Fiction -- Ireland holds a place in literature disproportionate to its small size and modest population. Four writers from this tiny country have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Inspired by the country’s unique beauty, the inequities of its political system, and its cruel legacy of poverty and struggle, Ireland’s authors, poets, and playwrights wrote about the Irish for the Irish, and to raise awareness in the rest of the world. No matter where you live, you’ve probably been reading about Ireland all your life.
One of the country’s best-known early writers was satirist Jonathan Swift, who was born in Dublin in 1667. Educated at Trinity College, he left Ireland for England in 1688 to avoid the Glorious Revolution. Though he spent much of his adult life in London, he returned to Ireland when he was over 50 years old, at which point he began to write his most famous works. Greatly moved by the suffering of the poor in Ireland, he translated his anger into dark, vicious humor. His tract A Modest Proposal is widely credited with inventing satire as we now know it. Swift's best-known works have political undertones—even Gulliver’s Travels is a political allegory.
Best known for his novel Dracula, the novelist and theater promoter Bram Stoker was born in Clontarf, a coastal suburb of Dublin, in 1847. As a young man fresh out of Trinity College, he began reviewing theater productions for local newspapers, which is how he met the actor Henry Irving. He spent much of his time promoting and working for Irving, writing novels on the side for extra money. He lived most of his life in England, which largely inspired his work, although it is said that St. Michan’s Church ★★ in Dublin, with its ghostly crypt, and St. Mary’s Cathedral ★ in Killarney contributed to Dracula’s creepy feel.
Born in Dublin in 1854, Oscar Wilde was a successful student at Trinity College, winning a scholarship to continue his studies in England at Oxford. After a flamboyant time there, he graduated with top honors and returned to Ireland, only to lose his girlfriend to Bram Stoker in 1878, after which he left Ireland forever. His writing—including the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, plays including The Importance of Being Earnest, and books of poetry—were often overshadowed by his scandalous personal life. Although a statue of him stands in Dublin in St. Stephen’s Green ★, his works were largely inspired by British and French writers, and he spent the majority of his life abroad.
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856 and attended school in the city, but never went to college. He developed a self-taught literary style. He moved to England as a young man, giving many of his works a distinctly English feel. His plays are known both for their sharp wit and for their sense of outrage over unfairness in society and the absurdity of the British class system. He is the only person ever to have won both the Nobel Prize and an Oscar (for Pygmalion).
Born in Sandy Mount outside Dublin in 1865, William Butler Yeats attended the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, but his poetry and prose were heavily inspired by County Sligo, where he spent much of his time (and where he is buried, in Drumcliffe churchyard). One of the leading figures of the Irish literary revival in the early 20th century, he won the Nobel Prize in 1923. If you're headed out into the Irish countryside, you might want to pick up a copy of his Collected Poems, since the view you're about to see is the same one that inspired him.
James Joyce was born in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar in 1882 and educated at Jesuit boarding schools and later at Trinity College. He wrote vividly—and sometimes impenetrably—about Dublin, despite spending much of his life as an expat living nomadically in Europe. His controversial and hugely complex novels Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are his most celebrated (and least understood) works. They and his collection of short stories, Dubliners, touch deeply on the character of the people of Dublin. The James Joyce Centre ★ is a mecca for Joyce fans.
The poet and playwright Samuel Beckett was born in 1906 in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock and educated at Trinity College. His work, however, was heavily influenced by German and French postmodernists, and he spent much of his life abroad, even serving with the Resistance in France during World War II. Best known for his complex absurdist play Waiting for Godot, he won the Nobel Prize in 1969.
The controversial writer, erstwhile terrorist, and all-round bon vivant Brendan Behan was born in Dublin in 1923. Behan came by his revolutionary fervor honestly: His father fought in the Easter Rising and his mother was a close friend of Michael Collins. When he was 14, Behan joined Fianna Éireann, the youth organization of the IRA. An incompetent terrorist, he was arrested on his first solo mission to blow up England’s Liverpool Docks when he was 16 years old. His autobiographical book, Borstal Boy, describes this period in his life in exquisite detail. His play The Quare Fellow made him an international literary star, but he would spend the rest of his life as a jolly, hopeless alcoholic, drinking his way through London, Dublin, and New York, better known for his quick wit and bons mots than for his plays.
Among modern Irish writers, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney may be the best known. Born in 1939 near a small town called Castledawson in Northern Ireland, as a child he won scholarships to boarding school in Derry and later to Queen’s University in Belfast. His years studying classic ancient Greek and Latin literature and Anglo-Saxon writing heavily influenced his poetry, but all of his writing is marked by his life in the troubled region where he grew up. His works, including The Cure at Troy (based on the works of Sophocles), The Haw Lantern, The Government of the Tongue, and a modern translation of Beowulf earned him the Nobel Prize in 1995. Heaney’s death in the summer of 2013 brought an outpouring of affection from fans across the world.
