The top 10: Irish writers at their best


7. “The Country Girls” by Edna O’Brien

A powerful voice for Irish women for modernity, for exposing the dark secrets that lay hidden under the smooth Irish surface in the 1950s and 1960s. O’Brien’s heroines in “The Country Girl” talked about sex, love and longing –and she was banned because of it.

Best lines:

“Will you fit on the brassiere, Miss Brady?" the shopgirl asked.
Pale, First Communion voice; pale, pure, rosary-bead hands held the flimsy, black, sinful garment between her fingers, and her fingers were ashamed.
"No. Just measure me," I said. She took a measuring tape out of her overall pocket, and I raised my arms while she measured me. The black underwear was Baba's idea. She said that we wouldn't have to wash it so often, and that it was useful if we ever had a street accident, or if men were trying to strip us in the backs of cars. Baba thought of all these things. I got black nylons, too. I read somewhere that they were "literary" and I had written one or two poems since I came to Dublin. I read them to baba and she said they were nothing to the ones on mortuary cards.
"Good night, Miss Brady, happy Easter," the First Communion voice said to me, and I wished her the same.


8. “Castle Rackrent” by Maria Edgeworth

This first-ever historical novel from 1800 savagely attacked the same landlord class, which Edgeworth was a member of, for their viciousness to their poor Irish tenants.

A Baptist preacher Robert Hall said, "I should class her books as among the most irreligious I have ever read ... she does not attack religion, nor inveigh against it, but makes it appear unnecessary by exhibiting perfect virtue without it ... No works ever produced so bad an effect on my mind as hers."

Best lines:

Speaking of the grand lady of the house at Castle Rackrent, Edgeworth wrote: “She was a strict observer, for self and servants, of Lent, and all fast-days, but not holidays. One of the maids having fainted three times the last day of Lent, to keep soul and body together, we put a morsel of roast beef into her mouth, which came from Sir Murtagh's dinner, who never fasted, not he; but somehow or other it unfortunately reached my lady's ears, and the priest of the parish had a complaint made of it the next day, and the poor girl was forced, as soon as she could walk, to do penance for it, before she could get any peace or absolution, in the house or out of it.”

9. “Guest of the Nation” by Frank O’Connor

A wonderful short story where O’Connor tells the tale of two English soldiers held hostage during the War of Independence who grow very close to their captors. Eventually they are shot dead in retaliation but the brave and glorified violence of the war suddenly doesn’t seem so heroic any more.

Best lines:

“I stood at the door, watching the stars and listening to the shrieking of the birds dying out over the bogs. It is so strange what you feel at times like that that you can't describe it. Noble says he saw everything ten times the size, as though there were nothing in the whole world but that little patch of bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it, but with me it was as if the patch of bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away, and even Noble and the old woman, mumbling behind me, and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that hap­pened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”


10. “Dancing at Lughnasa” by Brian Friel

Written by Ireland’s greatest playwright, “Dancing at Lughnasa” uncovers the pagan madness and id underneath the heavily censored, sternly imposed morals of Irish life. The five Mundy sisters, some seeking to overthrow their constraints, were a triumph on Broadway and it still remains one of the greatest plays today though Meryl Streep gave her worst-ever acting performance in the movie version.

Best lines:

Michael: When I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936 different kinds of memories offer themselves to me. We got our first wireless set that summer -- well, a sort of a set; and it obsessed us. And because it arrived as August was about to begin, my Aunt Maggie – she was the joker of the family -- she suggested we give it a name. She wanted to call it Lugh after the old Celtic God of the Harvest. Because in the old days August the First was La Lughnasa, the feast day of the pagan god, Lugh; and the days and weeks of harvesting that followed were called the Festival of Lughnasa. But Aunt Kate – she was a national schoolteacher and a very proper woman -- she said it would be sinful to christen an inanimate object with any kind of name, not to talk of a pagan god. So we just called it Marconi because that was the name emblazoned on the set.