Well beyond Irish borders, students and mainstream readers alike already know of literary legends such as Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, W.B. Yeats, and – of course – James Joyce. Exemplary writers all, but the nation’s ancient culture and veritably volcanic history imbues it with a bookish heritage extending in all directions. Many of these authors, of course, deserve study inside and outside the classroom, but wind up overshadowed by the aforementioned titans. Irish-American Heritage Month, which has happened every March since 1995, offers up quite an appropriate excuse to start exploring works which might not receive sufficient attention overseas. Or, in some cases, in Ireland itself.
Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu actually launched the entire vampire genre with Carmilla a full quarter-century before fellow Irish Gothic author Bram Stoker published Dracula. This frequently backburnered novella features a lesbian vampire and a genuinely scare-riffic story of stalking; among its more interesting accomplishments is solidifying the archetype of a medical professional skilled in occult matters. Despite its literary significance, its spiritual successor receives far more recognition in classrooms and the mainstream consciousness alike.
Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth
Despite boasting a startling number of bibliophiliac firsts, this novel surprisingly receives little attention outside academic circles and its native nation. Among others, literary critics and historians attribute Mary Edgeworth with pioneering the unreliable and disengaged narrator, historical fiction, sagas as long form fiction, the Anglo-Irish and big house genres, and…well…probably more than that, too. Castle Rackrent concerns itself with satirizing Irish politics, economics, and society. It centers around absurd components of landlord arrangements, relayed through four generations of the eponymous home’s inhabitants.
Langrishe, Go Down by Aidan Higgins
An Irish family’s own personal set of tragedies and victories parallel those of pre-World War II Europe. This book follows four sisters, with the narrative’s crux fixed on the youngest daughter’s doomed liaisons with a German academic. Irish Times and other critics absolutely loved it, but good luck finding the book on classroom syllabi. The movie, however, seems way more popular in scholastic settings.
Cre Na Cille by Mairtin O Cadhain
Irish language books unfortunately (though understandably) receive far less attention than those published in English. Translations for many, however, are available. Cre Na Cille (or Churchyard Clay) hails from the pen of a fiercely proud nationalistic author, partly responsible for the establishment of the lovely little Gaeltacht Rath Cairn. Despite his devotion to the oppressed country, the only novel Mairtin O Cadhain published before dying didn’t shy away from peeling back the uglier corners of the culture. Here, a funeral serves as a staging ground for hilarious, piquant, and tragic commentary about life in Ireland’s lush countryside.
The Land of Spices by Kate O’Brien
Life in convents, in Ireland or not, is hardly the quiet retreat into scholarship and solitude one imagines – though it certainly contains an element of the solitary. In Kate O’Brien’s frequently-overlooked bildungsroman, a young girl grows up amongst the sisters and leads the Mother Superior to come to some harrowing personal conclusions. Catholicism’s constant looking over Irish cultural mores and mindsets winds up on the receiving end of a more than thorough analysis as a result.
Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
Booker Prize nominee Good Behaviour still manages to wind up largely ignored in favor of works by household names like James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and more. Generations of the St Charles family manage to fall victim to the usual greeds and lusts that tear apart even the strongest folks, and their obsession with maintaining appearances serve as a portent of their own unraveling. Components of a mixed English and Irish culture also instigate issues, especially when it comes to dangerously suppressing emotions and desires.
An Beal Bocht by Brian O’Nolan
Originally published in Irish, An Beal Bocht serves as one of many sterling examples of Brian O’Nolan’s (also known as Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen) unique postmodernist, poststructuralist perspectives. The author himself isn’t exactly an obscurity within Irish literature, having been a contemporary of James Joyce present at the first Bloomsday Festival – he just happens to receive far more acclaim for other writings. His novel published underneath the Myles na gCopaleen nom de plume continued the satirical approach towards Ireland found in his famous Irish Times columns.
The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen
Another fabulous Anglo-Irish novel, this time set right in the middle of The Troubles with emphasis on perfectly embodying exactly what the country’s people experienced as they fought for their freedom. Scholars love picking apart its postcolonial and feminist potential, but general audiences on an international level sadly won’t recognize Elizabeth Bowen’s name. Rather sad, really, as it certainly provides a harrowing depiction of world history and the ravages of oppression. Most of the action takes place in a bloated estate where inhabitants talk politics, fall in love, and fear for the future.
Hidden Symptoms by Dierdre Madden
Critically adored Dierdre Madden sets her story in 1980s Belfast and pits faith against atheism, activism against apathy, and intellectualism against stagnation. Political and social upheaval perpetually burbles beneath everything when it isn’t completely spilling over. A trio of college kids find themselves snagged on ideologies – regardless of whether or not they wish they were – and at odds with both one another and the milieu around them.
An Embarrassment of Riches by Gerald Hansen
Lovers of the darkest of comedies might want to pick up An Embarrassment of Riches and its hilarious take on a family terrorizing one another over lottery winnings. Everyone from the scheming little girl coveting a designer First Communion gown to a sociopathic, criminal sister-in-law wants a slice of the frazzled protagonist’s good fortune. All she really wants to do is atone for past involvement with the Irish Republican Army and spend some time as far away from her family as possible.