The Best Irish Authors You May Not Have Heard Of

Dublin has its well-known heroes of literature: Joyce, Wilde, Beckett. However, in the past 10 years, almost as a reaction to the economic crisis, a wave of new writers has revolutionized the Irish literary scene. We’ve asked our literary expert John Owen to give us a couple of alternative names for those adventurous enough to steer away from the classic—some of the best Irish authors you may not have heard of, from the classics to the cutting edge.

Best Irish Authors - Flann O'BrienFlann O’Brien

The English-language pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan (he published in Gaelic as Myles nag Copaleen), Flann O’Brien’s two novels, At Swim Two Birds and The Third Policeman use surreal humor to play with modernist and postmodern ideas about the status of the author and the relationship between fiction and reality.

Maeve Brennan

She was the daughter of a 1916 revolutionary that was appointed as Irish ambassador to the U.S.  by the Irish Free State. She wrote for the New Yorker and was a socialite during the 1940s and 50s. However, she died alone and unknown in a U.S. nursing home in 1993.

William Trevor

Although he was a resident in England for most of his life and despite the fact that he wrote one of the great novels of English small town life, The Children of Dynmouth, Trevor always considered himself an Irish writer. The Story of Lucy Gault, which tells the story of the reclusive life of a woman in rural Ireland, is a powerful attestation to Ireland’s turbulent twentieth century.

And now, for some newer names:

Edna O’Brien

Best Irish Authors - Edna O'BrienEdna O’Brien’s influential first novel, The Country Girls, was burned by the Catholic Church and banned by the censor on publication for its handling of women’s sexuality, a theme that has continued to interest her ever since. It also almost instantly cemented her place as one of the best Irish authors. Her most recent novel, The Little Red Chairs tells the story of a woman falling in love with a mysterious faith healer in Ireland, who turns out to be a war criminal on the run. Brutal and daring, many felt it was unfairly ignored by the Man Booker Prize in 2016.

Colm Toibin

Thanks in part to the success of the film Brooklyn (an adaptation of his novel of the same name), Toibin is probably Ireland’s best-known contemporary writer. A great writer of dialogue and possessed with an unadorned yet very distinctive style, his work often looks at the changes in Ireland over the fifty years, including the large amount of emigration and the declining influence of the once omnipotent Catholic Church.

Donal Ryan

A winner of the Guardian First Book Prize for his first novel, The Spinning Heart, Donal Ryan is (in this writer’s view) one of the most underrated novelists in Britain and Ireland, and certainly one of the best Irish authors you may not have heard of. The Spinning Heart uses multiple narrative perspectives to look at the impact of the financial crisis in Ireland on a close-knit community in a small town. The tensions in communities (especially in small towns) feature throughout his work; his most recent novel, All We Shall Know, is a disturbing and moving story of a middle-class woman’s relationship with a Traveller teenager.

Colin Barrett

A young writer with just one published collection of short stories to his name so far, Colin Barrett is an exciting talent. That collection, Young Skins, is a bleak portrait of modern Ireland and particularly of life for young people there. The stories, told with narrative precision and dark humor, have marked him out as somebody to watch in the coming years.

Headed to Dublin soon? See some of our favorite literary activities in our guide to visiting Dublin.