Irish Writers: Why They’re Worth Reading

by Marylee MacDonald in For Readers
the grass covered cliffs of Moher jut out from the sea

An aerial view of the scenic Cliffs of Moher in Ireland is a stunning reminder of Ireland’s rural beauty. This popular tourist attraction is situated in County Clare along the Wild Atlantic Way. (Nick Fox, ID # 220019078 via AdobeStock)

When I first read James Joyce, I walked the streets of Dublin. In college I met William Butler Yeats’s “Crazy Jane,” a woman accountable only to herself. I have not yet walked the cliffs of Ireland, except in the pages of books.

For many Americans of Irish descent, Ireland is the Ur-land, the epicenter of a diaspora that poured through Ellis Island and brought us poetry delivered with a Gaelic lilt. Here is how one of W.B. Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” poems sounds when read by Siobhan McKennal. And here is another of his poems that you may conjure with your internal ear.

the Irish poet Yeats is a young man wearing glasses and a bow tie

When I first read Yeat’s poems about Jane, I didn’t think about the possibility that she might have based on a real person, someone Yeats saw or even knew. Now, I imagine Jane as a woman who’d had a hard life.


I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.’

‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.

‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’

To hear any literature read aloud is to understand how deeply we respond to the rhythms of the human voice. Those are the rhythms writers attempt to evoke as they write sentences.

Reading Irish Writers Today

Storytelling is deeply embedded in Irish culture, and it’s worth reading Irish writers to discover the new authors who are making their mark in this long and proud tradition. Authors Sara Baume and Billy O’Callaghan won’t be familiar names in North America, but you should know them and read their work. Though they are both young writers, their devotion to the storyteller’s craft has won them much acclaim.


Distinctive vision … Sara Baume From Robert Grainier in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams to Sam Marsdyke in Ross Raisin’s God’s Own Country , literature abounds with rural loners, characters whose isolation is as palpable to the reader as it is central to their own narrative. Irish writer Sara Baume […]

A Writer’s Writer

The second writer is Billy O’Callaghan, author of The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind, his third story collection. The story that gives the book its title won the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award.

Based in Cork and an organizer of the annual Lennox Robinson Literary Festival, Billy O’Callaghan is active on Facebook, and generally posts a story a day, along with his thoughts on craft. If you love short stories, or aspire to write them, you will be deeply appreciative of his work. Here’s a quote from my review on Amazon.

What to say about a book that stunned me, time and again. I might call Billy O’Callaghan a “writer’s writer,” if that term did not immediately consign a writer to obscurity. (In the USA, Richard Yates is often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” and until the movie Revolutionary Road, few people, apart from those who taught in MFA programs, knew his name.

I would like to invent a new way to describe what I think Billy O’Callaghan will leave as his literary legacy. I would call him a “human’s human” (with a pen) or an “explorer’s explorer” of our dreams. I would call him a poet of the spirit. Or, maybe, to use a more prosaic analogy, he is a housekeeper who assiduously dusts the cluttered rooms we keep closed, even from our conscious minds.

If you’re an emerging writer, you should be reading widely, but also reading emerging writers and the back list of writers whose work you admire. That’s because a writer’s first published works can serve as a benchmark for your own first efforts.

The Importance of Voice

Creative writing programs in North America place great importance on voice. In these two Irish writers you will find two distinctive voices. Sara Baume’s voice captivated readers so much that they recommended her book and helped rescue a debut novel from obscurity.

These days a short story collection is a hard sell. Many readers have gotten into the habit of only reading novels. In Billy O’Callaghan’s stories, however, the narrative voice is so distinctive that readers will immediately be drawn into the complex emotional lives of his characters. Each story reads like a mini-novel.

If you aspire to be a writer of voice-driven, character-driven fiction, study these writers. They stand on the shoulders of giants, and they, too, will be remembered for having contributed to our understanding of what it means to be human in the modern world. The people in their stories live humble lives, but persevere and retain their fidelity to Ireland’s rocky soil.

only the walls and a stone fence remain standing from the old Irish farmhouse

These are the ruins of an abandoned Irish cottage in Donegal Ireland. The thatched roof caved in years ago, but the rocks, exhumed from the fields, remain where they’ve always stood.




  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

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