10 Books by Contemporary Irish Authors You Need to Read


Chicagoans love St. Patrick’s Day—we dye our river green, throw parades, set out on pub crawls, and showcase our Irish-American heritage with pride. General American interest in Irish culture has also been broadening in recent years as more Irish celebrities become household names in film and music, including Cillian Murphy, Saoirse Ronan, Paul Mescal, Andrew Scott, Colin Farrell, Nicola Caughlin, Caitríona Balfe, Barry Keoghan, Niall Horan, Dermot Kennedy, Hozier, and more. Of course, this expansion in interest includes books too. 

Many of us may be familiar with classic Irish authors such as James Joyce or Oscar Wilde, but new Irish writers continue to enter the literary canon each year. In 2023, The Booker Prize recognized two Irish authors: Paul Lynch’s The Prophet Song took the winning prize while Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting made the shortlist. Included on the longlist were two additional Irish-authored novels, Sebastion Barry’s Old God’s Time and Elaine Feeney’s How to Build a Boat. Women and queer authors, in particular, have begun to etch out a place in a previously homogenous canon. Their stories tend to be political and intimate, imbued with tenderness as well as restlessness. Best-selling lists often include books by Sally Rooney, Emma Donoghue, Tana French, Graham Norton, Eimear McBride, and Anne Enright, among others. Such recognition encourages Irish-authored books to be published in the United States and carries those stories onto front tables at our favorite bookstores, where new ideas and fascinations may reach the American public. 

As someone who has split their time between Chicago and Dublin for several years, it’s exciting to witness the growing influence of Irish arts and literature on American culture in real-time. So, to celebrate St. Paddy’s Day and honor my second home, I’d like to share 10 books (and a few additional recommendations) by Irish authors released in the last five years. While this is a small, curated list, please know a list of contemporary Irish writing could be much longer

A Ghost in the Throat
By Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Part ghost story and part intimate reflection, bilingual poet and essayist Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat blends essay and autofiction to explore connections between herself and eighteenth-century noblewoman Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. The latter’s forgotten story is given a new voice and, in doing so, empowers the author’s own voice as she embarks on a quest to confront grief and motherhood, language, and the ways in which the past informs the present. Find our full review here

What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition
By Emma Dabiri
Harper Perennial

Irish-Nigerian author and academic Emma Dabiri is a vital voice on issues of race and racism in Western culture and beyond. Her books include Don’t Touch My Hair (2019), Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair (2021), What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition (2020), and her latest, Disobedient Bodies, not yet released in the United States. Like much of Dabiri’s writing, What White People Can Do Next shines with personal accounts and academic grounding, culminating into a powerful call to action in Europe, the United Kingdom, and abroad. 

Ordinary Human Failings
By Megan Nolan
Little Brown and Company

Megan Nolan’s sophomore novel refines and expands upon themes found in her best-selling debut, Acts of Desperation. The narrative centers on an Irish immigrant family who must confront their pasts after their youngest family member is implicated in the murder of a neighbor toddler in their London estate. Readers familiar with Nolan’s first novel will discover a more confident writing voice in the second, which contains a complex plot aimed at confronting familiar ideas of misuse and obsession with a wider scope on media and politics. Ordinary Human Failings—recently longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction alongside books by other established Irish authors like Claire Kilroy and Anne Enright—is one of my personal favorite books in recent years. Find our full review here

By Maggie O’Farrell

If Northern Irish author Maggie O’Farrell is a historical fiction queen, then Hamnet is her crowning jewel. The novel’s narrative reimagines the story behind William Shakespeare’s famous play, Hamlet, following the beloved playwright’s marriage, family life, and the untimely death of his son Hamnet by plague. O’Farrell’s detailed prose is staple in her writing, refined and repurposed in Hamnet and then replicated in her most recent novel, The Marriage Portrait. In fact, both novels are written from a child’s point of view and deal with tragedy; however fans of Hamnet might find the successive novelapproaches its subject from a more sober rather than whimsical perspective. For that reason, I’d recommend Hamnet for those who are new to this author’s books. Nevertheless, both novels are worthwhile reads from O’Farrell. 

