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Ireland is a literary power. I grew up in a house full of books and pretty much every store I went to as a kid had books. The study of English and Irish at school was compulsory until the age of 18 and the cultural history of Ireland has long been preserved in pages and illustrations, while some of our greatest works in the Irish language remain well studied and appreciated. When we talk about classic books about Ireland, it is also necessary to talk about their cultural background. Ireland and the constituted diasporas. These incredibly vibrant voices are only just beginning to emerge in our national writing and arts. Likewise, the church’s considerable weight over the state meant that women in the arts rarely achieved the fame and fortune of Irish men.
All this to say that Irish classics are all white and predominantly male. This is not to say that these authors and their works are poor – far from it – but I often wonder about the women of Ireland who had life stories under the British Empire, who experienced the loss of their lives. land for the benefit of plantations, the loss of their sons and lovers to guerrilla warfare and civil war, and the loss of their freedom with the conception of the Irish Free State in 1922.
Consigning Ireland only as a colonial victim would also be an injustice: many Irish found themselves in the so-called New World, profiting from the slave trade, especially in Jamaica. It’s a legacy Ireland has yet to properly address, although as Black Lives Matter grows stronger there are questions at home about Ireland’s ugly impacts abroad. I also wonder about the lost stories of those we bought and sold, and the resistance my ancestors showed in this regard.
This list of classic Irish books is therefore an absences list in a way. I hope that in a century it could be very different.
Odysseus by James Joyce
An indisputable classic that redefined the notions of censorship and taste, Odysseus paved the way for many other works which, in turn, were controversial. It’s objectively a classic – but does that mean it’s good? Odysseus follows Leopold Bloom around Dublin on July 16, 1904, the date Joyce chose to commemorate her first date with Nora Barnacle, when things got a bit dashing. To be fair, Barnacle apparently didn’t like Odysseus, so I think it’s okay for me to say that I think his glory has eluded me.
The plow and the stars by Sean O’Casey
O’Casey’s four-act play follows the Clitheroes, Jack and Nora, from 1915 to the Easter Rising in 1916. A basically working-class family living in Dublin apartment buildings, the Clitheroes and their neighbors are used by O ‘ Casey to question Irish socialism and the labor movement, the impacts of tuberculosis, cramped living conditions and, of course, Nora’s pregnancy, took place against the backdrop of a city in turmoil. My dad took me to see the Abbey Theater production of The plow and the stars when I was about 15 and never forgot the last act.
Peig by Peig Sayers
Written in Irish but available in a good English translation, Peig is the story of a woman who lived on the Irish island of Great Blasket from the 1890s to the 1940s, when she eventually returned to the mainland for medical treatment. Peig’s work was crucial for the Gaelic revival. His personal history has a deep rural core and has often been ridiculed by burgeoning urban intellectuals. Peig could not write in Irish (having learned in English) but dictated his work to his son. It’s a dark book, loaded with dark stories and violence – but then, many women would write similar truths if they could.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
This one is a bit like Odysseus. Not including it would be trivial given its global impact, but what can I say about Dracula it hasn’t already been said? Immortalized in numerous books, special editions, illustrations, graphic novels, films, TV shows and on stage, Dracula remains extremely popular. I have three copies on my shelf and I don’t even know how it happened. If you managed to avoid Dracula throughout your waking existence you should probably be doing it. It’s always going to be in fashion. If you’re a big fan, take a look at the Extremely Cool Edition of Beehive Books.
Outside of history by Eavan Boland
Boland passed away in 2020, a huge loss to Irish poetry and arguably a name as big as Heaney at home. Outside of history is my favorite of her books, combining femininity and nationality with fantastic power and radical emotion. Boland writes about memory and its problems with fascinating clarity, never giving the reader an easy answer, but always asking questions. Outside of history was released in 1990 – a truly microcosmic moment to watch, both for Boland and the country.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Valdimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot next to a leafless tree. They don’t discuss anything important while waiting for the impending arrival – which never comes. Long debated for its multiple meanings, its sparse framework and its social, political and religious connotations, Waiting for Godot is a classic because we keep drawing our attention to it. It’s a room where absolutely nothing is happening, and yet we keep trying to find something that does. Beckett would probably find that very funny.
Are you somebody? by Nuala O’Faolain
A nod to the potential future of this list of classics is O’Faolain’s memoir of his penniless childhood in Dublin. Born in 1940, O’Faolain wrote in her memoir about the deep Catholicism that made her ashamed of her own body, her sexuality and her thoughts about herself. She pushed aside the sexism of this Ireland and divided her life between Ireland and New York. A formidable journalist, his work in Are you somebody? is a fact and shamelessly honest. When it was published in 1996, divorce had just been legalized by referendum a few months ago. It’s hard to overstate his courage.