Favorite Irish writers and books.

I don’t have any essays lined up soon so keeping in tradition with the day I figured I would list out some of my favorite Irish writers and books. So without further ado;

Favorite Irish/Irish-American writers

  • Thomas Kinsella
  • Seamus Heaney (his translation of Beowulf is my favorite. Here is Part I of Heaney reading it aloud)
  • Jonathan Swift (Tale of the Tub is probably his best work)
  • W.B. Yeats
  • Samuel Beckett
  • Oscar Wilde
  • C.S. Lewis (My parish men’s group had a reading of The Great Divorce and it was fantastic)
  • Edmund Burke (Obviously as a conservative I’m obligated to like Reflections but personally really enjoyed his thoughts on aesthetics)
  • Oliver Goldsmith (Not quite an Irish subject but his The Vicar of Wakefield is great if you’re an Austen fan)
  • James Orr (Think Robert Burns but an Ulsterman)
  • Bram Stoker (duh)
  • J.M Synge
  • Patrick Pearse (So politically naive it’s painful but The Rebel and his funeral oration for O’Donovan Rossa are still moving)
  • Brendan Behan
  • Conor Cunningham (His work on theology & evolution as well as nihilism is great)
  • Tim Pat Coogan
  • Gerard O’Neill
  • Thomas Gallagher
  • Sean O’Casey

My tastes definitely lean towards the popular or those writing about Irish nationalism/republicanism. Regrettably, there do not seem to be many Ulster Protestant writers (with the exceptions of Cunningham and Lewis). That seems to be a perennial problem with Irish writing though. Irish literature and media are almost entirely dominated by Catholic and Anglo-Irish voices.

Irish/Irish-Americans writers I don’t care for

  • Frank McCourt. Highly overrated.
  • James Joyce. Unquestionably one of the great writers but possibly one of the most arrogant. Hated every page of Ulysses and couldn’t get through more than 20% of Finnegan’s Wake.
  • Lady Gregory. Actually, I don’t dislike her per se. I just found Cathleen ni Houlihan melodramatic.
  • Jim Webb. His book Born Fighting could’ve been good and instead, it’s just sanctimony and sentimentality.
  • G. Bernard Shaw. While enjoyable to read his witticisms, I think he is also overrated and frankly an ass.
  • Kevin Myers. Real mean bastard.


Favorite Irish books I own

Not extensive just limited to those I own and enjoy. Mainly history.


Black Mass by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Harper Collins. 2001.

If you are into Mob stories but want the real deal, it is harder to get better than the story of Whitey Bulger. Oh yeah and the FBI are definitely the bad guys here.


Paddy’s Lament by Thomas Gallagher. Houghton Mifflin Harcout. 1982.

Growing up Irish-American you always have some idea that the Famine was bad. It’s just generic. “Oh yeah that was bad wasn’t it.” Reading Gallagher’s book you are constantly thinking to yourself, “Dear God it really was that bad.” Easy to see why so many angry young men joined naive and stupid rebellions up until 1916. The immigration part was a tad boring.


The Scotch-Irish, a social history by James Leyburn. University of North Carolina Press. 1989.

Terrific book, especially if you are an American with Protestant Irish ancestry. Unlike Jim Webb’s book, it doesn’t engage in schmaltz and is actually historically accurate. It takes a good look at the Scotch-Irish, warts and all. Makes a good case for how the Scotch-Irish character becomes hugely influential on the overall American national character.

The one weak part is where he really downplays the case for whether or not there was significant intermarriage between native Irish Catholics and Scottish settlers in Ulster. More recent, specialist work on that question came out with Padraigh O’Snodaigh’s Hidden Ulster and Blaney’s The History of Irish Protestant Speakers. Elliot’s Catholics of Ulster and her in-depth research on the mass conversion of the Ulster Catholic gentry definitely is relevant. Lastly, Lee and Casey’s Making the Irish American examines early Catholic absorption into the “Scotch-Irish” American community.

Americans of Ulster ancestry are definitely different than their South Boston cousins but they can certainly call themselves Irish-Americans.

That one quibble aside, it is a great book.


Carsonthe man who divided Ireland by Geoffrey Lewis. Bloomsbury. 2006.

Carson to me was always one of the more fascinating characters of Irish history. On the one hand, the partition of Ireland, the 1916 Easter Rising, the overt paramilitarism in Irish politics, the Anglo-Irish War, the Troubles all would not be possible without Carson’s inexhaustible politicking. On the other hand, he was a brilliant, religiously tolerant Dubliner who disliked the bigotry of his northern allies and was disillusioned by the British partition of his country.


The North Irish Horse in the Great War by Phillip Tardif. Pen & Sword. 2015.

Due to the huge size of the war, unit histories like this are a dime of a dozen but it was a fantastic read about a part of the war I knew nothing about.


The IRA, a history by Tim Pat Coogan. St Martin’s Press. 2000.

First written in 1970 and then updated four times as the conflict dragged on, it is the penultimate book about the Irish Republican Army from its origins in the Fenian movement to the Good Friday Agreement. Absolutely massive book at 808 pages but a great read. It was a hard choice between this or Coogan’s Michael Collins but this has more breadth. Entertaining and also sobering to a naive and idealistic young American with Irish roots.

Feel free to send any suggestions and happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

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