Ireland’s written heritage is almost as legendary as its verdant hills and rich mythology. The giants of early 20th century Irish authorship are household names—Yeats, Joyce, Wilde—but the Emerald Isle has an equally strong (though lesser known) tradition of great children’s literature, too. With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, now is a great time to take advantage of the literary gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow with these ten Irish authors.
Roddy Doyle Already an established novelist (he is a 1993 Booker Prize winner for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha) Doyle’s foray into children’s literature promises to be as successful. The Dubliner’s Rover stories (The Giggler Treatment, Rover Saves Christmas and The Meanwhile Adventures) chronicle the exploits of a hapless adventure-seeking dog, and his latest book, Her Mother’s Face, is a poignant look at love and loss from a child’s perspective. Doyle’s humor—from the crude to the charming to the whimsical—make him a great read for adults and children alike. Best for grades 3-5.
Patricia Lynch Patricia Lynch was a prolific writer—with 48 novels and hundreds of short stories. Her western Irish background colors the events and landscapes in many of her stories; while her stories are relatively uncomplicated for her young audience, they are replete with delightful imagination. Her best-known book is The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, celebrated for its romanticized portrayal of rustic Ireland. Her Brogreen series is also a staple of mid-century children’s fantasy, and though some of her books are out of print they are well worth tracking down. Best for grades 3-5.
C.S. Lewis Belfast-born Clive Staples Lewis rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest literary luminaries of his day at Oxford, including J.R.R. Tolkien, and it’s interesting to speculate how the two might have influenced the separate fantasy worlds for which they’ve each become famous. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity informs much of his writing and is a motif throughout his most famous body of work, The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis’ allegory, however, is never heavy-handed; he is very accessible to children and adults alike, making him a beloved cornerstone of children’s literature. Don’t miss The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair. Best for grades 4-6.
Eoin Colfer With tales that compare favorably to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Wexford native Eoin Colfer has a lot going for him. The Irish author and comedian is best known for his Artemis Fowl series, which he has jokingly summed up as “Die Hard with fairies”. The adventures and exploits of (anti)hero Artemis Fowl, adolescent criminal genius, are noted for their dark humor and are bestsellers on both sides of the Atlantic. The six-book series has a movie deal in the works. Artemis Fowl, The Arctic Incident, and The Eternity Code round out the first three books in the sequence. Best for grades 4-6.
Marita Conlon-McKenna Another Bisto Award winner, Marita Conlon-McKenna’s books have seen screen treatments and translation into several different languages. Her fascination with Irish history sparked her most widely known book, Under the Hawthorn Tree. The book, a story about children left struggling to survive in the wake of the deadly 1840s famine, made the Irish bestseller list two years running and is distinguished by its touching characterization and historical detail. Under the Hawthorn Tree became the Famine trilogy, with Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home completing the trio. Best for grades 4-6.
Padraic Colum Padraic Colum had a seemingly inexhaustible career as a novelist, a poet, a dramatist and a folklorist. Despite fame at home and abroad, famous friendships and lucrative publishing and teaching contracts, Colum never forgot his humble beginnings. He began his career in children’s writing by translating simple Gaelic myths, and his first effort, The King of Ireland’s Son, was released to high praise in 1916. Big Tree of Bunlahy: Stories of My Own Countryside and The Voyagers won him Newberry Honor Awards in the 1920s and 1930s. Best for grades 4-6.
Pat O’Shea Pat O’Shea’s books, described by Phoenix librarian Jill Detter as “good fantasy for older children with lots of Irish folklore,” began her career as a dramatist. The Galway-born writer took 13 years to complete her best-known book, The Hounds of the Morrigan, and she found herself a literary sensation in middle age. O’Shea’s 2007 Guardian obituary calls the book a “combination of kindness, wisdom and irreverence”; it has been translated into several languages and remains popular in Ireland today. Best for grades 5-8.
Kate Thompson Though Kate Thompson was born in England, and her travels took her to America, Wales and India, among other places, she has claimed Irish residency since the early 1980s. Some of her children’s stories touch upon themes as disparate as Irish folk tales and genetic engineering. Thompson has won the Bisto Children’s Book of the Year Award four times, as well as the Whitbread Children’s Book Award and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. She is best known and most celebrated for her book The New Policeman, described as “enthralling” in several reviews; other good bets include The Alchemist’s Apprentice and The Beguilers. Best for kids in middle school and up.
James Stephens James Stephens, a contemporary of Irish great James Joyce, is best known for his fantasy work The Crock of Gold. With James Joyce, he was part of the Irish literary renaissance of the early 20th century and lived to see his work made popular through readings and radio broadcasts. While all his books are marked by his fanciful charm, his 1920 Irish Fairy Tales has become a perennial children’s favorite. His lyric voice (Stephens was also a poet) sets the perfect tone for these retellings of famous Irish myths and legends. Best for kids in middle school and up.
Siobhan Dowd Technically a Londoner by birth, Siobhan Dowd’s parents were both Irish and she was honored by Irish-America Magazine as one of the “Top 100 Irish-Americans”. A Swift Pure Cry is her first book, a stark portrayal of teenage issues; her second, The London Eye Mystery, is a young adult thriller about a boy with Asperger’s syndrome who solves a kidnapping. One review went so far as to describe Dowd’s sophomore effort as “unputdownable”, and it has won everything from the Book Sense Children’s Pick List to Kirkus Review’s Best Children’s Books. Her penultimate effort, Bog Child, was posthumously published in 2008 to acclaim. Best for kids in middle school and up.