The top 10: Irish writers at their best


Ireland is famous for its written word masterpieces.

The poetry, plays, novels and short stories that flow from Irish writers’ pens are among the finest in the world.

It’s tough to narrow down the best of the best, but IrishCentral has taken on the tricky task, identifying the top 10 examples of Irish writing:

1. “The Dead” by James Joyce

James Joyce’s collection of short stories is stunning in its simplicity _ and depth - and is much more accessible to the average reader than his later works. “The Dead,” which is about how the living and the dead essentially continue to inhabit the same universe, is an extraordinary story that was later made into a film by John Huston.

Best lines:

"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

2. “W.B. Yeats Collected Poems” from Richard Finnernan, editor

Perhaps an even greater writer than Joyce, Yeats went through many phases in his life. But like T.S. Eliot, his work remains modern and speaks to every generation; the greatest praise an author can earn.

Best lines:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
- From “The Second Coming”

3. “Memoir” by John McGahern

Late in his life, John McGahern, one of Ireland’s greatest novelists, wrote down his life story. It is moving, evoking a time and place in rural Ireland in the 1940s which is stunning in its insight.

Best lines:

McGahern’s final words about his mother:

“I remembered her in the world, walking those lanes to school. To Liscairn, to Beaghmore, to Aughawillan; on the train, in Maggie's, going from shop to shop by her side in the town, watching with her the great fires of sticks in Aughawillan evenings, the flames leaping around the walls and ceilings. She was gone where I could not follow. I would never lay eyes again on her face.”

4. “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett was a bleak and minimalist playwright, but perfectly in tune with the transformed world after the savagery of the Second World War. Beckett punctured all the empty myths about nobility and sacrifice and replaced them with cutting observations of the futility of it all. His best work, by far, is his brilliant play “Waiting for Godot.”

Best lines:

Vladimir: That passed the time.

Estragon: It would have passed in any case.


5. “Death of a Naturalist” by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney chronicles the nature and nurture of rural Ireland in his poetry like no man before or after. Heaney did the near impossible, taking the rhythms of the Irish countryside as his muse and making it resound with meaning for the modern world.

His poem “Death of a Naturalist” achieves just that.

Best lines:

“The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.”


6. “Riders to the Sea” by J.M. Synge

Synge went west to chronicle rural Ireland in the early part of the 20th century. His classic of course is “Playboy of the Western World,” but his greatest play is the one-act “Riders to the Sea.”

Best lines:

(Maurya is keening the loss of her loved ones to the savage sea.)

“They're all gone now, and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me.... I'll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other. I'll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won't care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening.”