With lush, vibrant, and rolling hills that taper off into a crashing sea, the Irish landscape is poignantly beautiful and raw. Perhaps this is why so many Irish authors harness unrelenting sincerity in their work; they see the people and the world for what it truly is and have used this beautifully raw landscape as the muse for the characters they create. It’s no surprise that Irish literature is as beautiful as its scenery. In celebration of Irish culture this March, here are four life-changing novels from some of our favorite Irish authors.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Perhaps one of the most prolific Irish writers of all-time, James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is a modern retelling of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. Set in 20th century Dublin, Joyce weaves a comparative tale of the trials and tribulations of Leopold Bloom to Odysseus, which are well-known to Homer fans but told by Joyce with a modern spin.
Though based on a classic, Joyce didn’t hesitate to tackle controversy and in 1921, a New York court determined the piece to be “obscene,” banning it from US bookshelves. According to the Irish Times, in 1932 “Random House imported a single copy of Ulysses and arranged for US Customs to seize it.”
Naturally, the ban called for a court case where it was determined by Judge John Munro Woolsey that Ulysses was not obscene after he had spent months closely studying the text. Because of this, the book ban was overturned in the US and Random House was then able to print, import, and sell the book without consequence. This case was one of the first successes in the war against banning books.
Oscar Wilde, who called for readers to “be themselves” in his 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, became a pillar of truth for the gay community when he was convicted of “gross indecency with certain male persons” in 1895. Used as evidence in the case against him was perhaps the notorious writer’s most famous work, The Picture of Dorian Gray in which the chic character of Dorian Gray becomes fixated on a painting of himself and wishes he could stay as youthful and attractive as his portrait forever will.
Through his wish, Dorian essentially sells his soul and is given a chance to explore every vice without public suspicion, causing his internal morale to disintegrate while his body remains unchanged. In this novel, Wilde discusses morality, the nature of sin, and the construct of internalized good versus evil.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
In one of her most iconic books, Sally Rooney tells the story of two twenty-something Dublin women, Frances and Bobbi, and their unexpected friendship with an older, married couple. The novel details the raw intricacies between the four characters and begs the question: how do we determine what we want out of life without the influential pressure of our relationships? In a New Yorker review of the novel, Alexandra Schwartz raves that “Rooney’s title comes from a private joke of Frances and Bobbi’s, ‘meaningless to everyone including ourselves: What is a friend? We would say humorously. What is a conversation?’ The joke does have meaning, though. Everyone defines the common terms of life for herself because everyone makes up her own life.”
The Commitments by Roddy Doyle
The Commitments is a delightfully humorous tale of an unemployed Irish man who hears the sexy, soulful stylings of James Brown in a pub and realizes the genre is missing from the Irish music scene. Despite having no musical background himself, he decides music is his purpose and is determined to fulfill this need. Full of hilarity, rich dialogue, and beautifully written lyrics (this is a musical novel, after all!) this book will tug at your heartstrings as you learn how everyone is somehow bound together by a love of music.
The Commitments was made into a comedy-drama film in 1991 and Doyle released a well-received sequel titled, The Guts in 2014. In an Irish Times review on the 2014 release, Gabriel Byrne stated, “Doyle has never written anything that is not about love and its transformational power. It is all that matters, ultimately to love and be loved. Along with laughter, it keeps the darkness at bay.”
Do you have a favorite Irish author? What are you reading this Saint Patrick’s Day? Share what you are reading with us by tweeting to us @bookclubdotcom.