FROM NIDGE AND CONNELL WALDRON TO GRETTA CONROY, RASHERS TIERNEY AND PEGEEN MIKE, ALL OF THESE PEOPLE EMERGED FROM ACTS OF IMAGINATION – BUT ARE SO DEFTLY CREATED THAT THEY ARE AS REAL TO US AS ANY LIVING PERSON
40. BESSIE BURGESS
From The Plough and the Stars
It befits an unsentimental classic like The Plough and the Stars that its heart resides in such an unlikely place. Bessie Burgess, the cantankerous, self-demolishing, crowing unionist (“Oh, youse are all rightly shanghaied now!” she spits at her revolutionary neighbours) is ultimately the spine of compassion, quiet heroism and genuine sacrifice amid all the posture and chaos of Seán O’Casey’s street-level view of the 1916 Rising.
From Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling
For a modest, sensible twentysomething from Ballygobbard, Aisling has taken Ireland by storm. The first three books featuring her, written by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, are the bestselling Irish fiction titles this century. Compared to “an Irish Bridget Jones”, Aisling is as much in the tradition of a Maeve Binchy or Marian Keyes heroine as she is a rival to Helen Fielding’s creation.
38. CONNELL WALDRON
From Normal People
Book, 2018; TV drama, 2020
Despite being a young man both studying literature and writing it, Connell’s trademark characteristic is an inability to be articulate, especially with Marianne, his love. What Sally Rooney’s creation doesn’t, or can’t, say to her during their school and college years together is partly what makes his character so realistic, frustrating and engaging.
37. CATHERINE MCKENNA
From Grace Notes
In Scotland, Catherine, a composer, is trying to literally compose her life. She is a new mother, but her partner is abusive. She is estranged from her family back in Northern Ireland. Music and her career-changing composing commission both ground her, Bernard MacLaverty’s novel, and then lift her onwards from where she has been in a paralysis.
36. SADIE JACKSON
From The Twelfth Day of July
Sadie, a Protestant teenager, is sassy and feisty. As we follow her love-across-the-divide relationship with Kevin, a Catholic, over five books, we grow with them. Joan Lingard’s young-adult-fiction series brought the Troubles home to generations of young people elsewhere and brought fiction home to young people in Northern Ireland.
35 CATHLEEN NI HOULIHAN
From Cathleen Ni Houlihan
“Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” WB Yeats wondered about Cathleen Ni Houlihan. If so, they must have been as naive as the question. In 1798, a mysterious old lady disturbs a family dinner to sing of blood sacrifice, tell of her stolen “four beautiful green fields”, and lure a young man to join the Rebellion. Thus appeased, she transforms into a girl with “the walk of a queen” and struts away into several more Irish dramas.