The Best Contemporary Novels with Which to Understand Ireland

Galway, Ireland/Photo © Shutterstock

The history of the Ireland is built on equal parts triumph and tragedy. Once part of the United Kingdom, Ireland pushed for independence and sparked the Irish War of Independence, which carried on from 1919 to 1921. Despite gaining sovereignty, escalating tensions between factions within the Irish Republican Army (IRA) led to an immediate civil war that technically lasted about a year – but continued to reverberate through Ireland’s political landscape for decades. Ireland is home to a fiercely independent and proud culture with a ceaseless vein of tension running through it, pulsing with the struggle for independence, the ensuing turmoil, the conflicting loyalties to Catholicism and Protestantism. It is arguably these very conflicts that have fostered Ireland’s deep and influential literary tapestry.

Ireland is home to some of the world’s greatest – and most beguiling – writers, names like James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Samuel Beckett come to mind. In many ways, Ireland is a nation of storytellers. It is a tradition that continues to flourish throughout the country with writers documenting a spectrum of life from the trials of the immigrant experience to the complexities of family. The novels listed below offer a cross-section of the works of contemporary Irish authors and will hopefully provide some key insights into a nation whose literary past was shaped by some of the finest writers the English language has ever produced.

  • The cover of the book The Lesser Bohemians

    The Lesser Bohemians

    A Novel

    With her second novel, Eimear McBride once again harnesses the eclectic prose style that brought attention to her award-winning debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. The Lesser Bohemians introduces us to an eighteen-year-old Irish girl making her way to London to attend drama school. She soon meets an older man, also an actor, and is swept up in both that relationship and the experiences and thrills that come with life in London. Told over the course of a single year, The Lesser Bohemians is an intimate coming-of-age story lifted by McBride’s fearless literary style – one that carries us along with the narrator’s thoughts seemingly as they form.

  • The cover of the book Conversations with Friends

    Conversations with Friends

    A Novel

    Conversations with Friends centers on Frances, a young writer struggling to build a career in Dublin, and her best friend, Bobbi, as the two find themselves caught up in the world of a well-known photographer. Frances is drawn to the photographer’s husband and what begins as a harmless flirtation gives way to a growing intimacy that spirals out of her tenuous control, straining her friendship with Bobbi and affecting seemingly every relationship in her life. Due to hit bookstores in July, Conversations with Friends chronicles the intricacies, complexities, and intimacies of friendship between two young women struggling with the complications of adulthood in the twenty-first century with often startling precision and a disarmingly sly sense of humor.

  • The cover of the book The Glorious Heresies

    The Glorious Heresies

    A Novel

    With her debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, Lisa McInerney follows a stream of events connecting five seemingly disparate individuals struggling under the weight of poverty. Grandmother Maureen Phelan is surprised by an intruder in her home. She clubs the stranger with a holy stone and this unexpected murder binds her to the lives of four others: Ryan, a fifteen-year-old drug dealer; Tony, Ryan’s alcoholic and volatile father; Georgie, a sex worker hoping to escape the profession; and Jimmy, Maureen’s estranged criminal son. Bleak, powerful, and darkly comic, The Glorious Heresies provides a searing portrait of life on Ireland’s economic fringes.

  • The cover of the book Room


    You might remember Irish writer Emma Donoghue’s Room as the source material for one of the most celebrated and powerful films of 2015. Inspired by real-life events, Room is the story of young boy named Jack raised to believe the single room in which he and his mother are locked is his entire world. His mother’s determination to free him from captive life lies well beyond his understanding – until she turns to him to help make it happen. Told entirely in the voice of five-year-old Jack, Room is an original, unsettling, and brilliant experience.

  • The cover of the book Brooklyn


    The year 2015 was a good one for adaptations of Irish-writ works. Like Room, Colm Toibin’s novel, Brooklyn, also served as the source for an acclaimed Oscar-nominated film. With Brooklyn, Toibin perfectly captures the complexities of the immigrant experience and the emotions that come with upending a known life to start over in a foreign land. The novel centers on Ellis, a small-town Irish girl immigrating to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Brooklyn is a quiet and affecting meditation on alienation, love, and what home really means.

  • The cover of the book Tis


    Frank McCourt is one of the most celebrated and influential authors of contemporary Irish fiction, and won the Pulitzer Prize for his first memoir, Angela’s Ashes. Born to Irish parents in Brooklyn, McCourt grew up in Limerick, Ireland – a period of his life recounted in Angela’s Ashes. Tis is a follow-up that shares McCourt’s return to the U.S. at the age of nineteen and his struggles to make a life for himself. Told with the author’s trademark raconteur style, Tis is an oft-humorous, thoroughly engaging story of an immigrant’s quest for a better life.

  • The cover of the book Let the Great World Spin

    Let the Great World Spin

    A Novel

    Built around Philippe Petit’s infamous high-wire walk between the World Trade Center Towers in 1974, Let the Great World Spin weaves together a panorama of seemingly disparate lives struggling in various ways for survival across New York City. From a young Irish monk in the Bronx to a group of mothers on Park Avenue to a young artist at the scene of a hit-and-run, Colum McCann captures a powerful allegorical snapshot of life in a teeming city drawn together by a single incredible moment.

  • The cover of the book Antarctica


    This award-winning collection of stories presents a precise and often-painful examination of relationships, love, sexuality, and family. With settings ranging between Ireland and the U.S., Keegan weaves tales of dark and often haunting consequence – of affairs and long-awaited romance, explorations of sexual repression and the complexities of family – all told with a fearless and unflinching eye.

  • The cover of the book The Gathering

    The Gathering

    Pulling from the larger Irish literary tradition, The Gathering tells the story of the nine surviving children of the Hagerty family. The siblings have gathered in Dublin for the wake of brother who tragically drowned at sea. Built around a secret kept between a brother and sister and events stretching back to the winter of 1968, Enright crafts a family epic of betrayal and redemption steeped in Irish culture and spanning three generations of a fractured family.

  • The cover of the book In the Woods

    In the Woods

    A Novel

    The debut of bestselling author Tana French took home multiple awards, including an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. That book, titled In the Woods, revolves around Detective Rob Ryan of the Dublin Murder Squad. When Ryan begins investigating a murder in a sleepy Dublin suburb that is eerily similar to an event from his childhood some twenty years before, long-buried memories begin to resurface and may be key to not only his current mystery, but to his own past.

  • The cover of the book Pond


    Comprised of twenty interconnected stories, this witty and captivating debut will send readers on an emotional adventure as they explore the daily rut of a young woman living a solitary life on the outskirts of a small coastal village. Though Ireland is never outwardly mentioned, the country’s ambiance is felt throughout the entirety of the novel. With moments of humor and sentiment, this unusual debut will be intoxicating until the last page.