For a small country, Ireland is internationally renowned for its literary prowess, and 2020 has produced a wealth of excellent Irish-authored books.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exerted its influence over most aspects of human life, including the publishing industry, but postponed publications and virtual tours have not stopped Irish writers from knocking it out of the park once again this year.
Crossing the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, Extra.ie has compiled our top 10 Irish-authored reads of the year — although it must be emphasised that this list is nowhere near exhaustive, these titles will make for perfect distractions over the Christmas break and into the New Year.
A Ghost in the Throat: Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Clare-born poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s prose debut is hard to define or describe, combining memoir, meditative essay, feminist manifesto and history in its luminous, tender interweaving of the life of the author and her muse, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an 18th century Irish noblewoman credited with the poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire.
With a nod to the literature of domesticity pioneered by the likes of Eavan Boland, Ní Ghríofa pushes back at accounts of Eibhlín Dubh that define her through her male relatives, seeking instead to piece together a rounded portrait of an astonishing woman through fragments, ghostly traces and poetic licence.
Ruminating on motherhood, desire, the tension between female self-effacement and self-assertion and the ethics of seeking to recover the stories of those who have been confined to the margins of history, A Ghost in the Throat is gorgeous, considered and original, while Ní Ghríofa’s refrain, ‘this is a female text’, speaks to her quietly radical project of recovery.
OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea: Patrick Freyne
Patrick Freyne is perhaps best known for his zany television reviews in The Irish Times, and his debut essay collection continues in the same vein of madcap, sardonic humour. OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea is structured around Freyne’s own ‘stupid ideas’, which include letting a horse out of its field, but the essays blend comedy and poignant insight into universal human experiences of love and loss.
Full of humanity and tenderness, Freyne’s excellent book will make you laugh out loud, even when you least expect it. The prose is smooth and accomplished, while the humility with which Freyne writes is encapsulated in his account of his friend Corncrake’s questioning of whether people will have any interest in reading about the life of a musician turned writer.
Personal essays are fast growing in popularity, and Irish authors such as Emilie Pine, Sinéad Gleeson have taken the genre by storm. For one reason or another, the genre has been dominated by women, providing raw and lyrical insights into universal experience, and Freyne’s volume serves to balance the scales nicely, providing a meditative, self-aware and generous portrait of Irish masculinity seen through a lens of personal experience and memory.
The Wild Laughter: Caoilinn Hughes
Galway author Caoilinn Hughes published her second novel, The Wild Laughter, in July. A profoundly dark tale of Irish familial tragedy set in post-crash Roscommon, The Wild Laughter is marked by subversive vein of black comedy and an irresistible if brutal charm that suck readers in despite the bleakness of the narrative.
Hughes’s novel tells the story of the conflict between brothers Hart and Cormac Black as they come to grips with the devastating impact of the recession and ill health on their father, the Chief, and his farm.
Veering between hardhitting reality and mythological paradigms, The Wild Laughter is novel that explores the nature of pride, dignity, faith and desperation with caustic candour and grudging beauty.
Thirty-Two Worlds For Field: Manchán Magan
As debates continue about the utility and value of the Irish language, Manchán Magan offers a lyrical meditation on the myriad place names of the ancient tongue, as well as the way of life and heritage that such a varied and specific vocabulary reflects.
Manchán Magan, a writer and documentary maker, could be seen as Ireland’s answer to Robert Macfarlane, one of Britain’s finest nature writers, whose work focuses on the relationship between humanity and the natural world as well as the language we use to understand and interact with our environment.
As the book’s title suggests, Magan explores the nuances and richness of the ancient Irish language, investigating why ‘tuar’ refers to a field for cattle at night, while cathairin, identifies a field with a fairy-dwelling in it, and why our ancestors felt the need to differentiate so clearly between the two. For anyone with an interest in nature writing, linguistics, the Irish language, or even just someone looking to slow down and take a closer look at out culture and history, Magan’s book is a necessity.
Actress: Anne Enright
Anne Enright’s books are beloved by readers across the world, from the Booker-winning The Gathering to her memoir on motherhood, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood. Actress, published in February, is no different, and has been identified by many readers as their favourite book of the year.
Narrated by Norah, the daughter of Irish theatre actress Katherine O’Dell, Actress delves into the difficulties and joys of mother-daughter relationships more generally while exploring with painful clarity the impact of a career in the limelight and an inclination to perform on the ties of trust and love that bind parents and children.
Enright deals with themes as diverse as sexuality, power, love, truth, ageing and femininity in Actress, moving between the glamour of America in the wake of the Second World War and vastly different landscape of Dublin in the 1970s. Actress is a tale about inner darkness and the difficulty of escaping our past and our secrets.
Diary of a Young Naturalist: Dara McAnulty
At just 16 years old, Northern Irish writer Dara McAnulty became the youngest ever author to win the Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing with his extraordinary book Diary of a Young Naturalist.
