The Ultimate St. Patrick’s Day Reading List: 17 Must-Read Books About Irish History and Culture

photo of stone sculpture of saint

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“Why do we even celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?” a coworker asked, years ago, while a bunch of us stood around in the kitchen of a tech company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sipping green beers. 

My eyes widened at the question. I felt personally attacked. 

Me, the scally cap-wearing, shamrock-tattooed Irish American who had grown up a few towns over, where I’d spent every St. Patrick’s Day of my youth eating corned beef and cabbage and listening to my Dad strum Irish songs on his acoustic guitar. 

Me, the walking stereotype who had moved to Montreal for school and promptly gotten a part-time job as a busboy at an Irish pub, which I parlayed into a part-time job as a musician.

Me, the Irish bouzouki-playing founding member of the (now defunct) folk band Devaney’s Goat. On St. Patrick’s Day weekend, we’d gig at one pub in the afternoon and then scramble to a second gig at a different pub at night, playing Pogues songs till three in the morning while a sea of green-clad revelers jumped and jigged and gyrated.

I attempted to answer my coworker. It was a rambling answer, in which I spoke mostly about ancestry, and the Potato Famine, and immigrants. I didn’t even mention St. Patrick, who, as it turns out, was quite the interesting fellow. (Did you know he might have murdered someone? Crazy.) 

To my surprise, my coworker was intrigued—dare I say enlightened?—by my answer. They had never considered that St. Patrick’s Day might be about more than dressing in green and drinking excessively, and that it might be about more than celebrating the deeds of one imperfect, fifth-century preacher. 

To me, St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of Irish history and culture. And with age has come the realization that one need not drink alcohol or wear green in order to partake in said celebration. Curling up with a good book will do the job just fine.

17 Must-Read Books for St. Patrick’s Day

Disclaimer: The ardent Irish literature fans among you may notice some glaring omissions. “Where is James Joyce’s Dubliners or Finnegan’s Wake?” you might wonder. “Where is Angela’s Ashes or ‘Tis by Frank McCourt?” 

Here’s the deal: Those books just seemed way too obvious to me. If you’re reading this post, I’m assuming you’re already familiar with them. And if you weren’t already familiar with them, well, you are now.

That being said, I tried to include a healthy mix of literary styles and genres. The scope of Irish writing is vast, so here be an infinitesimally small (but mighty) collection of fiction and nonfiction, novels and histories, folktales and fantasies. If I missed something crucial, leave it in the comments below.

1. How the Irish Saved Civilization

by Thomas Cahill

Per the publisher: “Every year millions of Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but they may not be aware of how great an influence St. Patrick was on the subsequent history of civilization. Not only did he bring Christianity to Ireland, he instilled a sense of literacy and learning that would create the conditions that allowed Ireland to become ‘the isle of saints and scholars’ — and thus preserve Western culture while Europe was being overrun by barbarians.” Learn more…

2. St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography

by Philip Freeman

Per the publisher: “Ireland’s patron saint has long been shrouded in legend, but the true story of St. Patrick is far more inspiring than the myths. In St. Patrick of Ireland, Philip Freeman brings the historic Patrick and his world vividly to life. Patrick speaks in his own voice in two remarkable letters he wrote about himself and his beliefs, new translations of which are included here and which are still astonishing for their passion and eloquence.” Learn more…

3. The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans

by Juilene Osborne-McKnight

Per the publisher: “Many Irish-Americans today know little about Ireland and their ancestry. Historian Juilene Osborne-McKnight presents Irish-American history in a compelling narrative form, accented with photographs, illustrations, and original, literary interludes. Osborne-McKnight pays homage to her ancestry in this chronicle of the Irish from ancient times to contemporary America.” Learn more…

4. Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster

by T. J. English

Per the publisher: “Here is the shocking true saga of the Irish American mob. In Paddy Whacked, bestselling author and organized crime expert T. J. English brings to life nearly two centuries of Irish American gangsterism, which spawned such unforgettable characters as Mike “King Mike” McDonald, Chicago’s subterranean godfather; Big Bill Dwyer, New York’s most notorious rumrunner during Prohibition; Mickey Featherstone, troubled Vietnam vet turned Westies gang leader; and James “Whitey” Bulger, the ruthless and untouchable Southie legend.” Learn more…

5. Patrick

by Stephen Lawhead

Per the publisher: “Set in an era of brutal conflict and turmoil, this epic adventure is the first novel to tell the full story of the slave who became a saint, of the man who rose to the challenge of his time and changed the course of history. In the summer of 405AD, Irish raiders attack the western coast of Wales, carving a fiery swathe through the peaceful countryside. Among the survivors who are rounded up and taken back to Ireland is Succat: an impulsive sixteen-year-old son of a powerful Roman family.” Learn more…

6. The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance

by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin

Per the publisher: “A standard reference book combining the related subjects of Irish folklore, myth, legend and romance is long overdue. There are 350 substantial entries, in alphabetical order from Abán, a 6th-century saint, to Weather, all with full references to sources, a synopsis of relevant stories, and discussion of their origin, nature and development. These are complimented by a genre-list of material under various headings, such as Mythical Lore, Fianna Cycle, Ulster Cycle, King Cycles, Peoples and Traditions, Religious Lore, and Folk Custom and Belief.” Learn more…

7. When All Is Said

by Anne Griffin

Per the publisher: “At the bar of a grand hotel in a small Irish town sits 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan. He’s alone, as usual ­- though tonight is anything but. Pull up a stool and charge your glass, because Maurice is finally ready to tell his story. Over the course of this evening, he will raise five toasts to the five people who have meant the most to him. Through these stories – of unspoken joy and regret, a secret tragedy kept hidden, a fierce love that never found its voice – the life of one man will be powerfully and poignantly laid bare.” Learn more…

8. The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland

by Seumas MacManus

Per the publisher: “A classic history of the Irish people from their prehistoric origins to their fight for independence in twentieth century. It provides fascinating insight into the origins of their culture, religion, laws, arts, antiquities, folklore, trade, literature, heroes, and more. MacManus sketches brilliant overviews of a number of the most famous figures from the country’s past, some of whom, like St. Patrick, allowed the Irish to flourish, whilst others, like Oliver Cromwell, persecuted them. ” Learn more…

9. The Immortal Irishman

by Timothy Egan

Per the publisher: “A dashing young orator during the Great Hunger of the 1840s, Thomas Francis Meagher led a failed uprising against British rule, for which he was banished to a Tasmanian prison colony for life. But two years later he was “back from the dead” and in New York, instantly the most famous Irishman in America. Meagher’s rebirth included his leading the newly formed Irish Brigade in many of the fiercest battles of the Civil War.” Learn more…

10. Fairy & Folk Tales of Ireland

by W. B. Yeats

Per the publisher: “Combines two books of Irish folklore collected and edited by William Butler Yeats — Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, first published in 1888, and Irish Fairy Tales, published in 1892. In this delightful gathering of legend and song, the familiar characters of Irish myth come to life: the mercurial trooping fairies; the solitary and industrious Lepracaun and his dissipated cousin, the Cluricaun; the fearsome Pooka, who has ‘grown monstrous with much solitude’; and the Banshee, whose eerie wailing warns of death.” Learn more…

11. Last Night’s Fun: In and Out of Time with Irish Music

by Ciaran Carson

Per the publisher: “A sparking celebration of music and life that is itself a literary performance of the highest order. Carson’s inspired jumble of recording history, poetry, tall tales, and polemic captures the sound and vigor of a ruthlessly unsentimental music. Last Night’s Fun is remarkable for its liveliness, honesty, scholarship, and spontaneous joy; certainly there has never been a book about Irish music like this one, and few books ever written anywhere about the experience of music can compare with it.” Learn more…

