What you get along with a white-knuckle story is a snapshot of working class Boston. It’ll be hard to press pause on this thriller.