Reading Ireland – My Favourite Books by Irish Women Writers

As some of you may know, March is Reading Ireland Month (#ReadingIreland22), co-hosted by Cathy at the 746Books blog and Niall/Raging Fluff. It’s a month-long celebration of Irish books and culture from both sides of the border – you can find out more about it here.

Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed quite a few books by Irish writers; and given that 8th March is International Women’s Day, I thought I would share some of my favourites by women. (Hopefully these might give you some ideas on what to read if you’re thinking of participating.)

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

Bowen’s striking debut novel is a story of unsuitable attachments – more specifically, the subtle power dynamics at play among the members of a very privileged set, cast against the backdrop of the Italian Riviera. In many respects, the novel revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties, and the individuals she meets during her break. In some instances, the characters are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability, while in others, there are more underhand motives at play.

It all feels incredibly accomplished for a debut, full of little observations on human nature and the social codes that dictate people’s behaviour (there are some wonderful details on hotel etiquette here). If you like Edith Wharton’s ‘society’ novels, The Hotel could well be for you.

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan (from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s)

A stunning collection of stories, all set in the same modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin in the 20th century. The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces that offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time despite the political turbulence of the early 1920s. Then we move on to a sequence of stories featuring Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance. Here we see two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. Lastly, the third and final section explores another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. In contrast to the previous pieces, there is a little more hope here as the Bagots’ relationship is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness.

What sets this collection apart from many others is the cumulative sense of disconnection conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning that gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill (1956)

A brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. The novel’s protagonist is Laura Percival – a rather timid spinster in her forties – who we first meet on the afternoon of a family funeral. The deceased is Laura’s elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over Marathon (the Percivals’ residence), despite her recent death. This is a novel that delves into the past as developments force Laura to confront a period of her life she has long since buried – more specifically, a series of circumstances that led her to stay at Marathon when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within reach.

A powerful, character-driven novel that focuses on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous. Fans of Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen would likely appreciate this.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)

This gorgeous, deeply-affecting novel focuses on the life of Tess Lohan, a girl born and raised on a farm in rural Ireland. The novel opens in the mid-1940s with the death of Tess’ mother – a loss that sets the tone for the decades which follow. Academy Street is a poignant book, the deeply-moving story of a quiet life that plays out firstly in 1950s Ireland and then in 1960s New York. The overall tone is achingly melancholy, but there are moments of intense beauty amidst the solitude and heartache.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the intensity of feeling Costello brings to Tess’ story. The prose is spare and controlled, but the reader feels a sense of closeness to Tess, as if we have near-complete access to her thoughts and emotions. A beautifully written book from one of my favourite contemporary writers.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)

A superb novella set in New Ross, a town in the southeast of Ireland, in the raw-cold days of the run-up to Christmas 1985. Central to the story is Bill Furlong, a hardworking coal and timber merchant who tries to help his clients where he can – dropping off bags of logs to loyal customers, even when they can’t afford to pay. One day, while delivering coal to the local Convent, Furlong sees something genuinely alarming – a sign that proves hard for him to ignore, despite his wife’s reservations about speaking out.

It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the importance of staying true to your values – of doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security and aspirations at risk. Keegan’s prose is simple, pared-back and unadorned, a style that seems fitting given the nature of the story. Nothing feels superfluous here – every word has just the right weight and meaning.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell (2022)

This deeply-moving novel takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast during WW2. Using these devastating real-life events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family. Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. Moreover, she makes us care about her characters, investing in their respective hopes and dreams, concerns and anxieties – and it’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes this portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. 

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read any of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during March, including one by a woman. And if you have any favourites by Irish women writers, please feel free to mention them alongside other comments below – personal recommendations are always welcome.

35 thoughts on “Reading Ireland – My Favourite Books by Irish Women Writers

  1. jenniferbeworr

    As ever, appreciating your particular engagement with the novels you read, and in this case, the range from mid-20th century through to ‘our’ moment. I really must read the Claire Keegan and the Lucy Caldwell!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jennifer. It’s interesting that you should pick up on that point as I really wanted to include a range of fiction from old writers to new. The Claire Keegan and Lucy Caldwell are both excellent – two very affecting novels in their own individual ways.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, madamebibi! I think you’ll enjoy both of these books, especially Mary Costello’s I’d love to see her producing more fiction in a similar style or vein.

