The best history books to help you understand Irish history

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

The Books I Picked & Why

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. 

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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.

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The King's Peace, 1637-41

By 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.

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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.

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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.

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