Travel by Novel: Ireland

Best Historical Novels for Travelers to Ireland


animal heads from the Book of Kells

Jump to:

Time-Sweep
Legendary Ireland
St. Patrick's Ireland
Ireland of the Kings
Ireland under the Tudors
The 17th and 18th Centuries
The Potato Famine
The Early 20th Century
The Irish War of Independence
The 1930s and Later
For Younger Readers


Irish landscape Steeped in history, green and lovely Ireland is a top destination for the many people around the world descended from Irish emigrants. But it's a fascinating place to visit no matter what your roots are. The history of Ireland begins with Greek and Roman references to "Hibernia," a misty, mysterious land at the edge of the world. Irish legends tell of a Celtic invasion that displaced the earlier inhabitants, small, dark people who became immortalized as the "faerie" or "little folk."

Ireland truly enters history in the fifth century with the arrival of St. Patrick, a Briton kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland. He escaped and returned to Ireland to teach Christianity with impressive success. Celtic beliefs in gods who occurred in triple form may have eased the way for Christianity. The Irish Church was influential across Europe. Its respect for writing and education helped preserve learning after the fall of Rome when the rest of Europe struggled for survival. Ireland was divided into numerous small kingdoms ruled by chieftains who owed allegiance to kings of larger provinces and, by the ninth century, a single High King who unified the island to defend against Viking invasions.

From the time of England's King Henry II, English monarchs coveted Ireland and sent armies to conquer parts of the island. English rule became a reality during Henry VIII's time when the Irish Parliament acknowledged him as king. The policies of English landlords caused widespread suffering and pressure for Irish independence. By the 1840s, impoverished Irish farmers depended on the potato for survival. When crops failed because of a blight, huge numbers of Irish died, possibly close to a million. Many others emigrated to America, Australia or elsewhere. Ireland actually exported wheat during the famine years, and many Irish came to believe the British government's policy amounted to genocide.

Fury at the English came to a head in Dublin in 1916 in the violent Easter Rising. Though it failed, the harsh English response shifted public opinion overwhelmingly in favor of independence. During the 1920s this became reality for about three-quarters of the island, now the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland remains part of Great Britain, and even there, political violence is now a thing of the past. A visit to Ireland from England's Queen Elizabeth in May 2011 celebrated today's friendly relations between the two countries.

Time-Sweep Novels

Click on the title for more information from Powell's Books or another online source.


Edward Rutherfurd, The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga (2004; titled Dublin: Foundation in the U.K.), about Ireland from prehistoric times to the time of England's Henry VIII and the only Irish attempt to invade England. Review at CapitalCeltic.com

Edward Rutherfurd, The Rebels of Ireland: The Dublin Saga (2006; titled Ireland: Awakening in the U.K.), about Ireland from the sixteenth century into the twentieth; sequel to The Princes of Ireland. Review at CurledUp.com


Legendary Ireland

Click on the title for more information from Powell's Books or another online source.


Cuchullain J. S. Dunn, Bending the Boyne (2011), about people of Bronze Age Ireland before the coming of the Celts. Review at ForewordReviews.com

Morgan Llywelyn, Red Branch (also titled On Raven’s Wing), a retelling of the legends about the ancient Irish hero Cuchullain. Review at Publishers Weekly

Morgan Llywelyn, Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish (1984), about a bard in Celtic Iberia (now Spain) who leads his people to the future land of Ireland. Review at Rambles.net

Juliet Marillier, Daughter of the Forest (1999), historical fantasy about an Irish chieftain's daughter whose six elder brothers are placed under an enchantment by her father's new wife; based on the Grimm's fairy tale "The Six Swans"; #1 in the Sevenwaters series. Review at Rambles.net

Jules Watson, The Swan Maiden (2009), a retelling of the ancient Irish legend of Deirdre of the Sorrows, cursed at birth to become a woman of great beauty and bring disaster to the Kingdom of Ulster. Excerpt at the author's website


St. Patrick

St. Patrick's Ireland

Click on the title for more information from Powell's Books or another online source.


Kate Horsley, Confessions of a Pagan Nun, about a woman who studied to become a druid but later joins a Christian convent. Review

Stephen Lawhead, Patrick: Son of Ireland, about the fifth century Briton who converted Ireland to Christianity; incorporates fantasy elements. Review by Peter Kazmaier

Cindy Thomson, Brigid of Ireland, about a fifth century Irish woman's conversion to Christianity.


Ireland of the Kings

Click on the title for more information from Powell's Books or another online source.


Cecelia Holland, The Kings in Winter (1968), about Brian Boru's defense of Ireland against Viking invaders at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Review at Rambles.com

Morgan Llywelyn, Lion of Ireland, about the tenth-century Irish king Brian Boru.

Diana Norman, Daughter of Lir (1988), about a woman raised in a Norman convent who goes to Ireland to become Abbess of Kildare and falls afoul of a brutal king's politics. Review

Peter Tremayne, Absolution by Murder (1994), a mystery featuring a scholarly young nun who must find out who murdered an abbess about to speak at a religious council to settle disputes between the Irish church and the Church of Rome; #1 in the Sister Fidelma series. Review


Ireland under the Tudors

Click on the title for more information from Powell's Books or another online source.


Anne Chambers, The Geraldine Conspiracy, about the 11-year-old boy who was the last surviving heir of the Irish Geraldine dynasty, and the struggle to save him from the murderous agents of King Henry VIII.

Karen Harper, The Irish Princess (2011), about "the fair Geraldine," Elizabeth Fitzgerald, an Irish princess whose family is the target of brutal repression by Henry VIII, but who eventually becomes a trusted lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I. Review at Darlene Elizabeth Williams's blog

Morgan Llywelyn, The Last Prince of Ireland (1992), about Donal Cam O'Sullivan and the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, in which England established its sovereignty over Ireland and ended the rule of the Irish kings.

