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Great Irish Books that Deserve to be Read or Resuscitated

Ask any bookworm to name their top ten canonical works of Irish fiction from the last one hundred years and chances are the same authors will crop up time and time again. Expect to see James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien - the holy trinity of Irish modernism - looming large, alongside such venerated female writers as Elizabeth Bowen and Edna O’Brien. Look out too for a triumvirate of Booker-prize winners (Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Anne Enright), Costa winners (Sebastian Barry and Colm Tóibín) and, latterly, the exceptional new guard of boundary-pushing novelists (Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride, Mike McCormack, Lisa McInerney) who’ve proved victorious on the UK prize circuit.

But what about those great Irish books that have either fallen into obscurity or failed to garner the kind of kudos that comes with winning a major literary gong? Here are a few titles, both new and old, that deserve their place in the pantheon of great Irish fiction. 

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Brian Moore’s 1955 debut The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne remains an under-appreciated novel in this singularly versatile author’s canon. With clear echoes of Joyce’s Dubliners, the book offers a pitiless account of the life of middle-aged spinster Judith, who finds herself eking out a lonely existence in a seedy boarding house in mid-twentieth century Belfast. Behind a carapace of insufferable self-regard, Judith struggles with alcohol, loneliness and - as her relationship with her Catholic faith collapses - crushing existential despair. Moore inhabits the mind of Judith with utter conviction, transforming potentially grim subject matter into a forceful, exquisitely observed tour de force.

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Langrishe, Go Down

In his effortlessly accomplished 1966 debut, Aidan Higgins parlayed one of the most hackneyed tropes in Irish literature – the dysfunctional Catholic family – into high art. Higgins traces the decline of the once-formidable Langrishe clan from the perspective of the wistful Helen who remembers Springfield, the decaying ‘big house’ where she grew up alongside her ill-fated sisters Imogen, Lily and Emily in the early part of the twentieth century. Public and private history converge as the wraith-like Imogen embarks on a disastrous affair with a pompous German scholar, spelling the end for the family’s genteel, cosseted way of life. Langrishe, Go Down is an elegiac, beautifully impressionistic masterpiece that still feels fresh and persuasive some fifty years after publication.

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The Springs of Affection

As a teenager, Maeve Brennan moved with her family from Ireland to the United States and would go on to become a celebrated staff writer for The New Yorker in the 1950s and 60s. All but forgotten by the end of the century, Brennan’s work was warmly reappraised following the 1998 publication of The Springs of Affection, a selection of short stories set in Ranelagh, the leafy, middle-class Dublin suburb where she spent her youth. There are many gems here, particularly the exquisite interlinked stories centred on two pathologically unhappy marriages, that of the Derdons and Bagots respectively. Little happens at the level of plot but as studies of stultifying middle class ennui, Brennan’s unforgettable stories are crisp, uncluttered and scalpel sharp.

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Malarky

The interior monologue has been a mainstay in Irish literature since the start of the 20th century, with Joyce’s Ulysses, Beckett’s Molloy Trilogy and, recently, Eimear McBride’s multi-award winning 2013 novel, A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing all capitalizing on its potential. One somewhat overlooked recent novel that also deployed the monologue to sublime effect is Malarky, Anakana Schofield’s scabrous tale of a middle-aged Irish housewife who embarks on a tragicomic journey of self-discovery prompted by the discovery of her husband’s adultery and her son’s homosexuality. Told in tear-inducingly hilarious prose, Malarky is not simply one of the funniest Irish books of recent years, it is also a deft study of domesticity, bereavement and Irish social mores.  

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Foster

Although the Wicklow-born short story writer Claire Keegan has received several awards for her work and can count both Hilary Mantel and Richard Ford as fans, public recognition seems to have eluded her. The novella Foster, however, is a miniature masterpiece that deserves a wide readership. During a balmy Irish summer an unnamed young girl is brought to a farm to be cared for by relatives, the kindly Kinsellas, while her put-upon mother prepares for childbirth. In this nurturing and attentive environment – so unlike the one she has been accustomed to – she begins to blossom, but the ramifications of an unspoken family tragedy become more apparent as this taut, subtle and beautifully restrained tale unfurls.

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Love and Summer

Despite writing fourteen novels and being shortlisted for the Booker Prize on no less than five occasions, Cork-born William Trevor will be forever synonymous with the short story, of which he was an unquestionable master. Nonetheless his novels are, arguably, just as rewarding and none more so than his final book, Love and Summer. In the quiet rural town of Rathmoye, the orphaned Ellie Dillahan is married to a dull if kindly widower and passes her days working on his farm. But when handsome amateur photographer Florian Kilderry fetches up in the village, Ellie is transfigured and the pair embark on a doomed affair that is delineated with rare grace and sensitivity. Trevor’s exquisite syntax illuminates every page of this masterful novel of love, loss and yearning.

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Nothing On Earth

Conor O’Callaghan’s chilling debut novel is part psychological horror, part telling critique of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. The novel, published just last year, opens with the recollections of a troubled Catholic priest who becomes unwilling chaperon to a feral young girl after her family vanishes. O’Callaghan then takes the reader back in time as a strange couple, their daughter and her aunt find themselves the only inhabitants of an unfinished housing estate during one oppressively sultry Irish summer. Written in radiant, pitch-perfect prose, Nothing on Earth successfully melds the page-turning plot devices of the gothic novel – ghostly visitors, unexplained disappearances, eerily abandoned houses – with penetrating insights into life in a depressed, listless rural Ireland.

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Daragh is an editor and freelance writer based in Dublin

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