Top Ten Romantic Irish Novels
Here are ten of the best books for those in search of a little love
Whether you're an ebook fanatic or a hardcopy traditionalist, both sides will agree that there is no better time to take up a new book than sunny season.
With holidays booked, places to go and very little to do – all being well – a new book is just the ticket. And when it comes to genres, affairs of the heart are always high up on many reader's lists of preferences.
From James Joyce to Marian Keyes, Ireland's authors know a thing or two about writing romance. So, for those in search of a new title, here are ten of Ireland's best romantic novels, from the verging on saccharine to the experimental.
Lady Morgan: The Wild Irish Girl
This magnificent Victorian romance, penned in 1806 after the Act of Union, is just a bit symbolic. The story involves a young Englishman, Horatio, a kind of prodigal son who is banished to his aristocratic father's Irish estates.
Once there, Horatio visits the wild west Connaught coast and discovers not only a beautiful physical landscape but a beautiful princess, Giorvina, and the elements of the Gaelic culture he once scorned. Our hero assumes a disguise in order to learn the language and absorb the ancient history of the people he is growing to love.
A key text in terms of its nationalism, and featuring a generous tugging of the heart strings, with The Wild Irish Girl Lady Morgan wanted to study the 'purely national, purely natural character of an Irishwoman'. That she did.
Joan Lingard: Twelfth Day of July
What could be more romantic than a rendezvous between Catholic Kevin and Protestant Sadie set against the backdrop of the troubled streets of Belfast?
Twelfth Day of July was the first in Lingard's ground-breaking series of teen fiction titles, written just as the Troubles were about to begin in earnest. Sounds grim, but beneath the Romeo and Juliet-style rainclouds are some genuinely sunny set pieces, involving visits to the zoo and the seaside, stable experiences for young Belfast lovers of all persuasions.
Transgressive across the barricades romances subsequently became compulsory in Irish fiction as a result of the success of Lingard's work.
Marian Keyes: Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married
Keyes is undoubtedly the Irish Helen Fielding, effortlessly fusing observational comedy with romantic yearning.
The plot to this 1996 offering (which became Ireland's No. 1 bestseller in just five days) concerns, as in so many romantic comedies before, our heroine's quest for real love, in this case involving Mr Right, the good looking non-eejit who will be her reward for surviving the singleton's trawl through a series of no-hopers.
Lucy visits a fortune teller and learns that she is set to be married soon, which is good, although nobody obvious springs to our heroine's mind, which isn't so good. Possible candidates include near-alcoholic Gus, her oldest friend Daniel and American Chuck. Not to mention Adrian, the man from the video shop.
Droll touches undercut what could be quite a sentimental affair – of one contender, Lucy notes: 'He was wild and dangerous and carefree – well, he would be, wouldn't he?' – and the novel ends with... but you probably guessed that already.
Ciaran Carson: The Pen Friend
Although this literary novel by noted Belfast poet and writer Ciaran Carson is about love, it doesn't just present the coupling as a fictional (and desirable) conclusion. Yet it is definitely romantic.
In fact, Carson's main characters, Gabriel and Nina, had an affair a couple of decades before the novel begins, and the distancing effect of remembering 1980s Belfast manages to suggest the kind of love that outlasts physical contact, maybe even a sort of courtly love.
The fact that there are other, mysterious matters going on in terms of identity and plot adds to the force of the feeling. Love is placed under the microscope here, with the epistolary relationship continuing via a series of 13 postcards from her to him:
'I write to try to see you as you were, or what you have become. You left no forwarding address: that was part of your intention. For when we wrote those letters to each other all those years ago, we wrote as much for ourselves as for each other.'
Lucy Caldwell: The Meeting Point
Not just a romance, as you might expect from thoughtful novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell, The Meeting Point nonetheless contains a passionate affair between Ruth, a Christian wife stranded in Bahrain while her husband is on missionary work, and Farid, a good-looking local boy who offers to show her around his country.
There is also an exploration of romance in the sense of adventure, as Ruth becomes excited by the otherness of a world and social ethos far removed from the Northern Irish dairy farm she grew up on.
So, as she and Farid visit the ancient 'tree of life' – thought to be the seductive tree of knowledge that grew in Eden – a relationship develops. Ruth leaves her baby daughter with Farid's cousin Noor, a troubled girl who herself becomes obsessed with the foreign woman who represents a different way of life. As such, though it cleverly deploys elements of the genre, this is much more than simple romantic fiction.