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Plenty of enticing gems here, I just read Mary Costello’s short story collection The China Factory and melancholy is an apt description, there’s a deep sensitivity in the characters she depicts, so I’m ready for Academy Street which I plan to read this month.

    Unfortunately I didn’t like Small Things Like These, while I could appreciate the writing, the concept and intent behind the story was too much for me, in relation to a subject I feel very angry about.

    I’m seeing Lucy Caldwell’s novel being reviewed everywhere in the blogosphere and it’s getting unanimously positive acclaim, so I may have to join you all there.

    My recommendation would be Sara Baume’s nonfiction title Handiwork, which is a beautiful introduction to her work and style, before dipping into her fiction which I find totally immersive and a joy to read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s a great recommendation for Sarah Baume – many thanks for that, Claire. I’ve seen various reviews of her novels (mostly Spill Simmer…) but not Handiwork.

      As for Mary Costello, I’ll be interested to see what you think of Academy Street – and the short stories too, if you plan to write about them. I’ve been meaning to pick up a copy of The China Factory for a while, so this might be the final push. ‘A deep sensitivity in the characters she depicts’ feels spot on!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really want to read more of Maeve Brennan as her insights into human behaviour are so good. In some ways, she feels ripe for a revival – something similar to the resurgence of interest in Elizabeth Taylor’s work in recent years.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    A really nice range of authors and books, Jacqui! I’ve only read the Bowen, but I absolutely love her writing – highly recommend her short stories, too, if you get the chance. As for the others, Maeve Brennan is the one I’m most interested in exploring – she does sound good!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’ve got a really lovely Everyman edition of her collected stories, which I must get into soon! Maeve Brennan is great, definitely worth trying to see what you think. The Visitor (a novella), is excellent too – a very good intro to her work.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’d like Janet McNeill, as long as you were in the mood for something claustrophobic. She does unlikeable characters very well, if you get my drift!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, although I think any novel must be at least 30,000 words in length to be eligible for the prize. (John Self mentioned something to this effect on a few weeks ago – on Twitter IIRC). It’s a pity if that’s the case as both the Keegan and Natasha Brown’s Assembly seem worthy of recognition. (Luckily, they’re on the Rathbones Folio shortlist, which is good to see!)

      Reply
  4. Jane

    Such a good idea for a post Jacqui! I haven’t read any of these and feel a sense dissatisfaction with myself, I’ve added them to my wishlist and definitely need to get more organised about reading in the future!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It just seemed like a good opportunity to combine two different but complementary things – Reading Ireland Month and IWD. I’m glad it’s given you a few ideas!

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I have read three of those, such great choices. The Janet MacNeill is a particular favourite. There seems something rather special about these Irish writers, a quality in their writing that I really appreciate. I have the Brennan tbr and am considering it for later this month.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely. I was particularly keen to include the Janet McNeill and Maeve Brennan’s stories because they’re probably less well know than the others here. I’m sure you’ll appreciate The Springs of Affection – it’s almost like a pair of novellas, with some semi-autobiographical pieces added in as a bonus!

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    A lovely list, Jacqui! And it brought to mind how long it’s been since I’ve read any Maeve Brennan and it would be nice to get back to one of hers. Edna O’Brien was an eye-opener for me, and though born in London to a family from County Mayo, I’d like to read more of Jess Kidd, Things in Jars is on the TBR.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Edna O’Brien was such a trailblazer back in the day. I still recall my mother and her family talking about the uproar surrounding The Country Girls several years after the scandal itself. Jess Kidd is a fairly new name to me, although I do recall seeing The Hoarder in various bookshops a couple of years ago. Hopefully you’ll enjoy Things in Jars whenever you get to it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Of the other writers, Lucy Caldwell might be the one who would suit you best, although I think you’d prefer her stories (e.g. last year’s Intimacies) to this novel. You might like Maeve Brennan, too – she’s well worth considering.

      Reply
  7. Marcie McCauley

    Of course I want to read ALL of these! Found a battered trade copy of a Penguin collection of short stories this morning on a walk near some LFLs, originally purchased from the U of Galway bookstore, which tickles me. Will try a couple of those for this month instead of anything longer!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent. Irish writers have a long and rich history with the short story form, so you’re bound to find some gems in that collection. I look forward to hearing more…

      Reply
  8. Pingback: Reading Ireland Month: Week Two Round Up!

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