Other contemporary Irish writers include Marian Keyes (whose hugely popular novels include Lucy Sullivan Getting Married and This Charming Man); the award-winning novelist and memoirist Edna O'Brien (The Country Girls, House of Splendid Isolation); Maeve Binchy (Dublin 4, A Week in Winter, Cirlce of Friends); J. P. Donleavy (whose book The Ginger Man, about a drunken Trinity College student, was banned by the Catholic Church); Roddy Doyle (whose book The Commitments, about aspiring Irish musicians, became a top-grossing film); and Jennifer Johnston, who addressed the tension between Protestants and Catholics in How Many Miles to Babylon? You can also try Flann O'Brien (At-Swim-Two-Birds) for hilarious writing about writing and Liam O'Flaherty, whose The Informer is a thriller about a veteran of the civil war.
Respected expat novelists include Irish journalist and novelist Colm Tóibín (The Heather Blazing and The Master) and Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin).
Nonfiction -- If you want to know about Ireland and the Irish, plenty of talented writers in and out of the country are willing to tell you.
Jonathan Bardon's A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes is a good general introduction to Irish history. The book is broken up into 250 short chapters—learned without being too dense, and a very useful primer.
To understand more about the Famine, try the British author Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger. Written in 1962, it’s still viewed as the definitive dispassionate examination of this dark period in Irish history.
The author Tim Pat Coogan, son of an IRA volunteer, has written two excellent books, The Irish Civil War (2001) and The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966–1996 (1997), both of which are essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the complexities of 21st-century Ireland. He also wrote a controversial biography, Eamon de Valera, criticizing the former Irish president’s actions and legacy.
For a look at Ireland in recent history, try John Ardagh’s Ireland and the Irish (1995) or F. S. Lyons’s Ireland Since the Famine (1973).
The late Dublin-born journalist Nuala O’Faolain wrote two top-selling memoirs, Are You Somebody? (1996) and Almost There (2003), which give the reader an insider’s view of living and growing up in modern Ireland.
The late Irish-born American writer Frank McCourt earned acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize for Angela’s Ashes (1996), his grim memoir of a childhood spent partly in Limerick and partly in Brooklyn. The book is very controversial in Ireland, however; many in Limerick claim it is not an accurate representation of the city during that time.
Many controversial, complex, and difficult Irish subjects have been tackled by an international array of directors and actors. Here are a few of the better-known ones—and a few obscure gems worth seeking out.
Man of Aran (directed by Robert Flaherty, 1934) is a “docufiction” about life on the Aran Islands. Long respected as a documentary, it’s now known that much of it was staged by its American director. Still, it’s an interesting view on what the islands looked like in the early 20th century.
Virtually unknown today, Maeve (directed by John Davis/Pat Murphy, 1982) is a fascinating piece of Irish independent film from the early 1980s, following an Irish expat in England who decides to return to strife-torn Northern Ireland.
The Commitments (directed by Alan Parker, 1991) may be the most famous Irish musical ever made. With its cast of young, largely inexperienced Irish actors playing musicians dedicated to American soul music, it’s a delightful piece of filmmaking.
Michael Collins (directed by Neil Jordan, 1996) is a fine biopic about the Irish rebel, filmed largely on location and starring Irish actor Liam Neeson.
Veronica Guerin (directed by Joel Schumacher, 2003) is a dark, fact-based film (with Australian actress Cate Blanchett doing an excellent Irish accent) about a troubled Irish investigative reporter on the trail of a drug boss.
Intermission (directed by Jim Crowley, 2003) is a lively urban romance filmed on location in Dublin, featuring Irish actor Colin Farrell (talking in his real accent for a change). A great look at Dublin right in the middle of its economic boom.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (directed by Ken Loach, 2006), with a mostly Irish cast and English director, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for its depiction of Ireland’s early-20th-century fight for independence.
Once (directed by John Carney, 2007) is a touching, Oscar-nominated portrait of two struggling young musicians—an Irish singer (played by actor/musician Glen Hansard) and a Czech piano player trying to make it big in Dublin. The film was subsequently turned into a hit stage musical.
The little-seen low-budget Wake Wood (directed by David Keating, 2011) is a slice of pure Gothic horror fun. A young Irish couple moves to a new village when their daughter is tragically killed. Turns out the villagers can bring the girl back from the dead—but only for 3 days. When time’s up, they refuse to let her go. What could possibly go wrong?
