By Rick Steves and Pat O’Connor
To learn more about Ireland past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
For a quick overview, Richard Killeen’s A Short History of Ireland is a well-illustrated walk through key events. Ireland: A Concise History (Máire and Conor Cruise O’Brien) is just that, while How the Irish Saved Civilization (Thomas Cahill) shows how this “island of saints and scholars” changed the course of world history. In Traveller’s History of Ireland, Peter Neville leads readers on a tour through Ireland’s complicated history.
Frank McCourt’s autobiography, Angela’s Ashes, recounts his impoverished childhood in 1930s Limerick. Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (Nuala O’Faolain) and To School Through the Fields (Alice Taylor) are well-written memoirs. Two New Yorkers move to a tiny Irish village in O Come Ye Back to Ireland (first in a series of four books by Niall Williams and Christine Breen). For a humorous jaunt through the Irish countryside, read Round Ireland with a Fridge (Tony Hawks) or The Back of Beyond: A Search for the Soul of Ireland (James Charles Roy).
Ireland is the home to its share of great writers, among them masters such as James Joyce (try his Dubliners for a look at Irish life in the 1900s), Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett. Other classic Irish authors include Brendan Behan, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Kinsella, and Seamus Heaney.
Edward Rutherfurd’s thick, two-part Dublin Saga traces key events in Irish history from A.D. 430 to the fight for independence. Other historical epics include Trinity (Leon Uris), The Last Prince of Ireland (Morgan Llywelyn), and Ireland (Frank Delaney).
The Bódhran Makers (John B. Keane) is a heartwarming look at poor families in 1950s Ireland. Roddy Doyle’s gritty novels, such as The Barrytown Trilogy and A Star Called Henry, capture the day-to-day life of working-class Dubliners. Also set in Dublin, Finbar’s Hotel and Ladies’ Night at Finbar’s Hotel (Dermot Bolger) were written collaboratively, with each chapter penned by a different modern Irish author. Consider also any of Maeve Binchy’s soapy novels such as Circle of Friends.
The Quiet Man (1952), starring John Wayne as a disgraced boxer, remains a sentimental favorite. David Lean’s epic WWI love story Ryan’s Daughter (1970) was filmed near Dingle. Man of Aran (1934) is a classic documentary about life on the Aran Islands in the early 20th century. For hard-hitting drama, see The Field (1991, an Irish farmer fights to keep his land) or Angela’s Ashes (1999, based on the Frank McCourt memoir). In Evelyn (2002), single-dad Pierce Brosnan goes to court to keep his kids. Unwed mothers struggle to survive an abusive 1960s nunnery in The Magdalene Sisters (2003). Philomena (2013) tackles the same subject from the perspective of an elderly survivor searching for her son, lost to a forced adoption.
For insight into the struggle for independence from Britain, see Michael Collins (1996, Liam Neeson), a biopic about the Irish Free State revolutionary, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), told through the story of two brothers. Odd Man Out (1947) is a film noir about the early IRA, with a great scene filmed in Belfast’s Crown Bar. The Troubles haunt a widow and her lover in Cal (1984). In the Name of the Father (1993, Daniel Day-Lewis) is a biopic of accused bomber Gerry Conlon. The families of IRA hunger strikers are the focus of Some Mother’s Son (1996), while the documentary-like Omagh (2004) recounts a deadly 1998 IRA bombing. In Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008), an IRA informer navigates the brutal world of the Troubles.
Equally bleak but worthwhile films include My Left Foot (1989), which garnered an Academy Award for Daniel Day-Lewis, and Veronica Guerin (2003), in which Cate Blanchett exposes drug lords as a journalist.
For a fun, throwaway romance, try Far and Away (1992), with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as penniless Irish immigrants. For a comedic break, watch at least one of the films adapted from books by Roddy Doyle: The Commitments (1991), The Snapper (1993), or The Van (1996). In Waking Ned Devine (1998), a deceased villager wins the lottery (it’s funnier than it sounds). Children bring Irish folk tales to life in Into the West (1993) and The Secret of Roan Inish (1995). Leap Year (2009), with Amy Adams, was filmed on Inishmore (which was confusingly called “Dingle” in the film).
Pat O’Connor is the co-author of the Rick Steves Ireland guidebook.