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The 20 Books Every Irish American Should Read


Image ID: 1588248
Image ID: 1588248

Tom Deignan, writer of the weekly Sidewalks column in the Irish Voice and author of Irish Americans, spoke at the Mid-Manhattan, West New Brighton, and Riverdale libraries last month. The occasion was Immigrant Heritage Week — celebrated yearly in New York City — a great time to remember and honor our immigrant forebears. He has quite an encyclopedic knowledge on the topic of Irish America, and this time he chose to present 20 books that he considers to be required reading for Irish Americans.

In no particular order, here they are:

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, by Mary McCarthy. An intellectual writer washes her hands of her past, but acknowledges its benefits.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. Childhood innocence and innocence lost in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The Studs Lonigan Trilogy: Young Lonigan, the Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, Judgment Day, by James T. Farrell. The story of an Irish tough growing up in 1930s Chicago, and what makes him that way.

Thomas Flanagan's historical trilogy: Year of the French, Tenants of Time, and The End of the Hunt. Historical fiction set in Ireland and spans 1798-1921.

Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt. This autobiography, written when the late author was past 60, has gained international renown.

American Requiem: God, My Father and the War that Came Between Us, by James Carroll. Carroll, a former priest, and his brand of Catholicism expressed by social justice activism that is not the church of his father...

The Last Hurrah, by Edwin O'Connor. This story of Frank Skeffington's final run for office gives a probing look into the Irish political machines.

Ironweed, by William Kennedy. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of a drifter in Albany, New York who talks to ghosts was later made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.

The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy. Banned in the U.S. when it was published in the 1950s, this picaresque tale of Sebastian Dangerfield's racy adventures in Dublin has become a modern classic.

Banished Children of Eve, by Peter Quinn. A story set during New York's Civil War Draft Riots. Lincoln needed bodies; the Irish were coming in droves; and New York was almost burned down.

Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott. The everyday struggles of assimilated Irish Americans in Queens, New York.

Paddy's Lament, Ireland 1846-47: Prelude to Hatred, by Thomas Gallagher. The stories of those who lived through and died in the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s.

The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Patriarch Joe Kennedy wanted to be president but knew it was not yet the time for an Irish Catholic to reach that height...

Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, by Kerby Miller. Learn how Irish immigrants got here and the impact of their coming.

A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill. The popular reporter's memoir explores the complicated relationship between the Irish and alcohol.

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill. This book, which argues the case for the critical role of the monks in preserving European culture and history from waves of invaders, became a worldwide phenomenon.

Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster, by T.J. English. This look at Irish gangsters in several U.S. cities suggests a fine line between politics and crime.

How the Irish Invented Slang, by Dan Cassidy. The influence of the Irish Gaelic on English that persists today.

The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America, ed. by Michael Glazier. An essential reference tool.

The Irish Voice in America, by Charles Fanning. The great writers who came over before, after, and during famine times and wrote of how life was "on the other side."

After Deignan spoke about each of the books, there was a lively discussion about the merits of other books, and perhaps the dubious value of some of the books on the list. Deignan considers "the list" a discussion starter, so feel free to continue the discussion here if you feel there was a glaring omission, or a curious inclusion.


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I'd add Pete Hamill's Forever, and a friend just recommended The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens. And if you can, go visit. Ireland needs an economic boost, and I can't imagine a lovelier, more welcoming country. I've only been back a week and I miss it already.

I appreciate your comment

I'll check out your suggestions. And the idea of visiting lush, overcast Ireland on a steamy day like today sounds fantastic!

best Irish-American books

I'd add On the Irish Waterfront by James Fisher -- an amazing story of the Kazan film and the harbor corruption that inspired it.

Irish American Books

This list should include All Souls. This is a true Irish AMERICAN story.

Irish Americans

I would definitely add How the Irish Became White by N Ignatiev

The semi-autobiographical

The semi-autobiographical "Green Suede Shoes" by Larry Kirwan is an outstanding read. This is the book which inspired my ever-growing curiosity and love of the Irish and the culture and the struggle on both sides of the Atlantic.

Angela's Ashes?

I've been told that the Ireland depicted in Angela's Ashes is not an actual portrait of the country at the time, and that many Irish view the book with distain. Is this true?

angelas asches

for the times it was set in i would say its about as close as you can get people who view it with disdain are probably just ashamed and embarrased

Angela's Ashes may be an

Angela's Ashes may be an accurate depiction of its times, but lacking dimensions or even a tad of humour it's not really a depiction of the Irish.

Angela's Ashes' humour.

The book was exceedingly funny. The film was not. Do not confuse the two.

Angela's Ashes

The book may be an excellent depiction of the particular and terrible circumstances in which the McCourt family grew up, but it is not an accurate depiction of life in Ireland at the time. It is an urban milieu in a country that was primarily rural. That would be like saying that a portrayal of life growing up in a Manhattan tenement with a drunken, feckless father during the Depression (same time, same milieu) is an accurate depiction of life in rural Minnesota at the same period.


Trinity-need I say more


How about that it absolutely sucked? Bad history, bad literature, and boring.


Trinity?? A must read and suprised not to see it on this list.

Irish History

Trinity is the book that lit the spark for 20 years worth of Irish interest. Hamill's Forever is a brilliant telling of New York Irish beginnings. The Killing Frost by Thomas Hayden,his only book before his death is an excellent rebelling of the 1916 Rising and the Civil War that tragically followed.

re: book for list

Great list, but I feel it is incomplete without Frank Delaney's brilliant novel titled Ireland. That is a must read, and I highly recommend listening to the recorded version which is narrated by the author.

20 Books Every Irish American Should Read

The Irish-American experience is fascinatingly presented in Richard Sullivan's The First Ward trilogy, based heavily on actual events and historical figures, most notably his own family members. Lying at the center of his story is the victimization of Irish Americans by their own politicians and white-slaving oligarchs, most notably Sullivan's relative Fingy Conners. Conners as a employment contractor on Buffalo's docks had 6,000 families under his heel. Pocketing a third of each man's wages, he raked in something like 1.2 million in cash each year at the turn of the last century while serving as Chairman of the Democratic party of New York State.

Don't forget Walter Macken

His trilogy of Irish historical novels Seek the Fair Land, The Silent People and The Scorching Wind. Or the Donegal man's experiences in the Yukon, Hard Road to Klondike by Michael MacGowan

Missed One!!!

Famine ships- edward Laxton

Danny Cassidy

Mr.Quinn, I would love to speak with you about Danny Cassidy. I am his sister. If you have the time and the inclination, would you give me a bit of time. I appreciate any time you have, I know that you are a busy man. Thank-you, Susan Cassidy-Connors

Peter Robinson Settlers in Ontario, Canada

From the Canadian perspective, does anyone know of any good book titles that chronicles the emigrations of 1823 and 1825 of the poorest of the poor in County Cork, where about 3,000 Irish were transferred to rural Ontario through a unique and experimental emigration program lead by Peter Robinson, a Canadian born Englishman? The first group of about 500 were settled west of Ottawa in the Bathurst district in 1823. The second group numbered about 2,500 and were taken to the Peterborough area in 1825. These folks endured a tough new beginning, but managed to establish independence for themselves. There are few books on this topic and so many of us Canadians of Ontario can trace our roots to these courageous Irish peasants. With the 200th anniversaries not far away, I am hoping that some research and writing will happen. So far, the best source I've come across is by Carrol Bennet entitled The Peter Robinson Settlers 1823 and 1825 by Juniper books, 1987. I'd love to find more sources - if you know of other books, please share titles. Thank you!

Famine (O'Flaherty novel)

A moving story.

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