By Lena Hunter
You don’t have to drink ten pints at your local Irish bar to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
You can just stay inside and read a book while awakening a wave of national pride as you acquaint yourself with this selection of ten essential literary personalities from the Emerald Isle.
Doing both on the same night can be daredevil, although a pint or three of Black Stuff has helped readers navigate ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, while champagne is the perfect accompaniment to ‘The Importance of Being Earnest”.
It is debatable, of course, whether the latter deserves inclusion in this best of Irish literature, as Wilde was largely an English gentleman brought up in a British-ruled Ireland.
For the same reason, other Anglo-Irish writers such as Bernhard Shaw, Jonathan Swift and CS Lewis failed to make it into our top ten, as they are not renowned for their contribution to the Irish voice.
So, ten pints or ten Irish writers? The choice is yours. No doubt the main characters of “Normal People” would opt for both.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde – to use his full and exemplary Irish name – rose to prominence in the 1880s and 90s for his brilliant wit and style. But the beloved poet, playwright and novelist behind such writing icons as “The Picture of Dorian Grey” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” hasn’t reached greater heights in the century. which followed his death. He is the poster child for the 19th century aesthetic movement, which sees the pursuit of beauty and good taste as the primary goal of art. Aesthetes like Wilde avoided didacticism and instead elevated the tasteless. If he were alive today, he would probably be an Instagram influencer. His great-grandson (who is a look-alike, by the way) happens to be a computer programmer living in London.
Samuel Beckett’s Cold War-era plays are half chilling, half wildly obtuse reflections on the global trauma of the nuclear age and the futility of human existence. But don’t all rush to the box office at the same time. If you can bear it, seeing a Beckett piece is a valuable experience. Among the masterpieces of his work are Waiting for Godot (1952) and Happy Days (1961). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 but – tempting to say his plays are good mirrors of our uncertain times – Beckett’s absurd nihilism will never go out of style.
Novelist, poet and critic James Joyce is considered one of the most influential literary figures of the 20th century. His dream-fever modernist masterpiece ‘Ulysses’ (1920) is perhaps his best-known work, but ‘Dubliners’ (1914), ‘Finnegans Wake’ (1939) and ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1916) are all fundamental in their own right. Head to Dublin and you’ll find an impressive number of commemorative plaques in the pubs he frequented. Davy Byrnes at 21 Duke Street, a favorite, is even mentioned in “Ulysses” when Leopold Bloom drops by for a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy.
William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats is unquestionably one of the greatest poets of the last century. He was from Ireland’s Anglo-Irish Protestant minority – most of whom considered themselves English – but Yeats strongly defended his Irish nationality, featuring Irish folklore and heroes in many of his works. Two of her main personal influences were the famous patriot John O’Leary – returning to Ireland after serving 20 years in prison for revolutionary nationalist activities, he encouraged Yeats to honor his cultural roots in his writings – and the English heiress Maude Gonne, an ardent Irish nationalist. with whom Yeats developed an obsessive infatuation.
Seamus Heaney’s poetry has been beamed into the collective consciousness by being studied in English classes around the world – which may have dulled the shine of many but does not diminish the shine. He received the Nobel Prize in 1995 for his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt daily miracles and the living past”. Particularly well known is ‘Death of a Naturalist’ – his first major published volume. As a Catholic from Protestant Northern Ireland, Heaney described himself as someone who “emerged from a hidden and buried life and entered the field of education”. His poems largely revolve around the Civil War in Northern Ireland, local culture and language being invaded by English rule.
Dublin-born Roddy Doyle’s gritty tales of the working class have earned him a place among the favorites of Irish fiction. Several of his books have become successful film adaptations: “The Commitments” (1987), “The Snapper” (1990), and “The Van” (1991), which include “The Barrytown Trilogy.” He is also a prolific playwright, having composed four plays and two screenplays. His work is rich in dialogue, with few accompanying descriptions. It is set largely in working-class Dublin and deciphers domestic and personal concerns as well as wider Irish history.
In her lifetime, author and journalist Maeve Binchy exploded international sales of Irish literature, selling over 40 million copies of books in 37 languages. Her novels have been plugged by Oprah Winfrey, made into films and won her lifetime achievement awards at the British Book Awards and the Irish Pen/AT Cross Literary Awards. Binchy was born in Dalkey, County Dublin, and returned later in life to settle in an “unassuming Georgian cottage”. Nonetheless, his descriptions of betrayal, child-parent relationships, rural and urban life, and cultural and religious transformations in Ireland have resonated with readers far beyond Irish borders.
Sally Rooney has been the hottest contemporary Irish author of the past five years. Her first two novels, “Conversations with Friends” (2017) and “Normal People” (2018), became word-of-mouth success stories from the start. “Normal People” rose to the top of the US bestseller list in its first four months of release, selling nearly 64,000 copies. It was quickly adapted into an Emmy-nominated TV series in the UK, which spawned a viral trend – and even a dedicated Instagram page (@connellschain) – for the “Argos-chic” necklace worn by one of main characters.
Another heavyweight in modern literature is the Northern Irish writer Anna Burns. Her novel ‘Milkman’ has won three major awards in three years: the 2018 Man Booker Prize, the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the 2020 Dublin International Literary Prize. In fact, she is the first Irish author to win the Booker . ‘Milkman’ explores the trials and complexities of growing up during the Troubles of 1970s Belfast. Despite the setting, the book taps into a universal narrative. “I’d like to think it could be considered any sort of totalitarian, closed society that exists under equally oppressive conditions,” Burns told the Guardian. “I see it as fiction about an entire society living under extreme pressure, with long-term violence seen as the norm.”
McBride wrote her first novel – ‘A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing’, a tale of conscience set in 1980s Ireland – in six months, but it took nine years to get it published. When released into the wild, the novel took off and was hailed by critics as “flamboyantly original” and “unshakable”. McBride explores themes such as the pervasiveness of porn, the performative nature of feminism, sex and the body, shame, disgust and gender stereotypes. Much of McBride’s success is based on how she translates her own personal experience into prose. “As an Irish Catholic, I belong to a long tradition of shame,” joked McBride, explaining the roots of her work.