This entry was curated by Jim Rogers, director of the Center for Irish Studies and editor of New Hibernia Review.
It’s not east making a list of essential books when you’re talking about a country the size of Indiana that has produced four Nobel winners in literature and scores of other fine writers. But here’s a shortlist of 20th century titles that all Irish-minded readers ought to know.
10. The Weaver’s Grave by Seumas O’Kelly (1918)
This seemingly slight story, which is about two old men quarreling in a cemetery about where a third man’s grave is supposed to be, proves in the end to be a novella that unexpectedly ramps into a vision of life and death.
9. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen (1929)
In the midst of the Irish Civil War, a cluster of Irish aristocrats try to go about their daily business as if their world was not crumbling before their eyes. Bowen was a master of the poignant detail; her novel abounds with heartbreaking images of the vanishing Anglo-Irish world.
8. Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney (1966)
The first collection of poems from the future Nobel laureate, these poems describe a child’s entry into the world of adults, and create something universal and mythic out of the small place in the Northern Ireland countryside where the poet was raised.
7. The Country Girls Trilogy by Edna O’Brien (1960-64)
Actually three novels that trace the lives of two school girls, their strict upbringings and their disappointments in sex and marriage. Daring at the time (enough to get them banned in Ireland), O’Brien’s books gave – and continue to give – the experiences of Irish women a fictional home.
6. John Bull’s Other Island by George Bernard Shaw (1904)
A hilarious play in which a fat-headed Englishman persuades himself that he understands Ireland – only to find that everything turns upside down once you scratch the surface. Shaw’s commentaries on Ireland were much too solemn to be presented in anything but high comedy.
5. Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (1948)
On anyone’s shortlist of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Yeats wove together folklore, mysticism and ruminations on love and old age – all of it in magnificently crafted verse.
4. An Only Child by Frank O’Connor (1961)
The autobiography of one of the greatest short story writers of modern times, O’Connor’s childhood in Cork has all the stock characters – the saintly mother, the alcoholic father, the eccentric neighbors – but also a joyous discovery of life’s possibilities.
3. Translations by Brian Friel (1980)
A play that rewrote Irish history by dramatizing a central event in the life of the nation: the literal changing of the map from evocative place-names in Gaelic into arbitrary words in English. Friel’s play puts both language and the history of being a colony at the center of Irish life.
2. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1916)
The semi-autobiographical story of a young man’s rebellion against the nets of family, religion and nation – all the more remarkable because the arrogant young artist really did do what he said he would: write “the uncreated conscience of [his] race.”
1. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (1939)
There was never a book like this before: a novel in which borrowed and purloined fictional characters from other books yammer away in Irish backchat, eventually turning on their own author. A strong candidate for the title of the funniest book ever written.