On the other end of the genre scale, Silence (directed by Pat Collins, 2012) is a meditative, dreamlike art film about a sound recordist who travels deep into the Irish countryside in search of places completely free of manmade sound. (Spoiler alert: He has a hard time finding any.)
Shadow Dancer (directed by James Marsh, 2012) is an exciting spy thriller set in early 1990s Belfast. A hit at the Sundance Film Festival, the film pulls off the rare trick of being about the Troubles without getting bogged down in politics. Also, 71 (directed by Yann Demange, 2014) has been acclaimed as one of the best films about the Troubles of recent years.
The flipside to Northern Ireland in the ‘70s is beautifully portrayed in Good Vibrations (Glenn Patterson, 2013). The film tells the story of Terri Hooley, who opened a record store in the most bombed street in Belfast—the name reflected his optimistic hope that music could bring warring communities together. The store, which is still open on Winetavern Street in Belfast, went on to spawn a successful record label.
Calvary (directed by John Michael McDonagh, 2014) is a controversial drama about a small-town priest who receives a death threat from one of his parishioners, which leads him to discover dark truths about the community he lives in.
Based on a popular TV sitcom, Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie (directed by Ben Kellett, 2014) is a broad, slapstick comedy about a no-nonsense Dublin matriarch. The film became one of the most successful Irish films of the decade at the box office, despite being almost universally derided as terrible by critics (spoiler alert: They’re right).
Brooklyn (directed by John Crowley, 2015) is an incredibly touching drama about a young Irish woman who emigrates to New York in the 1950s. The film, adapted from a novel by Colm Tóibín, was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in 2016.
Although it’s set in Scandinavia and England, the rip-roaringly good History Channel drama series Vikings is almost entirely shot in Ireland. The stunning scenery is a great way to whet your appetite for exploring the Irish countryside.
Music is inescapable in Ireland, and if you hear a band play in a bar and you like them, we strongly advise you to buy a CD from them.
In the days of Internet radio, the best way to discover new sounds is to tune in to Irish radio stations online. An excellent list of stations that stream live (including links) can be found at www.radiofeeds.co.uk/irish.asp. Good places to start are the stations run by RTÉ, the national broadcaster, particularly the music and entertainment-oriented 2FM (www.rte.ie/2fm); Today FM (www.todayfm.com), a national station that’s extremely popular with a young demographic; and TXFM (www.txfm.ie), a Dublin-based station that specializes in the latest indie and alternative sounds.
Some cool, quintessentially Irish names to check out, both in and out of the mainstream: Damien Rice, who has risen to huge chart success over the past decade; Lisa Hannigan, a singer-songwriter with a line in infectiously romantic indie-pop; Hozier, a singer-songwriter from County Wicklow who has been making waves globally since 2014; Burnt Out, an angsty, artsy pair of indie-punk-influenced artists whose work is deeply rooted in Dublin’s working-class culture; rapper Jafaris, part of an interesting new wave of Irish hip-hop artists; Lyra, a Cork native whose music draws comparisons to Enya and Kate Bush; Soak, an absurdly talented young Derry native who’s been wowing the music world with her simple but enchantingly beautiful ballads; and Eden, an electronic music producer and songwriter who burst onto the international scene in 2016 and has been selling out venues across the world.
At the same time, traditional music is alive and well in Ireland, particularly in close association with Irish step dancing. The folk culture is primarily found outside of Dublin, although some pubs in the city do still showcase traditional music. Good places to catch live music are the coastal village of Doolin, in County Clare, the lively pubs of Cork City, and the town of Ballyshannon in County Donegal. Local pubs in small towns almost always can be counted on to host Irish music and sometimes dancing, too.
Users of social media, particularly Twitter, can absorb a sense of what modern-day Ireland is really like through the tweets of journalists, thinkers, and just ordinary folk with something to say. Good Irish accounts include Frank Fitzgibbon (@FrankSunTimes), editor of the Irish Sunday Times; Hozier (@Hozier), the delightful Wicklow-born singer-songwriter; the constantly laugh-out-loud funny author Marian Keyes (@MarianKeyes); Colm Tóibín (@colmtobin), a writer with bone-dry wit who just happens to share the name of a famous author (a frequent cause of misadventure); Panti Bliss (@Pantibliss), a Dublin drag queen and activist; radio host Louise McSharry (@louisemcsharry), known for discovering some of the hottest talents in Irish music; Sharon Horgan (@SharonHorgan), an Irish comedian, mostly based in London, known for her hilarious sketches and hit sitcom Catastrophe; and Amy Huberman (@amyhuberman), an actress who describes herself as “10% exhausted, 10% feared, and 80% chocolate.”
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