The best history books to help you understand Irish history

James Charles Roy Author Of The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland
By James Charles Roy

Who am I?

My first introduction to Ireland was in 1953 when my parents took the entire family over for two months. We stayed mostly in Dublin as "paying guests" with a threadbare, though incredibly proud, Anglo-Irish mother and her adult daughter in their decrepit apartment. What a learning experience for a seven-year-old boy! My fascination with the country's culture and history has never dampened, climaxed by my purchase of a 16th-century ruin, Moyode Castle, in County Galway, now finally restored. Over the years I have written seven books, six of them on Irish themes, plus innumerable articles in scholarly journals. The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland is my magnum opus as an Irish historian.


I wrote...

The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland

By James Charles Roy,

Book cover of The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland

What is my book about?

Histories dealing with the reign of the five Tudor monarchs of England in the 16th century, and particularly that of Elizabeth I, have largely been concerned with Continental conflicts involving Catholic Spain and France, "superpowers" in comparison, with more resources and greater populations. The less publicized difficulties with its island colony of Ireland, however, would prove a considerably more intractable problem, resulting in turmoil that even today is largely unresolved. The military conquest of Ireland by Elizabeth, in other words, created more problems than it solved.

This is the story of revolt, suppression, atrocities, and genocide, and ends with a dispirited queen facing internal convulsions and an empty treasury. Her death saw the end of the Tudor dynasty, marked not by victory over their great European enemies, but by ungovernable Ireland – the first colonial ‘failed state.'

The books I picked & why

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The Irish: A Character Study

By Sean O'Faolain,

Book cover of The Irish: A Character Study

Why this book?

This fine introduction to both the Irish themselves, and their tortured history, was first published in 1947 by this respected commentator. The only way to really understand Ireland is to dissect the many distinctive population groups -- their peculiarities of religion, social outlook, political ambitions, and allegiances --  and then to see how the mixture of these complex streams determined the country's history, with positive but also calamitous results over many centuries. O'Faolain deals with the indigenous Celts, the interloping Normans, the increasingly acquisitive English, and how the tumultuous interactions between them produced the core of Irish society: its peasantry, the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the clergy, politicians, rebels, writers, and dreamers. The only thing O'Faolain missed, because he didn't live to see it, was the emergent, and now dominant, middle class of the Celtic Tiger. A beautifully written book. 

The Irish: A Character Study

By Sean O'Faolain,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Irish as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Explores the formation of the Irish racial mind through important political and cultural events from 300 B.C. to the present


The Norman Achievement

By David C. Douglas,

Book cover of The Norman Achievement

Why this book?

It may seem strange to include a selection here that does not mention Ireland once, but the Norman incursion that began in 1167 is fundamental to understanding the country's ensuing history. The first Normans in Ireland were vagabonds, for the most part, a restless, grasping underclass of the French-speaking wave of freebooters that subdued England beginning in 1066 with William the Conqueror. Denied an outlet for their limitless ambition, these often renegade adventurers, many of whom were younger sons or rebellious underlings of the ruling Norman caste, unleashed chaos in Celtic kingdoms they invaded, both militarily and socially, often in escapades of unimaginable daring. Douglas does an excellent job introducing and explaining the unique character of these intrepid soldiers and administrators, as they tramped through much of the known European world, and then on to Jerusalem for the Crusades.

The Norman Achievement

By David C. Douglas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Norman Achievement as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Norman achievement, 1050-1100


The King's Peace, 1637-41

By C.V. Wedgwood, C.V. Wedgwood,

Book cover of The King's Peace, 1637-41

Why this book?

