Covers of Irishbooks against a green and blue background.

Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

For being a wee rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean; Ireland has quite a story behind its green fields, thatched roofs and wild, beautiful seas. Bardic and folkloric, political and heartbreaking, moving and revolutionary: how to find the words for such a history? Here are a few books by folk from this island or about the place itself; for we all know that the story of any place is really the story of its people – and in learning of their lived experiences we learn about ourselves, too.

Irish Legends For Children, Yvonne Carroll, Gill Books (1997)

Beautifully illustrated and written in such a dream-like manner, this is the perfect book to start your journey into the traditional legends of this land. From the heart-aching telling of the Children of Lir to the early feminist energy of Deirdre of the Sorrows – from The Salmon of Knowledge to the intricacies of Tir na n-Og – it is a sensitively written book that holds the power to re-kindle the magic stories from each of our own childhoods, in turn. 

Sea Tamagotchi by Manchán Magan (2020)

Just before lockdown, Manchán set out along the coast roads of Mayo, Donegal, Sligo, Connemara and Inishmore seeking out sea words, producing this gorgeous book with the inspirational, small but massive REDFOXPRESS based in Achill, Mayo. A project in association with Galway2020, it weaves together the experiences of fishermen, folklorists and friendly locals. At a time when connection to the land, sea and those we share it with feel more important than ever; this wee book is soothing balm.

Republic of Shame, Caelainn Hogan (2019)

We have recently watched the unearthing of an incredibly painful period in Irish history – that of Religious institutions and the culture out of which they were born – a culture of shame. The details around what women and children were put through has long been hidden away. So many people are still begging for answers and proper justice. This is an important, harrowing book that looks this time – and this country – directly in the eye and in doing so has played an incomparable role for survivors and the public alike.

Sources: Letters from the Irish People on Sustenance for the Soul edited by Marie Heaney (2000)

"What gives you spiritual sustenance?" was the simple question put to the diverse range of contributors to this graceful, touching book. From writers to politicians – both religious individual and atheist alike – Sources is a collection of short letters on spirituality in a busy, hard world. It is testimony to the human need for something beyond the grind of everyday life, the desire for some sort of spiritual sustenance, as individual to each of us as the stars in the sky; especially at times of crisis.

Don’t touch my Hair by Emma Dabiri (2019)

An invigorating, informative look at black women’s hair in terms of race, gender, society, culture, tradition, history and so much more.  The essays are addictive and highly engaging – looking at various historical periods to explore what it means to be black in our world through the topic of hair – although it is about so much more, of course. It is about what it means to live through various forms of oppression, and what it takes to be free of it. This is a book for every one of us.

Irish Trees: Myth, Legend and Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir (2003)

Trees play an exceptionally important role in the story of Ireland, and this book presents the myths, legends and folklore surrounding them with such fine skill. We are given spells and wells, ancient tales and battle fails, all tied together with stunning illustrations. A blend of nature, mythology and folklore; this is a leafy handbook to return to over and over.

The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers, edited by Sinéad Gleeson (2016)

Thirty short stories spanning four centuries, this inclusive collection brings together the most gifted women writers this island has birthed. The subject matter is varied and fresh – exploring so much, from the very ordinary to the ethereal, from deep pain to soaring joy – in ways that stay with the reader long after putting this book down. An essential addition to any bookshelf.  

The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, edited by Patrick Crotty (2012)

A comprehensive summary spanning time, place and experience; featuring poetry from as simplistic and ancient as the monks to the craftsmanship of the Nobel laureates – the whole spectrum of being alive through the ages in Ireland is covered here. Love and loss, battles and beauty are all here. There are, of course, lots of men within these pages: editor, preface writer, poets – but it’s the most balanced collection of its type I’ve encountered. Heaney’s introduction is exquisite, too. An all-round gift of a book.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (2015)

The tale of two outsiders – one an eccentric loner and the other an abandoned one-eyed dog –throughout their unusual relationship. This is one of the greatest love stories ever written, spanning the four seasons of a single year as alluded to in the incredible title of Baume’s debut novel. The writing is utterly breathtaking, full of empathy and compassion, shining light on the ache of loneliness, social anxiety and the bond that can exist between human and non-human.

Break the Mould by Sinéad Burke (2020)

This is a book with a message for far more of us than the children of Ireland. In a world that can feel to many people isn't designed for them – like they don’t belong – this book offers the timely reminder of the need for us all to listen and show compassion to those we walk alongside. Quirky illustrations sit beside heart-felt, wise words; exploring the power to be found in being different, in using your voice to be an ally and showing kindness to others. This is the message of the Ireland I know and love.

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