First Illustrated Edition - Illustrated by Henri Matisse
It is said Ireland’s greatest contribution to the world of arts and culture has been its literature. Always known for a rich oral and storytelling tradition, Ireland transformed into a literate island with the coming of Christianity in 400-500 AD (heralded by St. Patrick himself). Monks were hard at work illuminating Gospel manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, while the rest of Europe began its descent into the Dark Ages.
Modern Irish writing, however, began with Jonathan Swift, whose masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), is still widely read in schools. Swift’s satire of British colonialism set a tone for Irish literature – which is often comic and biting in nature, always with an eye on the turmoil between Ireland and England. The late Victorian age witnessed a swell in Ireland’s pride and patriotism, and Irish writing soared. From the poetry of William Butler Yeats to the writing of Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker, Irish writers became household names around the world.
If you’re collecting Irish literature, a good starting point might be the Emerald Isle’s four Nobel Prize winners -Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney. The newer voices to consider include well-known authors such as Iris Murdoch, Frank McCourt (who died in 2009), Roddy Doyle, and a few others whose work has won awards and gained critical attention.
Heaney, the bestselling poet on AbeBooks, won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” A first edition of his debut book, Eleven Poems, of which only a few hundred were printed in Belfast in 1965, runs upwards of $1,000.
The first edition of James Joyce’s classic, Ulysses, had a print run of a thousand, 750 of which were numbered copies on handmade paper. Censored and smuggled, this first is highly collectible.
Beckett won the Nobel Prize in 1969. Perhaps better known as a dramatist, his first published novel, Murphy, was rejected by more than 40 publishers before Routledge & Sons took it on. A first edition is now scarce and priced in the thousands.
Doyle is one of Ireland’s leading comic writers best known for The Commitments (1987) and for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which won the Man Booker Prize in 1993. Angela’s Ashes, McCourt’s memoir about his “miserable Irish Catholic childhood,” stayed on the bestseller lists for more than two years. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award. You can’t go wrong with a signed first edition, from $75 well into the hundreds.
Edna O’Brien was given a lifetime achievement award at the Irish Book Awards, though her writing had earlier been banned for its sexual content. The Country Girls was her debut book, and first in a trilogy. First editions sell in the $100 range.
Yeats claimed the Nobel in 1923, mostly for his dramatic works, although he is better known today for his poetry. The Wild Swans at Coole is considered one of the best collections of poetry in the English language, from $95.
Just a few years ago, the New York Times said of Anne Enright’s novel, The Gathering, “Reckless intelligence, savage humor, slow revelation, no consolation: Anne Enright’s fiction is jet dark — but how it glitters.” This book won the Man Booker Prize and the Irish Novel of the Year in 2008 - Enright seems prime for collecting.
Shaw, a playwright known for his “radical rationalism,” won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. Pygmalion (1912) is perhaps his most popular work, as it was the basis for My Fair Lady. Easton Press issued a handsome copy, which is still affordable to collectors.
The Guardian calls Colm Tóibín “one of the most highly regarded Irish writers of his generation, loved by his readers and admired by his peers.” Tóibín’s latest novel, Brooklyn, won the 2009 Costa Novel of the Year. But his first novel, The South, is an affordable place to begin a collection.
Murdoch achieved worldwide acclaim for her 26 novels. Her husband’s memoir, Elegy for Iris, was made into the film Iris, which introduced Murdoch’s writings and philosophies to a broad general audience. Her novel, The Sea, The Sea, won the Man Booker Prize in 1978. First editions are still easy to find within a budget.
Luck o’ the Irish be with you in your hunt!