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A Dublin Reading List

From Samuel Beckett to Maeve Binchy, the capital city has provided inspiration for many a novel, some bursting with fond nostalgia, others bitter. The following are a selection of novels which are set in Dublin.



John Banville, The Book of Evidence (Mandarin; Warner), Ghosts (Mandarin; Random House), Athena (Minerva; Random House). A selection of novels from the most important Irish novelist since McGahern. His 1989 Booker Prize nomination, The Book of Evidence, tells a sleazy tale of a weird Dublin murder.


Samuel Beckett, More Pricks Than Kicks (Calder; Grove-Atlantic).
Set in the 1920s, Beckett's first published book is a collection of 10 tragi-comic short stories which chronicle the the grotesque existence, marriages and accidental death of his Dublin eccentric Belacqua Shuah, a language student at TCD, where the writer himself studied and taught.
Bleakly humourous and imbued with a determined sense of both the absurd and despair, More Pricks Than Kicks makes convoluted drama of everyday events, notably in the penultimate story, Yellow, in which Belacqua dies during a botched operation - "His heart was running away. Terrible yellow yerks in his skull...By Christ! he did die! They had clean forgotten to auscultate him." In common with most of Beckett's work, the language is taut, the wit wry, and the overall mood is one of jokey darkness in which humour, as was stated in the blurb on the book's first edition, is "the last weapon against despair". A good introduction to the great man's work.


Brendan Behan, The Scarperer (o/p). Originally serialized in the Irish Times in 1953 under the pseudonym Emmet Street, this slight crime tale, by the author of Borstal Boy, roams the bars and police stations of North Dublin. Borstal Boy concerns Behan's imprisonment in a Borstal home in Suffolk after he was arrested in Liverpool, aged 16, for attempting to take part in a republican bombing campaign. Rich in humour and pathos, this is the classic account of life inside, where screws, wide boys, toughs and ponces people a world of brutish routine. Borstal Boy was written in perfect Dublin English, or Dublinese.

It was published in 1958, when Behan was already established as a playwright, and is probably his most read work today. "If the English hoard words like misers," wrote the critic Kenneth Tynan, "Behan sends language out on a swaggering spree, ribald, flushed and spoiling for a fight." Great stuff.


Maeve Binchy, Dublin 4. Published in 1978, this charming collection of four short stories displays many of the qualities that would catapult Binchy into the blockbuster league in the '80s and '90s. Intimate, warm-hearted and sympathetic accounts of the everyday dilemmas endured by residents of the fashionable district of Dublin 4, the stories exude a broadly positive outlook on human nature. They feature a society hostess who entertains her husband's mistress to dinner; a country girl discovering the ups and downs of city life; a student facing unmarried pregnancy; and an alcoholic photographer trying to relaunch his career and avoid the temptations of drink.
Binchy claims that she only started writing fiction to stave off boredom while working as an Irish Times reporter in London - massive sales suggest that her boredom was unusually fruitful.


Dermot Bolger, The Journey Home (Penguin, UK). One of the most powerful of contemporary Irish writers, Bolger set his third novel around the bleak lives of young people in his own native Finglas.
The third in a trilogy of novels exploring contemporary life in urban Dublin, The Journey Home recounts the story of two friends, Hano and Shay, who become embroiled in a shady web of violence, money-lending, political corruption and drink and drugs. Bolger writes of an uneasy and often brutal limbo where the city and country meet, using this as a metaphor for modern Ireland, a place in which green fields, folksy nostalgia and hail-fellow-well-met cameraderie are but a memory. The book eschews staples of Irish literary novels such as the Big House, the Church and the North, offering instead a daring, ferocious account of a city in flux in the pre-Celtic tiger days of the early 1990s.
A Second Life (Penguin) is an assured novel about a man who, miraculously given a second chance at life, sets out to find the truth about his adoption.


Christy Brown, My Left Foot . Brown, who was born with athenoid paralysis, published his remarkable autobiography when he was only 22. Taught to read by his mother, he first wrote when he gripped a piece of chalk with his toes and drew on a floor. A coming-of-age account set in the Dublin working-class suburb of Crumlin in the 1930s and '40s, My Left Foot was filmed by Jim Sheridan in 1989. The actor Daniel Day-Lewis received an Oscar for his performance as Brown. Down All the Days. Flamboyantly styled but hugely enjoyable tale of working-class life in Crumlin in the 1940s and 1950s.


Ita Daly, A Singular Attraction (Poolbeg, UK). A woman approaching middle age seeks freedom in the post-abortion and divorce referenda Dublin of the 1980s.