Claire Allen: It's Got to be Perfect
The modern penchant for naming books after pop songs found its apogee in the chick lit genre, and novelist Claire Allan, otherwise a journalist, has a particularly dry, Derry slant on things.
The plot of this novel rattles along like an Undertones lyric: girl dreams of big day, finds man at her side not adequate to the occasion, while her best friend is irritatingly heading for the aisle at a rate of knots.
So far so blah, but Allan gives us a real sense of the pain behind the apparent clichés, especially when, for both girls, their prospective spouses' pasts return to threaten their chances of nuptial bliss. This is contemporary romance without the expected happy ending.
Edna O'Brien: The Country Girls
The novel that launched Edna O'Brien's enduring, celebrated career – and ensured that she would always thereafter be described as 'controversial' – starts with the uncut romance of 14-year-old Cathleen living physically in the seriously unenlightened sticks but imaginatively somewhere else entirely.
Cathleen's dreams and desires eventually lead her, and her best friend, to Dublin, the big city with its promise of fulfilment. Although her unsentimental education at the hands of Mr Gentleman, the older man who ultimately instructs her in the art of love, means that realism and growing up temper the idealism, there is throughout a sense of longing for beauty and a life full of intensity.
O'Brien's glorious prose and ability to hint at the country girls' aspirational dreams somehow echo poet Browning's line about how 'a man's reach must exceed his grasp/or what's a heaven for?' – a woman's even more so in this marvellously written tale.
Cathy Kelly: It Started with Paris
Kelly's latest title shows that the bestselling author knows what makes her readership's hearts beat faster. Paris plus a proposal on top of the Eiffel Tower is bound to capture the imagination, of course, but Kelly inserts comedy into her romantic formula.
For our romantic leads, there are pitfalls to the perfect setting, and in a nano-second everything changes, not just for the happy young couple, but for the family and friends looking forward to their return to Bridgeport, Ireland.
Here the happy ever after is belied by the fact that Leila's heart was previously broken by a cheating husband. A close friend, she will, however, put on a brave face for the bride. As will Vonnie, widow and expert cake-maker, who is just beginning to contemplate the possibility of romance. Meanwhile Grace, the mother of the groom, is having to spend more time with her ex-husband, which is forcing her to re-think their decision to split...
Cecelia Ahern: PS I Love You
The death of a lover in romantic fiction ensures that there will never be a decline into slippers and cocoa territory, and when the deceased Gerry leaves notes encouraging the grieving Holly to go on and find new love, the device also provides the ultimate tearjerker.
Ahern's first bestseller perhaps inevitably became a successful film, starring Gerard Butler and Hilary Swank as the aforementioned Gerry and Holly. They are very much in love but have the odd fight, and when Ahern removes Gerry via a brain tumour, Holly realizes exactly how much he meant to her and how unimportant those rows were.
Gerry's letters all end with 'PS, I love you', but there is just enough realism in Holly's depression and grief to make the wonderful (and naturally saccharine) story work.
There is also a rootsy trip to Ireland to meet Gerry's family, another romance which doesn't last, and ultimately a sense that a happy ending is waiting somewhere in the wings.
James Joyce: Ulysses
Joyce as Ireland's king of romantic fiction? Why not? After all, Ulysses is set on June 16, 1904, the day when Joyce and his future wife, Nora Barnacle, first 'walked out' together. There is even a part in the 'Nausicaa' section of the book where, through the character of Gertie Mcdowell, Joyce deliberately pastiches the style of romantic women's magazines.
Ulysses is, of course, based on Greek poet Homer's epic Odyssey, where the hero, Ulysses, returns to recapture his wife Penelope from marauding lovers, whom he rather callously dispatches (that kind of thing happened rather a lot in Greek myth).
Ulysses' equivalent in Joyce's novel, Leopold Bloom, doesn't quite save wife Molly from the amorous advances of Blazes Boylan, but at the climax of the experimental book (which generations have loved and found impossible to digest in equal measure) he does once more reclaim the sancity of the marital bed. Perhaps the most famous monologue in all of fiction concludes with that immortal declaration of acceptance and love, 'Yes I said, yes I will, yes.'