I’ve just booked my trip to Killarney in October, and I’ve been thinking about what books I’d recommend to anyone visiting Ireland for the first time. It’s not an easy task. Ireland’s long and sometimes troubled history, combined with a rich folklore, has provided plenty of inspiration and lots of classic writers. Here is my small selection from the vast choice available.

Books to read before you go to Ireland

There’s a vast range of books to choose from

Books About Irish History and Culture

I always start with the trusty Lonely Planet guides: you can buy Lonely Planet Ireland as a book or ebook. And, for a comprehensive, easy to read, history of Ireland, I would recommend A Traveller’s History of Ireland (Peter Neville, 2006).

For a fictionalised account of Ireland’s history, try Edward Rutherfurd’s Dublin: Foundation (2004) and Ireland Awakening (2006). (These books are titled The Princes of Ireland and The Rebels of Ireland in North America.) They follow the lives of several generations of the same family to tell the story of Ireland from the earliest times to the 20th century. They are very easy to read, and provide a broad sweep of social and political history.

One of the classics of real life social history is Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt, 1996). Set in Limerick in the 1940s, it describes the precarious existence of a large family with too little money and too much drink. This book has sometimes been criticised for exaggerating the truth but, whether totally accurate or not, it certainly gives an insight into the hardships of the times.

I haven’t actually read McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery in Ireland (Pete McCarthy, 2001) yet, but so many people have recommended it that I have to mention it here. It is an account of the author’s travels through Ireland, visiting many pubs and encountering a wide range of engaging characters along the way.

Irish Novels

If you’re going to Dublin and you’re interested in literature then you really do need to have read some James Joyce. You may not have the time or inclination to read the whole of Ulysses, but both Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Dubliners (1914) paint a vivid picture of early 20th century Dublin. (And if you are in Dublin remember that it is a UNESCO City of Literature – check out my earlier post on the subject.)

On the other hand, if you’re looking for some light reading for the airport, you could try Maeve Binchy. A prolific novelist, her works span the second half of the 20th century. One of her last novels was Minding Frankie (2010), the tale of an American visitor to Dublin and the people whose lives become entwined with her own. Like all of Binchy’s work, it is full of nice, warm and friendly characters. A bit like the Irish themselves.

Another contemporary novel that comes highly recommended, although I haven’t read it myself (yet), is The Gathering, by Anne Enright (2007). Set in Dublin, it is the story of a family funeral and what it reveals about the past. The Gathering won the Booker Prize in 2007.

My final choice is The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes (Anna McPartlin, 2014). Easy to read, it is full of warm and extraordinary people. (You might think a book about a dying woman can’t be uplifting, but read this and think again…)

Do you have any favourite books about Ireland? Let me know in the comments below.

The links in this list take you to the Amazon website or the Lonely Planet shop. Amazon and Lonely Planet pay me a small commission on any sales; these help to cover the costs of running this blog.

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