J.P. Donleavy, The Gingerman

The Gingerman recounts the story of Sebastian Dangerfield, a law student, determined philanderer and drink-addicted liar who ignores his scholarly and fatherly responsibilities when he goes on a ruinous binge in 1950s Dublin. Unable to contain his lustful and alcoholic desires, Dangerfield foregoes homely comfort in pursuit of his pleasures, moving his wife and child from one scatty lodging to the next as his money runs out. In the course of his uncontrollable odyssey, he stretches the faith of his wife and lovers to the limits, disappointing everyone who helps him. He is, however, ultimately successful in his seduction of Miss Frost, who, in her stolid resistance to his amorous overtures, is the antithesis of his previous lovers.
Donleavy, an American who came to Ireland after World War II, based the character on his fellow- countryman Gainor Crist, whose antics in Dublin during the 1950s were notorious. An entertaining portrait of the city in times more often associated with unyielding poverty and clenching religiosity.


Emma Donoghue, Stir Fry (Penguin, UK). A finely crafted lesbian love story from a young Dubliner.


Roddy Doyle, The Barrytown Trilogy

(The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van)
Chronicles of contemporary life in a fictional working-class suburb called Barrytown, Doyle's trilogy voices a spirit of humourous resistance to and occasional triumph over adversity. In The Commitments, a group of youths form an ill-fated soul band with which they plan to conquer the world; The Snapper details how a family copes with their daughter's unplanned pregnancy and The Van tells of friends and family starting a business when their luck is down.
These hugely popular tales of marginalised Dublin life make great use of Dublinese, or English as she is spoke in the city, a fluid and versatile lingo, full of wit. All three novels have been filmed, the most notable being Alan Parker's 1993 adaptation of The Commitments, which featured a cast of unknown Dublin musicians, many of whom had never acted before.


Anne Enright, The Portable Virgin (Secker & Warburg, UK). Intelligent, witty, yet sometimes disquieting tales in a Dublin setting.


Bartholomew Gill, McGarr and the P.M. of Belgrave Square (Penguin). Irish detective novels are something of a rarity, and this is the best of US exile Gill's series featuring Dublin's Inspector Peter McGarr.


Hugo Hamilton, Dublin Where the Palm Trees Grow (Faber). A fine collection of stories set with equal assurance in Berlin and middle-class Dublin.


Neil Jordan, The Past (Vintage; Braziller o/p). Film-maker Jordan's first full-length work is an ambitious account of the troubled first years of the Irish Free State.


James Joyce, Dubliners
Published in 1914, Joyce's 15 short stories are notable for their exquisite detail, wit and melancholy ambiance. Set in Dublin of the early 20th-century, these are tales of a defeated city. They explore the sometimes stunted lives of Joyce's fellow-Dubliners with frankness and poise. The final piece in the collection, The Dead, ranks among the finest short stories anywhere.
Written in 1907, when Joyce was 25 years old, it concerns a family Christmas party, after which the host, Gabriel Conroy, discovers and accepts his wife's lingering affection for a former lover who had died before she met Conroy. His mood of neutrality in the face of this jolt can be read as a metaphor for the detachment that Joyce saw as crucial to his development as an artist.

Regarded by many as the supreme novel, Joyce's Ulysses is an account of one day in the life of Dublin, set on June 16th, 1904. The book recounts both the actions and inner thoughts of the chief protagonist, Leopold Bloom, an advertising salesman, who spends the day wandering around Dublin, working, attending a funeral, meeting people, worrying, eating, drinking and making merry. While this makes for a remarkable read on one level, Bloom and the Dublin milieu are also symbolic of the entire world - every episode in the book corresponds to an episode in Homer's Odyssey, the hero of which, Ulysses, was regarded by Joyce as the most complete man in literature.
A stunning, though at times difficult book, it is noted for its gleaming prose, its wit, its "profligate allusiveness" to other literary works, and, ultimately, for the completeness of its account of humanity. Essential.
Following its completion, Joyce strove for sixteen years to construct Finnegans Wake, a cyclical concoction, following the Vicoesque concept of history as inevitable repetition. Often profoundly obscure, there are passages of great lyricism and humour in its account of the Earwicker family: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle, and their two sons and pub in Chapelizod.


J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery (Wordsworth). Victorian ghost stories set in Aungier Street and Chapelizod.


Hugh Leonard, Parnell and the Englishwoman (Deutsch; Atheneum o/p). Fictional biography of the later years of Charles Parnell and his affair with Kitty O'Shea.


John McGahern, The Leavetaking (Faber). A spare and stark tale of a teacher in a Clontarf national school reviewing his life on the day he expects to be sacked for marrying an American divorcée.


Mary Morrissey, A Lazy Eye (Vintage; Simon & Schuster). Sensitively crafted short stories by a young Dublin writer.


Iris Murdoch, The Red and the Green (Penguin). Dubliner Murdoch rarely writes about Ireland ­ this fictional account of the time leading up to the Easter Rising is somewhat of an exception.


Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

O'Brien's comic masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds weaves many tales, which feature, simultaneously, a drink-loving student narrator who lives with his uncle in Dublin; a writer called Trellis who figures in a book being written by the narrator; unpredictable characters invented by Trellis; and, bizarrely, selected heroes from Ireland's Celtic past such as "Finn MacCool" and "Mad Sweeney". All contrive to create a weird world in which only the unexpected and unlikely can happen.
Shirking convention wherever he can, O'Brien exuberantly conceives of hilarious impossibilities, which include the invention of a means whereby the "legitimate diversion" of married couples "would straightaway result in finished breadwinners or marriageable daughters".
O'Brien's later works include The Dalkey Archive, featuring St Augustine and Joyce working behind a bar, and The Third Policeman, where a man imagines himself to be turning into a bicycle as a consequence of De Selby's theory of molecular transference.


Joseph O'Connor, Cowboys and Indians (Flamingo; Sinclair-Stevenson o/p). "Dublin at Christmas was a dangerous town. Too many familiar people, all waiting to jump out of the shadows and wave their latest attitude in your face." Life on the peripheries of Dublin and London with Eddie Virago.


Julia O'Faolain, No Country for Young Men (Penguin; Carroll & Graf). Republican politics and its repercussions seen through the eyes of four generations of the O'Malley family.


Liam O'Flaherty, The Informer (Harcourt Brace, US), The Assassin (Wolfhound Press, UK), Insurrection (Wolfhound Press, UK). The Informer is probably his best-known work, a racy tale of Gypo Nolan, a former Republican, who betrays a colleague to the Garda and is hunted down amongst the slums around Custom House by his erstwhile associates.


James Plunkett, Strumpet City (Arrow). A hefty and well-written account of Edwardian Dublin, extremely popular when it was first published in 1969.


James Stephens, The Charwoman's Daughter (o/p). Known best for The Crock of Gold, Stephens set this whimsical fairy tale, real rags-to-riches stuff, in turn-of-the-century-Dublin.


Bram Stoker, Dracula (Oxford University Press; Penguin). Stoker woke up after a nightmare brought on by a hefty lobster supper, and proceeded to write his way into the nightmares of the twentieth century.


Francis Stuart, Black List: Section H

A semi-autobiographical chronicle of the life, poetic journey and political obsessions of a writer, H. Stuart outlines H's republicanism during the Irish civil war in 1922-3 and his decision to spend World War II in Berlin as a lecturer. Though H's time in Berlin can be seen as an attempt to express his rejection of capitalism, his journey is more poetic than political.
The overriding theme of the novel is of his search for the intellectual stimulation which he could find only as an outsider, alienated from the world around him. Stuart details H's disastrous marriage, his affairs, his time as a poultry farmer in Wicklow and drinking sessions in Dublin and London.
Travels deep in Europe culminate in a decision to go to Germany at the onset of the war, after which he was interned by French forces. This is when he finally justifies his belief that only "by surviving perilous situations" would he "reach whatever degree of psychic and imaginative depths he was capable of".
"A fiction in which only real people appear", Black List, Section H embodies the art of the outsider. Unsettling and difficult, it tells us that in "leaving the lawful company to which he'd belonged", H knew he would become "a traitor".


Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (Penguin/Oxford University Press); The Tale of a Tub and Other Stories (Oxford University Press). Surrealism and satire from the only writer in the English language with as sharp a pen as Voltaire.


Colm Tóibín, The South (o/p). A woman turns her back on Ireland for Spain and returns thirty years later to resolve her life, and to die. The Heather Blazing (Picador/Penguin) is a powerfully understated novel of personal and political loss.


William Trevor, Mrs Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (Penguin). A barmy American photographer flies to Dublin to undertake a study of the said hotel and encounters a bunch of bizarre characters staying there.


Books on Dublin

Peter Costello, Dublin Churches (Gill & MacMillan). More than 150 churches are described and photographed in this detailed study.


Maurice Craig, Dublin 1660­1860 (Penguin, UK). Revised since its original publication in 1952, this is a classic account of the Dublin of Ormonde, Swift and Grattan and the three great eras of the city's development.


Mary E. Daly, Dublin: the Deposed Capital (Cork University Press; University of Notre Dame Press o/p). A comprehensive social and economic anatomy of Dublin's development and decay between 1860 and 1914.


John Graby and Deirdre O'Connor (eds) Dublin (Phaidon). Detailed written and pictorial information on all the city's major and many less well-known buildings.


Desmond Guinness, Georgian Dublin (Batsford o/p). A photographic celebration of Dublin's Georgian houses and squares.


Vivien Igoe, A Literary Guide to Dublin (Methuen). Dublin's authors, literary society and fictional depictions.


Kevin C. Kearns, Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History and Dublin Pub Life and Lore (Gill & MacMillan). Two vibrant and stimulating accounts based entirely on the reminiscences of Dubliners.


