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May 27, 2010

The 20 Books Every Irish American Should Read

by Brigid Cahalan.

May 27, 2010

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.

Brigid Cahalan

View all posts by Brigid Cahalan