What to Read Before Your Trip to Ireland

Here's a summary of books to help you get the most out of your trip to Ireland.

5 minutes
Haley Stomp

It’s a rainy morning in March reminding me of my recent trip to Ireland. A little over a year ago in October 2022, my parents and I toured the entire country for two weeks on a bus. The memories of this enchanting island continue to fuel my desire to return, and the green, rainy smell of spring takes me back to the coastlines and warmly lit pubs with pints and the ancient lore of musical purveyors.

As I do with any new travel, I researched the history and culture of Ireland prior to visiting through books and digital media. As an American, my knowledge of European history beyond the world wars is limited. As tours of Ireland are undoubtedly filled with major historical monuments and events, I knew I’d want some context and knowledge of these events to get the most out of my trip. I also wanted to be sure to be an informed and respectful American, open to understanding what it means to be Irish.

To gain an overview of the history of Ireland, I read two important books:

How the Irish Saved Western Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill.

Mr. Cahill laid out not only Irish history, but the broad strokes of the impact of the Roman Empire on Europe, especially the British and Irish regions. Cahill was able to distinguish what is unique about the Irish people and why their isolation from the mainland protected their differences. The Irish were able to blend more of the old traditions with the new, as they were isolated from the Romans. Through a lesson in religious history, he details why the Book of Kells is so important. When we saw the book at the Trinity College Library in Dublin, I felt much more awe in its presence, knowing what it took to create it.

Cahill also provides the real history of Saint Patrick, which has nothing to do with four-leaf clovers or green beer and has everything to do with his life as former slave turned religious transformer. Saint Patrick’s journey is complex, and you may not soak in all the details from this academic book, but it gives a good foundation for the history and culture to which you will be exposed. Fun facts: The Irish hold three-leaf clovers dear due to their symbolism with the trinity of Christianity instead of the American lucky four, and the symbolic color of St. Patrick’s Cathedral is blue, not green.

A Short History of Ireland, 1500-2000 by John Gibney.

If basic understanding of Ireland, its battles and relationship to England is your thing, and it should be if you’ll be spending time there as a tourist, Gibney does a great job condensing five hundred years of back and forth in this accessible book. He highlights important events of each century with stories of people and battles you will surely encounter as you travel from town to town. You’ll want to have a map of Ireland handy while you’re reading to identify the different regions of the country covered in each momentous historical milestone. You’ll be better prepared if you already know the difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland and understand how it all came to be.

Reading Gibney’s book after the academic and ancient journey with Cahill was a nice way to cement a few things to memory, connect more of the stories and validate my conclusions from the first book. I emailed Gibney after reading his book to tell him thanks for making it enjoyable for me to learn about Ireland. In true Irish fashion, he responded quickly with some local ideas on travel stops near Dublin.

With historical context in place, I moved to fiction, where you can immerse yourself into the culture of more modern-day Ireland. As a self-proclaimed Derry Girls mega fan, I had watched this series set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles in the 90s prior to reading about it. I rewatched the series after my history studies and not only laughed again but got a deeper appreciation for Irish humor, the uniqueness of Northern Ireland and specific cultural and regional references. Hearing the dialect and understanding some of the slang deepened my connection to these places when we were there.

Three Irish fiction authors dropped me in the middle of different regions in the country to understand the dynamics of today’s Irish society. I believe if you want to know what somewhere is really like, you read fiction written by the people who live there. Innately, they let you inside to show you the nuances and essence of what it means to be from there.

Northern Spy by Flynn Berry is a fast-paced thriller with a heroine who swims frequently in the cold waters off the coast of Northern Ireland. The author exposes you to the IRA in an everyday context set in Belfast and nearby. Aside from the anxious and dangerous story, I liked the imagery of the coast. One of the most memorable things about the Northern Ireland coastline is the dark gray, powerful images of ocean, rock and ancient castles.

You may have read Tana French’s murder mysteries, but they are more meaningful when you are heading to the regions in which her stories are set. I read The Searcher, based in a small village in western Ireland and In the Woods based in and around Dublin. Both crime novels give you a sense of life and Irish perspective in these regions like those where you will surely visit.

I bought Donal Ryan’s The Queen of Dirt Island at a bookstore in Dublin, and I could not be happier I found this book at the beginning of our trip. Ryan’s writing is extraordinary. He can paint a gallery’s worth of pictures in two pages with the most pointed and poetic language. This book is short, clever chapter after short, clever chapter telling the gritty story about generations of a family in Tipperary. As our bus took us around the southern end of Ireland from Dublin to Cork to Killarney, I was reading about a family living in this exact region. I honestly could not believe my luck in finding this brilliant author and story at exactly the right time. A little luck of the Irish, perhaps? As our tour guide was giving us history lessons, I was connecting what I was reading and what I had read at home with additional anecdotes. My pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Phew. Heady memories.

I am still a believer in travel books, although I do not tend to drag them along in my backpack, and they are available digitally now. I did peruse Rick Steve’s and National Geographic Traveler’s books on Ireland, especially when reviewing our itinerary to get my bearings on geography and what each region is known for. You can find these books at the library, online or go cruise them at the bookstore with a cup of coffee. I appreciate the short historical snapshots and maps in these books.

Upon my return from Ireland, I have read more on this great place and put a few books on my to-do list, including Angela’s Ashes. I read a few stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners and listened to a podcast on them. I didn’t find it necessary to read prior to going other than understanding that James Joyce is a celebrated literary figure in Ireland due to his writing capabilities and his ability to shine a unique light on the life of Dublin’s working class.

Finally, in my quest for historical knowledge, I ordered DK’s The History of Great Britain and Ireland: The Definitive Visual Guide. This is not a short book nor a quick read. I ate this elephant one or two pages at a time over the course of the last year and a half as a palette cleanser between novels. It’s much more focused on Great Britain, but it’s interesting to contrast the story of Ireland with British context. If you are on the hunt for the history of Great Britain, I highly recommend this book. It’s very comprehensive covering Britain’s first people to today’s monarch – over one thousand years in four hundred pages with pictures, timeline graphics and beautiful artwork. These historical events had worldwide tentacles centuries ago and still impact us today.

If you are heading to the beautiful island of Ireland, I wish you well on your journey. May the road rise up to meet you, may you see a rainbow, drink a Guiness, dance a jig and feel the damp air of the ocean meeting the cliffs below the ruins of an ancient castle. May the history of centuries infect you with its spirit of hope, beauty and perseverance. Good luck!

The author and her parents on the Killary Fjord