Wedgwood was a master of non-fiction narrative, and The King's Peace reflects the height of her power as a historian. It deals with the maladroit reign of King Charles I of England from 1637 to 1641 (the second volume, The King's War is equally fine; the projected third volume, dealing with the king's fall and execution, was never fully completed). Again, Ireland is not central to her theme, but this is typical of the Irish story, forever overshadowed by events in Great Britain. When a desperate Charles tried to play the "Irish card" in his battles with Parliament, he did so callously and without any true regard for his subjects there, a theme often repeated in the interactions between these two countries. The end result, in this particular case, was Cromwell's invasion of Ireland in 1649, a catastrophic episode in the Irish saga. This is a superb history in every way.

The King's Peace, 1637-41

By C.V. Wedgwood, C.V. Wedgwood,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The King's Peace, 1637-41 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This volume tells the story of the four eventful years which immediately preceded the Civil War, years which transformed the tranquil dominions of King Charles into a land rent by mistrust and menaced by fire and sword. It tells of the rise of the covenanters in Scotland with such leaders as the gallant Montrose and the mysterious Argyll. It tells of Parliament's opposition to the King under the skilful leadership of John Pym. The tragedy of Strafford is linked with the terrible insurrection in Ireland. Miss Wedgewood has sought to convey the vivid day sequence of events as they flooded…


The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849

By Cecil Woodham-Smith,

Book cover of The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849

Why this book?

When this book was released in 1962, it landed like a bomb, becoming an immediate, worldwide best seller. Woodham-Smith did not "invent" the famine as a topic -- every historian of the period was well aware of this tragedy, and its implications for the future of Ireland (mass emigration, smoldering indignation in the Irish diaspora, seeds for future rebellion) -- but many readers were unaware of the governmental machinations in London that so contributed to this humanitarian disaster. Some of Woodham-Smith's conclusions, and judgments, have been questioned by succeeding historians, but her narrative here is compelling, well researched, beautifully written, and germane to the troubles which afflicted the island well into the twentieth century and beyond.

The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849

By Cecil Woodham-Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Great Hunger as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Irish potato famine of the 1840s, perhaps the most appalling event of the Victorian era, killed over a million people and drove as many more to emigrate to America. It may not have been the result of deliberate government policy, yet British 'obtuseness, short-sightedness and ignorance' - and stubborn commitment to laissez-faire 'solutions' - largely caused the disaster and prevented any serious efforts to relieve suffering. The continuing impact on Anglo-Irish relations was incalculable, the immediate human cost almost inconceivable. In this vivid and disturbing book Cecil Woodham-Smith provides the definitive account.

'A moving and terrible book. It combines…


Catholics

By Brian Moore,

Book cover of Catholics

Why this book?

Some might question my choice of a work of fiction here, but I have always been a great admirer of this fine writer's work. Catholics best displays the transitional period from the economically dreary 1930s-1950s, to the often-painful thrust of Ireland into the modernity of a European Union and growing national prosperity. The plot vehicle Moore uses is the story of a crisis of faith as monks living in virtual medieval isolation on an island off Co. Kerry (and indulging in the now forbidden Latin mass) are dragged into conformity by a Vatican plenipotentiary who is determined to break them. In the process, he destroys the foundations of their entire spiritual lives, shatters their traditions, and shows little remorse in doing so. I don't know if Moore, who died in 1999, meant his book to be a metaphor of the New Ireland, but it succeeds in showing a country turning its back, metaphorically speaking, on a rich though sad and troubling past, and marching into an uncertain future.

Catholics

By Brian Moore,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Catholics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A "near-masterpiece" about faith and doubt by the award-winning, international bestselling author (The New York Times).

In Rome, surrendering to secular pressures, the Fourth Vatican Council is stirring a revolution with their official denial of the church's core doctrines. They've abolished clerical dress and private confession; the Eucharist is recognized only as an outdated symbol; and they're merging with the tenets of Buddhism. They're also unsettled by the blind faith of devout pilgrims from around the world congregating on a remote island monastery in Ireland-the last spot on earth where Catholic traditions are defiantly alive. At the behest of the…


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Interested in Ireland, the Great Famine in Ireland, and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms?

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