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An Irish literature reading list from Oxford World’s Classics

By Kirsty Doole


With today being St Patrick’s Day, we’ve taken the opportunity to recommend a few classic works of Irish literature to dip into while you’re enjoying a pint (or two) of Guinness.

386px-Djuna_Barnes_-_JoyceFinnegans Wake by James Joyce

Joyce is one of the most famous figures in Irish literature, and Finnegans Wake is infamous for being one of the most formidable books in existence. It plays fantastic games with language and reinvents the very idea of the novel in the process of telling the story of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and his wife Anna Livia, in whom the character of Ireland itself takes form. Around them and their dreams there swirls a vortex of world history, of ambition and failure, pride and shame, rivalry and conflict, gossip and mystery.

A Tale of a Tub and Other Works by Jonathan Swift

This was the first major work written by Jonathan Swift. The author explains in a preface that it is the practice of seamen when they meet a whale to throw out an empty tub to divert it from attacking the ship. Hence the title of the satire, which is intended to divert Hobbes’s Leviathan and the wits of the age from picking holes in the weak sides of religion and government. The author proceeds to tell the story of a father who leaves as a legacy to his three sons Peter, Martin, and Jack a coat apiece, with directions that on no account are the coats to be altered. Peter symbolizes the Roman Church, Martin (from Martin Luther) the Anglican, Jack (from John Calvin) the Dissenters. The sons gradually disobey the injunction. Finally Martin and Jack quarrel with the arrogant Peter, then with each other, and separate.

The Playboy of the Western World and Other Plays by J. M. Synge

In The Playboy of the Western World, the action takes place in a public house, when a stranger enters and is persuaded to tell his story. Impressed, the admiring audience thinks he must be very brave indeed to have killed his father, and in turn the young tramp blossoms into the daring rollicking hero they believe him to be. But then his father, with a bandaged head, turns up seeking his worthless son. Disillusioned and angry at the loss of their hero, the crowd turns the stranger, who tries to prove that he is indeed capable of savage deeds, even attempting unsuccessfully to kill his father again. The play ends with father and son leaving together with the words “Shut yer yelling for if you’re after making a mighty man of me this day by the power of a lie, you’re setting me now to think if it’s a poor thing to be lonesome, it’s worse maybe to go mixing with the fools of earth.”

Dracula by Bram Stoker

One of the greatest horror stories ever written. This is the novel that introduced the character of Count Dracula to the world, spawning a whole host of vampire fictions in its wake. As well as being a pioneering text in horror fiction, it also has much to say about the nature of empire, with Dracula hell-bent on spreading his contagion into the very heart of the British empire. Fun fact: Bram Stoker’s wife, Florence Balcombe, had previously been courted by Oscar Wilde.

The Major Works by W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats was born in 1865 and died in 1939. His career crossed the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Romantic early poems of Crossways and the symbolist masterpiece The Wind Among the Reeds to his last poems. Myth and folk-tale influence all of his work, most notably in Cathleen ni Houlihan among others. The importance of the spirit world to his life and work is evident in his critical essays and occult writings, and he also wrote a whole host of political speeches, autobiographical writings, and letters.

The Wild Irish Girl by Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan)

This is the story of the son of an English lord, Horation, who is banished to his father’s Irish estate as punishment for gambling debts, he adopts the persona of knight errant and goes off in search of adventure. On the wild west coast of Connaught he finds remnants of a romantic Gaelic past a dilapidated castle, a Catholic priest, a deposed king and the king’s lovely and learned daughter, Glorvina. In the process he rediscovered a love for the life and culture of his country. Written after the Act of Union, The Wild Irish Girl (1806) is a passionately nationalistic novel and an essential novel in the discourse of Irish nationalism. The novel was so controversial in Ireland that the author, Lady Morgan, was put under surveillance by Dublin Castle. There is a bust of Lady Morgan in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the plaque mentions that Lady Morgan was “less than four feet tall.”

In a Glass Darkly by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

This dark collection of five stories was said by none other than Henry James to be “the ideal reading… for the hours after midnight”. Indeed, J. Sheridan Le Fanu himself had a reputation for being both reclusive and rarely seen in the daytime. His fascination with the occult led to his stories being truly spine-chilling, drawing on the Gothic tradition and elements of Irish folklore, as well as on the social and political anxieties of his Anglo-Irish contemporaries.

Kirsty Doole is Publicity Manager for Oxford World’s Classics.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter, Facebook, or here on the OUPblog. Subscribe to only Oxford World’s Classics articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.

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Image credit: James Joyce. By Djuna Barnes. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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