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.
"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.
“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”
Read more: Who was WB Yeats?
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
(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 windbreaks 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.”
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.
“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."
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 anymore.
“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.
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 school teacher 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.
* Originally published in 2009.