Former bookseller Alexander Poots’s debut, The Strangers’ House, is a lyrical ode to Northern Irish literature. Through close readings of literary heavyweights (C.S. Lewis, Seamus Heaney) and overlooked talents (Forrest Reid), Poots surveys the writings and history of a region known for fraught “political positions and cultural identities.” Biographical sketches highlight the relationship between the authors’ writings and Northern Irish history, and Poots’s prose is at turns funny and poetic, as when he suggests that Lewis’s prim child protagonists act like “bank managers in training” and that poet Louis MacNeice “describes his childhood with tactile care, as if he were running his hand up the bannisters of the rectory once again.” It’s a powerful evocation of the beauty and complexity of Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut. This is a tiny place. Drive for more than two hours in any direction and you will find yourself in the Republic of Ireland or, if you’re careless, the Irish Sea. Yet writers are everywhere. They always have been. More novelists and poets than seems reasonable for such a modest slice of the world. Perhaps this is because Northern Ireland is not just a place but, in the words of Seamus Heaney, a predicament. A predicament that calls for tact, nuance, and deep historical understanding—all virtues to be found in the poems, novels, and reportage that I have chosen here.
1. Milkman by Anna Burns
No one—well, almost no one—has a name in Burns’s glorious black comedy. The narrator is middle sister. There's also first sister, and Somebody McSomebody, and tablets girl. The place is unnamed, too, though it is Belfast, or a kind of Belfast. Middle sister—bookish, wry, blunt—describes her claustrophobic world, a place in which people are ruled by gossip and violence. It’s a compelling premise, but it could have become too abstract in the wrong hands. Burns makes the reader care, but crucially, she also makes the reader laugh. Despite the subject matter, this book is a scream—and a worthy winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize.
2. F for Ferg by Ian Cochrane
In this 1980 novel, Fergus arrives in a small Antrim village. He is a bit posh. He has been to boarding school and is on his way to Oxford. His dad runs the nearby factory. Over the course of a summer, he tries to fit in with the local lads. Slowly, he is sucked into village life, with everything that it entails. Cochrane loved William Faulkner, and created a Northern Gothic in this and other short novels. Funny, unsparing, and unique, his books deserve a wider readership. For fans of Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers.
3. North by Seamus Heaney
This is a poetry collection about land. What land swallows and what land throws up again. Land as timepiece and tomb. Bodies preserved for centuries in peat bogs complain about their undignified exhumation, while Heaney wonders at their perfect state of preservation and recounts their deaths. Layers of Ireland’s history are dug up and examined. Towards the end comes “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” one of the best poems written about daily life during the Troubles. Picking just one collection from the Nobel Laureate will elicit squeals of outrage: What about Station Island? What about Death of a Naturalist or Human Chain? I don’t care. North is the one for me.
4. New Selected Poems by Derek Mahon
Mahon often revised his work after publication, so his New Selected Poems from 2016 is a good place to start. “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” is his masterpiece. A man opens a shed door to find that a riot of mushrooms has colonized the building. This macabre piece about the grossness, violence, and melancholy of organic life is an allusive commentary on the Troubles, and must be counted among the greatest Irish poems ever written. See also “Afterlives,” a guilty meditation on conflict and home, and “Everything Is Going To Be All Right,” which found a new audience when it was read on Irish television at the start of the pandemic.
5. The Unfixed Horizon: New Selected Poems by Medbh McGuckian
There are many fine poems here, but I would draw your attention to just one of them. Written in memory of a friend killed in a 1972 bombing, “Drawing Ballerinas” takes its title from Henri Matisse, who said that he had endured the Second World War by sketching young dancers. McGuckian, often considered an abstract poet, is in fact the opposite. As this poem illustrates so beautifully, she is capable of drawing a body in words, talented enough to give that body form and heft and movement, and clear-eyed enough to let it break.
6. Meeting the British by Paul Muldoon
I might have chosen Why Brownlee Left, another collection of Muldoon’s that includes “The Boundary Commission,” surely the best probing of the absurd nature of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. But I plumped for Meeting the British because of its title poem, in which the consequences of Pax Britannica are described with cruel simplicity. This collection also contains “7, Middagh Street,” in which Muldoon ventriloquizes through the puppet-shade of another Northern poet, Louis MacNeice.
7. Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine
One aspect of the Troubles that receives little attention is the manner in which decades of conflict quashed all other stories in Northern Ireland. Even during the worst years, people got married, started bands, moved house, and changed careers. Erskine’s debut collection of short stories, largely set in contemporary Belfast, moves the focus back to the inner lives and struggles of Northern Irish people. While the Troubles cast a shadow—as in “To All Their Dues,” in which a woman who opens a beauty salon must deal with the demands of local paramilitaries—sectarianism is a background hum, not the subject. My favorite story here is “the soul has no skin,” where an act of kindness hollows out a young man’s life.
8. Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict by David McKittrick and David McVea
The best one-volume history of the Troubles. McKittrick and McVea do an admirable job of sorting through one of the most complex episodes of European history. Clean prose, deeply researched, and as objective as it is possible to be. A fantastic starting point for the curious or confused.
9. Can Ireland Be One? by Malachi O'Doherty
2023 marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It was inevitable, especially in the aftermath of Brexit, that this would be a time to consider the question of Irish unification once again. O’Doherty rejects the Panglossian rhetoric employed by many supporters of a united Ireland, and asks tough questions about what such a new state might look like in practice. This provocative mixture of biography, reportage, and analysis offers that rarest of things: a fresh perspective on “the Irish Question.”
10. A Place Apart: Northern Ireland in the 1970s by Dervla Murphy
Overhearing two Northern politicians arguing on the radio in 1976, Murphy was disgusted: “Why don’t the Brits get out and let them all slaughter each other if that’s how they feel?” Immediately ashamed, she wrote this book as an act of contrition. Murphy was already an established author, famous for her bicycle journeys around India and the Middle East. But she knew little of the conflict unfolding just 150 miles from her own home in the south of Ireland. Murphy’s determination to understand both communities—an understanding achieved by actually talking to people, rather than simply reporting on them—led to fascinating insights. An intrepid traveller’s discovery of a foreign country on her own doorstep, A Place Apart remains essential reading nearly 50 years after it was written.