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7 Books by Irish Authors Everyone Should Read

Check out these novels by Colm Toíbín, Louise Kennedy, Paul Lynch and more of Ireland’s top writers

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Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Scribner; Riverhead Books; Viking; Getty Images (2))

Trying to winnow down the list of fantastic Irish writers and their books into a short roundup is a tough task. There are just so many, including Colum McCann (author of the stunning Let the Great World Spin), Anne Enright (The Gathering), John Banville (The Sea) and the best-selling Tana French, who’s just written The Hunter, a follow-up to The Searcher that brings back Cal Hooper, the retired Chicago cop who’s settled in rural Ireland.  

Below are seven more top-notch reads by great Irish authors.  

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Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)

Don’t be fooled by the slender size of Keegan’s best-selling novel, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2022 and is set to become a film starring (and produced by) Cillian Murphy. The book is just 118 pages, but this heartwarming story of courage and compassion packs a lingering emotional punch. Keegan was raised on an Irish farm, and she knows the novel’s terrain: the small town with its smoking chimneys and river “dark as stout,” the mysterious convent that forces lead character Bill Furlong, a coal merchant and father of five daughters, to confront his past and the church’s shadowy sins. Jack Sheehan wrote in The Washington Post that the novel “lays credible claim in less than 150 pages to being the best Irish book of the 21st century.” Keegan is best known for short stories; she released her most recent collection, So Late in the Day: Stories of Women and Men, in 2023. 

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The Magician by Colm Tóibín​ (2021)

This novel is not set in Ireland, but it’s by one of that country’s great writers. An absorbing reimagining of the life of the Nobel Prize–winning German writer Thomas Mann, The Magician takes us through Mann’s youth, rise to fame in Germany with the publication of Buddenbrooks, initial complacency then growing alarm as the Nazis take power, marriage to Katia despite his attraction to men, and emigration to the U.S. Mann family members have their own struggles, all vividly brought to life. Tóibín has written many other notable novels, including 2009’s Brooklyn (turned into a 2015 film starring Saoirse Ronan) and, coming out this spring, Long Island, a kind of sequel to Brooklyn, featuring its main character, Eilis, returning to Ireland 20 years after events in the first book.  

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Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry (2023)

Named a best book of 2023 by NPR, The New Yorker and The Washington Post, Barry’s ninth novel focuses on Tom Kettle, a 66-year-old recently retired police officer. Kettle has settled in a cottage near the Irish Sea, seeking only to be “stationary, happy and useless.” But his solitude is disturbed by two former colleagues with unsettling questions about a long-ago case that dredge up dark memories. It’s a story of old ghosts and an unraveling mind fueled by Barry’s hallmark lyrical prose (he is not only a novelist, but a poet and playwright). “People endured horrors, and then they couldn’t talk about them,” Barry writes. “The real stories of the world were bedded in silence.” 

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Riverhead Books

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy (2022)

This searing debut novel tells the story of Cushla, a teacher, Catholic and part-time pub worker in a town near Belfast during the Troubles in 1975. Cushla has an affair with a Protestant barrister who defends members of the Irish Republican Army, and the conflicts in her life and in Northern Ireland soon become intwined. Kennedy knows the topic intimately. Her family owned a pub in Northern Ireland that was bombed twice when she was a girl. For decades, she worked in pubs and restaurants, then joined a writing group after a cancer diagnosis in her late 40s. The result: late-bloomer literary success with Trespasses at age 55. Kennedy has also written a collection of short stories, The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac.   

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (2017)

“Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.” How’s that for an opening line? In a tale spanning 60 years, readers enjoy not only the birth-to-death journey of an adopted boy and his search for identity and home, but the story of post-World War II Ireland. Boyne has published 15 novels for adults and six for young readers; his book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is the best-selling novel worldwide by an Irish writer.  

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Atlantic Monthly Press

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch (2023)

This disturbing 2023 Booker Prize winner focuses on a scientist and mother of four, Eilish Stack, who tries to hold her family together as modern Ireland descends into a nightmarish authoritarianism, with citizens’ civil liberties eroded. Eilish’s husband goes missing, and her life becomes concentrated on survival, for her and her children. Told without paragraph breaks or quotation marks, it “has a breathless, claustrophobic atmosphere,” according to The Guardian, whose glowing review describes the book as “a brilliant, haunting novel that should be placed into the hands of policymakers everywhere.” Others have compared it to the Margaret Atwood classic, The Handmaid’s Tale.

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The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan (2023) 

When Ryan wrote this warm, compelling novel, he was inspired by the women who raised him, particularly his strong, fierce mother. That admiration shows as the novel follows four generations of women in Ireland’s Tipperary County, using a series of vignettes — no chapter exceeds 500 words — to tell a tale of love, joy and grief. On each page, Ryan’s language sparkles. One character describes her mother’s speech as “utterances flung around like fistfuls of confetti, vaguely aimed and scattered randomly.” Ryan’s hope, he has said, is that readers of the book feel “privy to some great secret” and discover that “through all of the awfulness that abounds in the world there is always light.” Mission accomplished. His mom must be proud.

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