The narrative follows the changes in Dara’s life between his 14th and 15th birthday, from one spring equinox to the next, as he and his family move from their home in Co Fermanagh to the foothills of the Mourne Mountains in Co Down.
The book is motivated by Dara’s all-encompassing fascination with the natural world, as he describes the animals, insects and plants that he encounters in his Northern Irish environment in a sweet and earnest prose style that simultaneously showcases the enthusiasm of his youth while indicating that he is wise beyond his years. The narrative is also inflected with Dara’s consciousness of the fact that he and most of his family, who are as ‘close as otters’, are non-neurotypical. The teenager was diagnosed with autism and Asperger’s syndrome at a young age, and his awareness that this aspect of his life means that he communes with the natural world for wholly and intensely than most serves to defamiliarise the reader while introducing an urgency to the narrative. Comparisons with Greta Thunberg could be justifiable, but Dara is one of a kind.
A Light That Never Goes Out: A Memoir: Keelin Shanley
In February 2020, RTE broadcaster Keelin Shanley tragically died at the age of just 51, having battled with breast cancer for two years. Following her death, tributes to Keelin flooded in, as family, friends, colleagues and fans attested to her kindness, intellect, resilience and talent, as well as her devotion to her husband, Conor, and her young children.
In September, Keelin’s memoir, A Light That Never Goes Out, was completed and published posthumously by Conor. Although there is great pain and heartache in the documentation of Keelin’s final battle, A Light That Never Goes Out stands as an extraordinary testament to the career of the formidable journalist, to the joyful years she spent with her family and to her courage while facing the prospect of leaving it all behind at far too young an age.
Despite the tragedy of Keelin’s death, her memoir is a galvanising testament to the importance of leaving a legacy of love and of living a life of rich fulfilment, no matter how short.
Suppose A Sentence: Brian Dillon
Brian Dillon has carved a muted but luminous niche for himself in Irish writing over the decades, publishing beautifully incisive volumes of essays on diverse topics including the art of the essay (Essayism, 2017) and historical hypochondriacs (Tormented Hope, 2009).
In Suppose A Sentence, Dillon compiles a series of essays prompted by single sentences composed by the likes of William Shakespeare, James Baldwin and Joan Didion. Standing as a sequel of sorts to Essayism, Suppose A Sentence treats the structural delicacy, crafted beauty and aphoristic power of individual sentences, one of the most fundamental units of great literature.
Suppose A Sentence certainly won’t be for everyone, but for the lover of literature, the bibliophile and the wordsmith, Dillon injects new vigour and vibrancy into the genre of lyrical criticism.
The Art of the Glimpse: 100 Irish Short Stories: edited by Sinéad Gleeson
From James Joyce, Frank O’Connor and Elizabeth Bowen to Claire Foster, Mike McCormack and Kevin Barry, Ireland has produced and continues to produce short-story writers of breathtaking talent and originality, cementing the country’s status as a small island with a literary heft that belies its tiny population.
The short story can sometimes be dismissed as a training ground for novelists, a more ephemeral and less substantial art form than longer narratives, but this is not the case. Sometimes described as a ‘glimpse of truth’, short stories can be all the more forceful, inventive and meticulously crafted for their brevity, as Sinéad Gleeson’s excellent anthology demonstrates.
Gleeson’s editorial decisions are fluently transferred to the anthology, as she radically redefines the canon of the Irish short story, which was dominated for so long by the likes of Joyce, O’Connor, Seán O Faoláin and William Trevor. Retaining the classic examples from these well-known giants, Gleeson insists on diversifying the definitive voices of Irish short fiction, including neglected authors from the 19th century, authors with Irish connections who are based elsewhere, Traveller folk tales, more female authors and authors from the LGBT community. Gleeson’s anthology reinscribes Irishness and the Irish experience, tipping the hat to the leviathans of the traditional canon while bringing newer writers such as Sally Rooney, Donal Ryan and Eimear McBride into the fold.
After the Silence: Louise O’Neill
Louise O’Neill’s latest offering is a dark and disturbing murder mystery based on the island of Inisrun. A native of Clonakilty, O’Neill herself has admitted that she was inspired to write After the Silence after listening to the West Cork podcast, which explored the chilling murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in the secluded, coastal countryside.
The winner of the Irish Independent Crime Fiction Book of the Year, After the Silence relates the disturbance to the island community that occurs when a team of documentary makers arrives to investigate the murder of Nessa Crowley 10 years after her death.
Nessa’s body was discovered the morning after a storm that would have precluded the killer from escaping the island, and the morning after a party hosted by Henry and Keelin Kinsella, a glamorous couple who live in the biggest house on Inisrun. Driven by tension and the claustrophobia of island life, After the Silence delves into the twisted intricacies of the Kinsellas’ marriage and their carefully constructed lives as well as the intrusion of the documentary makers and the persistent presence of Nessa Crowley.