12. The Princes of Ireland (The Dublin Saga, Book One)

by Edward Rutherfurd

Per the publisher: “The saga begins in tribal, pre-Christian Ireland during the reign of the fierce and mighty High Kings at Tara, with the tale of two lovers, the princely Conall and the ravishing Deirdre, whose travails cleverly echo the ancient Celtic legend of Cuchulainn. From that stirring beginning, Rutherfurd takes the reader on a powerfully-imagined journey through the centuries. Through the interlocking stories of a memorable cast of characters, we see Ireland through the lens of its greatest city.” Learn more…

13. The Wonder

by Emma Donoghue

Per the publisher: “In this masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse is brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle — a girl said to have survived without food for month — and soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life. Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.” Learn more…

14. Emerald Magic: Great Tales of Irish Fantasy

by multiple authors (including Ray Bradbury)

Per the publisher: “Mythology and magic come alive in this collection of Irish fantasy stories by some of today’s finest authors. Ireland is a nation that holds fast to its history and heritage, and nowhere is that more true than in its folktales and legends. From the great Celtic myths featuring the bard Taliesin, the terrible Morrigan, the heroic Cuchulain, or the noble and cunning Sidhe to strange and mysterious tales of today, the stories and traditions of the Emerald Isle hold a strong attraction for many.” Learn more…

15. Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland

by Malachy McCourt

Per the publisher: “The pages are populated with figures from myth, history, and the present-from Saint Patrick to Oliver Cromwell, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Charles Parnell to Sinead O’Connor and Bono. Some beloved, some controversial-each influenced the course of Irish and world history. While McCourt vividly describes Ireland’s turbulent history, he also offers a cultural survey with fresh insights to the folklore, literature, art, music, and cuisine of Ireland, producing an irresistible tour through the Emerald Isle.” Learn more…

16. Savage Her Reply

by Deirdre Sullivan

Per the publisher: “A retelling of the favourite Irish fairytale The Children of Lir. Aífe marries Lir, a chieftain with four children by his previous wife. Jealous of his affection for his children, the witch Aífe turns them into swans for 900 years. Retold through the voice of Aífe, Savage Her Reply is unsettling and dark, feminist and fierce, yet nuanced in its exploration of the guilt of a complex character. A dark & witchy feminist retelling from the author of Tangleweed and Brine.” Learn more…

17. Irelandopedia: A Compendium of Map, Facts and Knowledge

by John Burke and Fatti Burke

Per the publisher: “Get ready to go on an exciting adventure around Ireland. Unleash your imagination and sense of adventure as you discover Ireland like you’ve never seen it before! Armchair travelers of any age will be totally absorbed by Fatti Burke’s detailed illustrations and her father John’s fabulous facts, which can be discovered on every page.” Learn more…

*Shameless plug alert

*Bonus Book) Saint Patrick in Your Pocket

Separate man from myth, fact from folklore, in this small but mighty pocket guide dedicated to uncovering lesser-known facts about Ireland’s most beloved patron saint. Armed with answers to these 20 tantalizing questions, you’ll be the smartest reveler in the room at your next Saint Patrick’s Day party. Learn more…

P.S. More of an audio-visual learner?

Subscribe to the IrishMyths YouTube channel and brace yourself: the Saint Patrick videos are coming!

Here’s a little something to hold you over until then…

One thought on “The Ultimate St. Patrick’s Day Reading List: 17 Must-Read Books About Irish History and Culture

  1. I’ve read both the Emma Donoghue and the Ann Griffin books and had the pleasure of hearing both authors talk aboput their work. Woukld you mind if I add my own book Strongbow’s Wife, the story of the Norman invasion of Ireland (by invitation!) and what happened in the next couple of decades, told through the eyes of the girl given in marriage to the leader of those invaders?

    Liked by 1 person

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