Niall McCullough, Dublin: An Urban History (o/p). The changing shape and texture of the city.


Frederick O'Dwyer, Lost Dublin (Gill & MacMillan; Salem House o/p). A paean to the city's former glories that contains many photographs of long-demolished buildings and monuments.


Peter Somerville-Large, Dublin (Sinclair-Stevenson; Academy Chicago). A populist history of Dublin from the Vikings to the twentieth century.


Peter Zöller and John McArdle, Dublin: Portrait of a City (Gill & MacMillan). Zöller's award-winning photo-journalism is teamed up with McArdle's caustic prose in an attempt to capture the essence of Dublin city.


Irish history, politics and society

John Ardagh, Ireland and the Irish: Portrait of a Changing Society (Penguin). A comprehensive and lively anatomy of contemporary Irish society and its attempts to come to terms with a changing world.


J.C. Beckett, The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-­1923 (Faber, UK). A classic account of the complexities of Irish history.


Douglas Bennett, An Encyclopaedia of Dublin (Gill & MacMillan, UK). An assiduously compiled reference book detailing everything you might ever wish to know about Dublin and then some.


Terence Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-­1985 (Fontana; Cornell University Press). A brilliantly perceptive survey of writers' responses to the dog's breakfast made of post-revolutionary Ireland by its leaders.


Max Caulfield, The Easter Rebellion (Gill & MacMillan; Roberts Rinehart). This essential account of the events of 1916, originally published in 1963, has recently been revised and reissued.


Michael Collins, In His Own Words (Gill & MacMillan, UK). Extracts from the Irish revolutionary's writings and speeches.


John Cowell, Dublin's Famous People: Where They Lived (O'Brien Press, UK). Brief biographies of literati and glitterati.


Liam Fay, Beyond Belief (Hot Press, UK). An irreverent and often hysterically funny investigation into the state of religion in modern Ireland, written by a Hot Press regular.


Roy Foster, Modern Ireland 1600-­1972 (Penguin). Superb and provocative book, generally reckoned to be unrivalled in its scholarship and acuity, although it has been criticized for what some feel to be an excessive sympathy towards the Anglo-Irish. Not recommended for beginners.


Robert Kee, The Green Flag (Penguin). Awesomely assiduous history and masterful analysis of Ireland from the first Plantations to the creation of the Free State. Three volumes.


Fintan O'Toole, The Ex-Isle of Erin: Ireland in the Modern World (o/p). Irish Times journalist O'Toole examines the impact of globalism upon Irish society.


Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger (Penguin). A classic and often agonizing account of the Famine and its aftermath.


Biography and autobiography

Stuart Baillie, The Ballad of a Thin Man (Boxtree). Hot Press contributor's excellent biography of Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott.


Christy Brown, My Left Foot (Faber). Born with cerebral palsy, Brown painstakingly typed out this unsentimental autobiography, published in 1954 when he was 22, focusing on his upbringing in a huge southside family, dominated by the remarkable endurance and character of his mother.


Tony Clayton-Lea and Richie Taylor, Irish Rock (Gill & MacMillan). Now five years old, this is still the only decent book available on the subject and much of it is an account of the development of the Dublin music scene.


Antony Cronin, Dead as Doornails: A Chronicle of Life (Dolmen Press/Oxford University Press), No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O'Brien (Paladin), Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (Flamingo). Cronin's work ranges from his sparkling account of literary bohemia in the 1950s and 1960s via an illuminating biography of Brian O'Nolan (alias Flann O'Brien) to his 1997 analysis of Beckett's life and work.


Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford University Press), Oscar Wilde (Penguin). Ellmann's wonderful biography of Joyce is a literary masterpiece in its own right. His work on Wilde was, unfortunately, unfinished when he died, but is still an excellent insight into the work of this often misunderstood writer.


Oliver St John Gogarty, As I Was Going Down Sackville Street and Intimations (Sphere). Two of the poet and surgeon's accounts, once considered racy, of Dublin in the 1920s and 1930s; the author, much to his own disgust, was believed to be the model for Joyce's Buck Mulligan.


Michael Holroyd, The Search for Love, The Pursuit of Power, The Lure of Fantasy (Penguin). A massive and controversial three-part biography of Shaw.


James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (Bloomsbury; Touchstone Books). This biography, by one of the world's pre-eminent Beckett scholars, makes a good complement to the more anecdotal and gossipy style of Cronin's book (see p.291), which came out at the same time.


Brenda Maddox, Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce (Minerva). This is a hugely enjoyable account of the life of Nora Barnacle, wife of JJ and an absolute treasure in her own right.


Ulick O'Connor, Brendan Behan (Granada). An absorbing and sometimes pathetically touching account of the life of probably Dublin's most provocative dramatist and drinker.