Diana Norman, The Pirate Queen (1991), about Grace O'Malley, an Irishwoman who turned pirate during the reign of England's Queen Elizabeth I.


The 17th and 18th Centuries

Click on the title for more information from Powell's Books or another online source.


Eilis Dillon, Wild Geese (1980), about an Irish Catholic brother and sister sent to France in 1779 to try to claim an inheritance from unpleasant relations who have taken it over. Review at Reading the Past

Thomas Flanagan, The Year of the French, about an Irish attempt to free itself from English rule with the assistance of French troops in 1798; #1 in a trilogy, followed by The Tenants of Time and The End of the Hunt. Review at Anderson Brown's Literary Blog

Walter Macken, Seek the Fair Land (1959), about an Irish merchant who must fight to defend his town from Cromwell's invading army in 1649; #1 in the Irish Trilogy, followed by The Silent People and The Scorching Wind.

Shona MacLean, A Game of Sorrows (2010), a thriller about a Scottish university teacher whose Irish cousin pleads him to come to Ireland to free his family from a bard's curse. Review at The Independent


The Potato Famine

Click on the title for more information from Powell's Books or another online source.


Basket of Potatoes by Van Gogh

Brendan Graham, The Whitest Flower (1998), about an Irishwoman who loses her husband in the famine and is tricked into emigrating to Australia without her children.

Mary Pat Kelly, Galway Bay (2009), about an Irish family who decide to emigrate to America during the potato famine. Review at BookReporter.com

Walter Macken, The Silent People (1962), about a young Irishman who has to leave his rural town during the famine of 1826 after he gets into an argument with the landlord's son.

Joseph O’Connor, Star of the Sea (2002), about the conflicts among the passengers on a ship sailing from Ireland to New York during the Potato Famine years.

Leon Uris, Trinity (1976), a saga of four families beginning in the time of the Irish Potato Famine.


The Early 20th Century

Click on the title for more information from Powell's Books or another online source.


James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), the stream-of-consciousness masterwork about a day in the life of a Dublin man in 1904 (a contemporary novel when written, drawing on Joyce's memories of his own life). "How to Read James Joyce's Ulysses and Why You Should Avoid How-To Guides Like This One" at Biblioklept

Joseph O’Connor, Ghost Light (2011), about an actress in London during the 1950s who recalls her youth in Dublin, when she joined a theater ensemble in 1907 at age eighteen and fell in love with a brilliant but distant playwright. Review by Ursula K. Le Guin at The Guardian

James Plunkett, Strumpet City (1969), about the "Dublin Lockout," an Irish trade union struggle in 1913. Review at Anderson Brown's Literary Blog


The Irish War of Independence

Click on the title for more information from Powell's Books or another online source.


Roddy Doyle, A Star Called Henry (1999), about a Dublin boy who joins the Irish Republican Army at fourteen and participates in the Easter Rising. Review at "Seeing the World Through Books"

Patricia Falvey, The Yellow House (2010), about a woman who works in a mill in northern Ireland and is torn between two men, one working for Irish independence, the other the black-sheep son of the mill owner. Review at the Dallas Morning News

Morgan Llywelyn, 1916, A Novel of the Irish Rebellion, about a young man in Dublin during the Irish fight for independence; #1 in the Irish Century series. Review at Rambles

Morgan Llywelyn, 1921, The War for Independence, about an Irish newspaper reporter during the Irish Civil War; #2 in the Irish Century series.

Walter Macken, The Scorching Wind (1964), about two brothers involved in the Irish struggle for Home Rule; #3 in the Irish Trilogy, which begins in the 17th century with Seek the Fair Land.

Jamie O’Neill, At Swim, Two Boys (2001), about two Irish boys during the year before the 1916 Easter Rising.


The 1930s and Later

Click on the title for more information from Powell's Books or another online source.


Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture (2008), about a 100-year-old Irishwoman in a mental institution whose recollections of her life in the 1930s differ from what her psychiatrist learns about her. Review at The New York Times

Maeve Binchy, Circle of Friends (1990), about two girls who grow up in a small Irish village and then go to college in Dublin, where long-buried family secrets finally begin to emerge; set within the author's lifetime.

Frank Delaney, Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show (2010), about an eighteen-year-old Irish boy in 1932 whose mother sends him to fetch back his father, who has run off to join a traveling theater troupe. Review at the Boston Bibliophile blog


For Younger Readers

Click on the title for more information from Powell's Books or another online source.


Irish tenant farmers evicted during the potato famine

Morgan Llywelyn, Pirate Queen (2006), about Granuaile, a Irishwoman who became a powerful pirate with a fleet of her own ships during the sixteenth century. Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Marita Conlon McKenna, Under the Hawthorne Tree (1990), about three Irish children who must fend for themselves after their father leaves to find work during the Potato Famine and their mother goes to find him when he doesn't return; #1 in the Children of Famine trilogy. Recommended for ages 9-12.

Joni Sensel, The Humming of Numbers (2008), about a boy in Ireland gifted with the ability to hear the energies of living things who is prepared to take monastic vows until he meets a girl who also has unusual abilities. Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Hound of Ulster (1963), a retelling of the legend of the ancient Irish hero Cuchullain.

Gerard Whelan, The Guns of Easter (1996), about a twelve-year-old boy living in the Dublin slums during the 1916 Easter Rising. Recommended for ages 12 and up. Review at Independent.ie


Top of Page

Back to Travel by Novel Directory