By Sinéad Gleeson
Ecco Press

Sinéad Gleesonbelongs to a small catalog of Irish women authors who write nonfiction about motherhood, such as Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s Ghost in the Throat, and the broader experience of living in a woman’s body, such as Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self or all of Emma Dabiri’s books. I’ve included Constellations in this list for Gleeson’s singular perspective on chronic illness, in particular. These essays, while often painful, are a fierce reclamation. They are also deeply compassionate and reticent to how art guides a life. Like many great memoirists, Gleeson contextualizes her life in an expansive world. Her writing, as the title may imply, is fragmentary yet insists on the reader’s attention. I’m looking forward to her forthcoming debut novel, Hagstone.

The Happy Couple
By Naoise Dolan
Ecco Press

Since her debut novel Exciting Times, Naoise Dolan has been compared to Sally Rooney for her paired back prose and focus on intimate relationships. Like Rooney, Dolan’s books carry an undercurrent of class and patriarchal power. Yet, the main couple in The Happy Couple are bolstered by a diverse cast of friends whose seemingly significant manipulations and influence are unraveled in alternating points of view. Dolan subverts the expectations of a marriage plot by allowing minor characters space to control the narrative, if only for a chapter. This makes the lack of a tidy conclusion in The Happy Couple all the more intriguing and the plot of this sophomore novel more memorable as a whole. 

All Down Darkness Wide
By Seán Hewitt
Penguin Press

See Also

Prize-winning Irish-British poet Seán Hewitt brings his lyrical aptitude to prose in his memoir, All Down Darkness Wide. His story is propelled by ghosts, the limits of love, and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Readers of Ocean Vuong or Garth Greenwell may be drawn to Hewitt’s unabashed writing, which has cemented him in the contemporary Irish queer canon. If you enjoy this memoir and/or would like to explore the canon further, I would also recommend his recent anthology about ancient queer love, 300,000 Kisses, illustrated by Luke Edward Hall. 

Nothing Special
By Nicole Flattery
Bloomsbury Publishing

Nothing Special follows Mae, an aloof teenager in 1960s New York, who falls into a job as Andy Warhol’s typist. Warhol enthusiasts might be drawn to witty references to the artist and his work, but the novel’s aim is to demystify the Factory Studio through the eyes of the women behind the curtain doing uncredited labor. Nicole Flattery’s prose is sharp as she unravels a broader interest in the clash between tradition and technology intrinsic to the Pop Art legacy grounding the story. Like Dolan, Flattery has been slotted into a niche of young Irish women writers who write disaffected young women characters, seemingly founded by Sally Rooney. Yet those familiar with her short story collection Show Them a Good Time may note characteristics of female agency and apathy carried over into her debut. Flattery’s writing feels wholly unique to her even as she identifies well-known historical and cultural settings. 

The Rachel Incident
By Caroline O’Donoghue
Knopf Publishing Group

The Rachel Incident is a funny and heart-filled coming-of-age story about two booksellers who form a lasting friendship. This premise is commercial, yet Caroline O’Donoghue’s first foray into adult fiction finds a pulse with its musings on modern societal changes in Ireland (not unlike themes found in her YA fantasy All Our Hidden Gifts). Together, the two main characters navigate sexuality and identity, the economic recession post-Celtic Tiger, and an Irish city not often mentioned in literature, Cork. Filled with plenty of yearning and laughably bad decisions, The Rachel Incident is foremost a fun read, though it hides a more discerning story about power below its surface. 

Small Things Like These
By Claire Keegan
Grove Press

Claire Keegan’s writing is often compact but poignant, as with her acclaimed novella, Foster (made into a Irish-language film in 2022 titled The Quiet Girl, which was nominated for an Academy Award), and her story collections Walk the Blue Fields and So Late in the Day. Small Things Like These is no exception, earning numerous honors such as the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and a spot on the shortlist for the 2022 Booker Prize. This fictional account exposes the real and shameful Irish history of mother and baby homes in a staunchly Catholic state. It stands out in Keegan’s list of works for its moral center. Perhaps because of this, the story has gained fresh traction with Oscar-winning actor Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of the protagonist in the upcoming 2024 film of the same name. Find our full review of the novel here


Source link