St Patrick's Day | Irish Literature Reading Recommendations

It's St Patrick's Day, and what better excuse to delve into some of Ireland's greatest literature?

One thousand, five hundred and fifty-eight years ago today (or thereabouts), an old chap named Patrick died. He was a man of the cloth: a priest who found God while working as a shepherd in Ireland, and spent much of his life converting the Gaelic pagans to Christianity. According to tradition (which tells us among other things that Patrick used the three-leaved shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity), it is Patrick’s influence that is still felt today in the relationship between Ireland and the Church. And so it is on the putative anniversary of his death, March 17th, that we celebrate all things Irish. Hence the profusion of green clothing and the many rounds of Guinness ordered in pubs up and down the country.


Someone looking for a more sober way to celebrate Ireland’s history might turn to one of the country’s greatest cultural achievements: its literature. There can be no doubt that Ireland’s contribution to the world of letters far outstretches its size and population. Figures as important and diverse as Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and James Joyce all hail from this same small island.


Despite having today a population of a little under five million, Ireland can boast four winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature (George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney). That’s almost one per million inhabitants. A comparison with the United States gives us one Nobel Laureate for every twenty-five million. But if you are looking to pick up a book by an Irishman or woman, where should you begin?


Here’s my list of three reading recommendations to keep you busy this St Patrick’s Day:


1. Juno and the Paycock - Sean O’Casey

This play, first performed in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1924, chronicles the fortunes of a working class family living in a tenement during the Irish Civil War. The play’s anti-hero, Jack Boyle, acquires his nickname through his preference for swanning about like a peacock (or paycock, in the mouth of his long-suffering wife), rather than getting a decent job. Meanwhile the country is tearing itself apart in the pursuit of independence, and his family can barely afford to put food on the table. Comedy and tragedy meet in this controversial response to the violence in Ireland’s recent past.


At the opening performance of O’Casey’s next play, The Plough and the Stars, audience members were so angered at the writer’s warts-and-all depiction of the nationalist movement that they rioted. Famously Yeats, who had produced the play, walked onto the stage and told the rioters “You have disgraced yourselves again!” (He was referring to the similar reaction to the opening of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World at the same theatre a few years earlier.)


2. Under the Net - Iris Murdoch

The great novelist and philosopher might not make everyone’s list of great Irish writers, for the simple reason that she is commonly thought of as British. She was born in Ireland, however, to Irish parents and, now that you think about it, both her first and last name are a little Gaelic sounding. In any case, her first novel, Under the Net, is a terrific and oft-neglected read. It’s pitched somewhere between an intellectual quest and shaggy dog story, and follows the shambling adventures of Jake, whose schemes for making money include kidnapping a performing animal and then blackmailing his film-producing owner to put up the ransom for him. Needless to say, this doesn’t work out quite how Jake had planned. On the subject of Anglo-Irish identity, Murdoch has her narrator introduce himself to the reader in this characteristically witty fashion:

My name is James Donoghue, but you needn’t bother about that, as I was in Dublin only once, on a whiskey blind, and saw daylight only twice, when they let me out of Store Street Police Station, and then when Finn put me on the boat for Holyhead.

3. The Seafarer - Conor McPherson

Another play, and the first suggestion I have that was written by a living author. McPherson rose to prominence in the late ‘90s with his West-end hit, The Weir, a one act play in which a few drinkers gather for a lock-in at their local pub to tell ghost stories. The Seafarer was first staged at the National Theatre in 2006. Covering similar territory to his earlier plays about alcoholism and brushes with the supernatural, The Seafarer takes its basis from an old Irish tale. It’s Christmas Eve, and a few lonely souls have come together in the darkest months of the year to play cards together. They are joined in their game by a mysterious stranger who soon turns out to be the devil himself. Unsurprisingly, he has come to gamble for much more than a few euros. With McPherson’s characteristic blend of folk-lore, magic, humour, story-telling, and a profound empathy for those living on the fringes of society, he has written a quintessentially Irish masterpiece.


Happy St Patrick's Day, everybody!



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