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Old Irish, new Irish: 12 great reads for St. Patrick's Day

So many great Irish writers, and so little space. Here are a dozen wonderful works from old and new Ireland to get you started, but don't stop there.


Dubliners, by James Joyce Ulysses is too intimidating for many (though more than rewards your patience), so try this superb story collection. The final story, The Dead, is one of our greatest works of short fiction.

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Collected Poems, by W.B. Yeats Perhaps the finest poet in English of the 20th century. One masterpiece after another: Among School Children, Sailing to Byzantium, The Second Coming and on and on.

At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O'Brien Under whatever name he wrote. Brian O'Nolan was a one-off. In this brilliant, very funny, unclassifiable work, fictional characters rebel against their creator.

Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett The play that epitomizes 20th-century doubt and angst and influenced a generation of playwrights. The language is spare, bleak and oddly gorgeous.

Collected Stories, by William Trevor In beautifully lean prose, Trevor explores the lives of ordinary people trying to make sense of their lives. His novels are also well worth seeking out.

The Country Girls Trilogy, by Edna O'Brien These hugely influential early 1960s novels ( The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl, Girls in Their Married Bliss) were banned and even burnt owing to their frank sexuality..


The Book of Evidence, by John Banville This densely poetic prize-winning novel features a scientist (warning: unreliable narrator) who murders a servant girl while attempting to steal a painting.

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The Gathering, by Anne Enright In this 2007 Man Booker Prize-winner, Veronica Hegarty attempts to make sense of her family's troubled history as they gather for the funeral of their alcoholic father.

Collected Poems, by Seamus Heaney This spectacular boxed set of 15 CDS (or one MP3 disk) features the Nobel Prize-winning poet reading his first 11 collections in chronological order; 556 tracks in all.

The Barrytown Trilogy, by Roddy Doyle Doyle's first three novels ( The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van), set in south Dublin and featuring the Rabbitte family, remain fresh, insightful and very, very funny.

The Glass Lake, by Maeve Binchy The last of Binchy's novels to be set in the 1950s, this operatic story of Kit McMahon and her mother explores the roles of women in Irish society.

The Master, by Colm Toibin Toibin's evocation of Henry James – his reticence, his meticulousness, his largely unrealized homosexuality – is addictively readable, perceptive and plausible.

Some other Irish writers well worth searching out: Sebastian Barry. Paul Murray, Cecilia Ahearn, John McGahern, Patrick McCabe, Julia O'Faolain, Jennifer Johnston, Liam O'Flaherty, Sean O'Faolain, Patrick Kavanagh and the wonderful Dermot Healey.

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And last, for an unparalleled overview, there's Canadian Donald Harman Akenson's magisterial two-volume work, An Irish History of Civilization.

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