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Ten Irish books you must read. Photo by: gettyimages.com

Ten Irish books that will change you

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Ten Irish books you must read. Photo by: gettyimages.com

Tarry Flynn by Patrick Kavanagh 

This could as easily have been called Portrait Of The Farmer As A Young Poet. Nothing about this author was inevitable. Born on a farm in rural County Monaghan, Patrick Kavanagh somehow saw past the low black hills that surrounded him all the way to Arcadia. In this book which is one part rural memoir, one part hymn and one part prison drama, Kavanagh explores all the tensions and attractions that produced him, and in particular the constantly thwarted sexual passions that were a feature of his 1930’s rural life. The clergy exist to separate you from your hearts desire he tells us, your neighbors exist to take delight in your misfortunes, your heart exists to break at the injustice of it all, and your head exists to record the pity of it. The world of Tarry Flynn is hilarious and harrowing, both familiar and increasingly strange, and it’s one of the best benchmarks of that era to gauge just how far we’ve come as a nation now. 

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats 

Not just a collection but also an ionic cornice of civilization, Yeats’ achievement stands inside and outside of time. But to a young Irish person attempting make sense of their own heart he’s one of the first doors into the transcendence of love. Lost love, thwarted love, love grown bitter and enraged all vie here with lust, laughter and insatiable longing. “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” he writes. Generations of the Irish know his poetry by heart because that’s where it first makes its home. 

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde 

With his innate suspicion of authority and his almost anarchistic freethinking, Irish teenagers are very fortunate to have Oscar Wilde as a guide to the attractions and absurdities of the adult world. They will find wit and wisdom in his Complete Works, but they will also catch more than a hint of melancholy too. In De Profundis, Wilde’s famous letter to his fatal and false love Alfred Douglas, he writes: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”It’s Wilde’s principled determination to be himself, even in the face of contempt that made him such a challenge to his era and all the eras to come. The kindest and most compassionate of men, as Richard Ellman said of James Joyce, we are still learning to become his contemporaries. To read his work is to enter into a more expansive world of brilliance and daring.  

How Many Miles To Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston 

The tragic intimacy of the Irish English colonial project is grey mirrored in the erotic friendship that flowers between the two unlikely friends in this exceptional book. Alec, the son of a prominent Anglo Irish family living on a County Wicklow estate at the turn of the 20 century, begins a forbidden friendship with local Catholic boy Jerry, who shares his passion for horses. Throughout Johnston conveys class and religious fault lines with enormous delicacy and she’s equally skilled at charting the senseless violence of the Great War and the thwarted passions of the men who fight it. The failure to connect is the only thing that unites here. It’s a lesson that will haunt you for life. 

After Rain by William Trevor 

Ordinary lives have something epic in them and ordinary life is William Trevor’s subject. The Piano Tuners Wives, the first story in his accomplished collection After Rain, illustrates this idea. “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man,” Trevor writes. “Belle married him when he was old.” That surface simplicity opens and opens until the domestic calm is quietly disrupted. Soon the struggle of the living wife to best the memory of the dead one achieves an almost fairy tale malevolence, but Trevor consistently remains aloof and impartial, allowing his characters to reveal themselves. By the stories end we understand that Belle will win this struggle with her dead rival, “because the living always do. And that seemed fair also, since Violet had won in the beginning and had had the better years.”  

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt 

Five hundred years from now readers will still laugh and shudder at the privations and lonely passions of Frank McCourt. His late in life swan song was so startlingly rich and arresting that it beguiled the world and made him a late to the party overnight sensation. But McCourt, damaged beyond repair by a dysfunctional childhood, cast a cold eye on the celebrity that came his way and in return his old neighbors cast an even colder one on him. But no one – and I mean no one – can belittle his accomplishment, which is a tale to cure deafness and already belongs to the ages.  

Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir Of A Dublin Woman By Nuala O’Faolain 

Much of twentieth century Irish writing reads like dispatches from a penitentiary. O’Faolain grew up in Ireland in an era where female sexuality was feared and corralled by a reflexively conservative establishment that wore its hypocrisy like a badge of honor. The blatant sexism, the rigidly defined social roles, the sectarianism and misogyny of her era was her subject, and unlike others she placed herself at the center of her observations, making the political personal and often risking it all in a way that actually helped to change the nation that had oppressed her. In Are You Somebody we watch and cheer an emerging consciousness elude the nets cast to contain her.  

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