Ireland: birthplace of Oscar Wilde, home of Guinness, lush land of no snakes and green shamrocks. While travel is still out of reach for some of us (by some of us, I mean me), there are plenty of books on our shelves that can take us to our dream destinations – and, for me, that’s the Emerald Isle. Here are ten books set in Ireland for a budget-friendly escape.
Milkman by Anna Burns
Milkman is set in an “unnamed city” – but for anyone who’s paying the slightest bit of attention, it’s obviously Belfast. That’s where Anna Burns herself was raised, and her experiences of the turbulent times of the Troubles inform this intense psychological novel. It’s a story about gossip, silence, violence, and consequences. With this book, Burns actually became the first-ever writer from Northern Ireland to win the Booker Prize, with the judges commending it as “an exploration of the universal experience of societies in crisis.” Read my full review of Milkman here.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Ulysses has a bit of a reputation – being notoriously difficult to read, for one thing – but if you can grit your teeth (and find a helpful guide to scaffold your reading), it’s well worth it. The story follows Joyce’s self-insert character, Leopold Bloom, and his friends and lovers over the course of a single day of misadventures in Dublin. The book is so beloved as part of the Irish canon that communities celebrate “Bloomsday” on 16 June each year, the anniversary of the day that Joyce depicts. (It was also the day of Joyce’s first date with his wife, so that’s surely worth a pint.) Read my full review of Ulysses here.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney is a bit of a millennial wunderkid – “the Salinger of the Snapchat generation”. All of her books are (at least partially) set in Ireland, but the most iconic is definitely Normal People. The story begins in a fictionalised small Irish town in County Sligo, where Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house. What follows between the two teenagers is a lifelong push-pull of will-they-won’t-they frenemies-to-lovers-back-to-frenemies-then-maybe-lovers-again. The plot follows them to Dublin and Trinity College (where Rooney herself, naturally, studied) and back again. I’m sure there will be “Normal People tours” of those areas in the future – if there aren’t already. Read my full review of Normal People here.
You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken
You know that old saying, “you can’t choose your family”? Well, sometimes you don’t get to choose your friends, either. That’s definitely the case for Katie, who grows up in the small (fictional) Irish town of Glenbruff in You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here. She has no choice but to become friends with the glamorous troublemaker Evelyn, and the wet blanket Maeve. They dream of escaping their small-town life someday, but in the meantime (as the title suggests) they have to make their own fun – and a city girl is coming to shake things up. This is a fantastic exploration of female friendship and coming-of-age against the backdrop of ’90s in the Emerald Isle. Read my full review of You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here here.
The Likeness by Tana French
Tana French is the reigning queen of detective books set in Ireland. The Likeness is the second book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, and it’s severely underrated. The concept is just ridiculous enough to work. Cassie Maddox is drawn back into the Dublin Murder Squad to investigate the murder of her doppelganger, a young university student who looks eerily like her. What’s more, it turns out the victim was living under an alias Maddox had used for a previous investigation. Obviously, she has no choice but to go back undercover, this time posing as the dead girl, to see if any of her Dublin housemates will reveal themselves to be the murderer. Isn’t that bonkers? Isn’t it amazing? Read my full review of The Likeness here.
Amongst Women by John McGahern
Amongst Women is a slim little unassuming tome, and John McGahern is far from a household name, but this is one of the best books set in Ireland interrogating the impact of the country’s internal conflict on families and domestic life. The patriarch character, Michael Moran, is an IRA veteran, a former officer and guerrilla fighter in the War Of Independence and the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. Lacking any other outlet for his frustration, he exorcises his demons on those closest to him. His wife and daughters gather at the family home in Ireland’s rural midlands, hoping to lift Moran’s spirits lest his most recent bout of depression kill him, but it’s far from a happy reunion. Read my full review of Amongst Women here.
Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
Okay, so technically Instructions For A Heatwave begins in London – but the Riordan family has tended carefully to their Irish roots, and the story drags them back there. Plus, Maggie O’Farrell is a widely beloved Northern Irish author, so I say it counts as one of the best books set in Ireland. Everyone in the Riordan family is hiding a secret: they miss home, their marriages are breaking down, their step-kids hate them, they can’t read… and all of those secrets come to a head when the patriarch of the family disappears. This is a fascinating novel of simmering resentments and emotional claustrophobia, a rich family drama that feels very Irish. Read my full review of Instructions For A Heatwave here.
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Eimear McBride draws on a rich tradition for books set in Ireland, stream-of-consciousness writing to explore the depths of trauma and psychology (see Ulysses above), in her debut novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. The rambling story explores a young Irish girl’s family relationships – pushed to the breaking point by her brother’s brain tumour – and her struggle to accept her own sexuality. The New York Times called this book a future classic (among many other complimentary things), and McBride won the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction for her efforts.
The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard
Love true crime? Love books-within-books? Looking for books set in Ireland that will get your heart pumping? You need to read The Nothing Man. The title is a moniker given to a serial killer who assaulted and murdered people in their Cork homes. They called him that because the Gardaí had “nothing” on him. Nowadays, though, he goes by Jim, and he’s a faceless security guard at a grocery store. Jim’s about to get the opportunity to relive his criminal hey-day though, because a true crime book has just come out about him – an I’ll Be Gone In The Dark-esque memoir by his only known survivor. Read my full review of The Nothing Man here.
The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes
In 2008, the Celtic Tiger – a period of foreign investment in Ireland that lead to a major property bubble burst – devastated some Irish families while richly rewarding others. That’s the backdrop for The Wild Laughter, a novel by “one of Ireland’s most audacious, nuanced and insightful young writers”. The Black brothers are living on either side of a chasm, with their beloved father dancing along a delicate tightrope between them. This is a “snapshot of a family and a nation suddenly unmoored”, named Book Of The Year in 2020 by the Irish Times, the Irish Sunday Times, the Irish Independent, AND the Sunday Independent. That might make it one of the most-endorsed books set in Ireland in living memory!