Mar 17 2014 11:10am

Getting Your Irish Up: Irish Romance from Roberts, Heyer, and More!

Irish Thoroughbred by Nora RobertsWhether it’s a mystery with romantic elements, a historical, or a contemporary, commonalities persist when the story takes place in Ireland. An exploration of Irish romances shows that there’s often nostalgia and an old-world charm in the way Ireland is depicted.

Nora Roberts has written many best-sellers with Irish settings and/or Irish characters. According to her website, “In the summer of that year [1980], Silhouette bought Nora’s first book. Irish Thoroughbred was published in 1981.” Here’s a description of the story.

“COME TO AMERICA. YOUR HOME IS WITH ME NOW.” Adelia Cunnane's uncle had written her. So Adelia had left Ireland to join him on what he had described as the finest horse farm in Maryland. Adelia agreed with her uncle about the farm. But what should she think about its owner, Travis Grant? She knew that he could master his strongest horse. She had seen his eyes soften at the birth of a foal. Yet his lips on hers demanded a submission that she was not yet ready to give — at least not until he had spoken the words she had to hear.

And away we go! Nora lays down some themes we see over and over in Irish-based romance. Ireland is the land of horses, horse breeders, horse trainers, and the Irish racing fraternity. The Irish fan out all over the world, bringing their equine expertise to farms, ranches, and race courses. Next, there are Irish families: always close, even if a son or a sister emigrated to England or America decades earlier. Confidence in their abilities is a hallmark of an Irish character. Lastly, they don’t love lightly or fall easily. Particularly when it comes to an Irish colleen, the hero who hopes to win her love had better put a ring on it.

There’s more to Irish romance than gorgeous equine beauties and extended families. For every book or trope I suggest, I hope you’ll return with a thousand more (exaggeration, another charming Irish trait!).

For many romance readers there’s one hero who brings the Irish to life on the page, the one and only Roarke. Naked in Death, J. D. Robb’s first futuristic thriller, introduces the mysterious Dublin-born gazillionaire. Here’s the ever-skeptical Eve looking at a picture of him for the first time,

Eve grunted as the computer listed the description. She had to agree that in Roarke’s case, a picture was worth a couple hundred words.

His image stared back at her from the screen. He was almost ridiculously handsome: the narrow, aesthetic face; the slash of cheekbones; and sculpted mouth. Yes, his hair was black, but the computer didn’t say it was thick and full and swept back from a strong forehead to fall inches above broad shoulders. His eyes were blue, but the word was much too simple for the intensity of color or the power in them.

Throw in a smooth voice “with a whisper of the charm of Ireland over it, like rich cream over warmed whiskey,” murmuring a ghra, remembering that his first gift to work-obsessed Eve was real coffee and gawking at his master of the universe persona—we all fall under Roarke’s charm. Roarke’s physical characteristics are turned up a notch by a mysterious past, a brutal intensity that he brings to all that he touches, and a hidden poetic side that he rarely shares.

Dangerous Joy by Jo BeverleyAnother black-haired passionate Irish character is Felicity Monahan, the heroine of Jo Beverley’s Dangerous Joy. Fearless, horse-mad, and intense, charm is only one of the weapons in her arsenal. Her love, Miles Cavanagh, is another Irish prototype, deceptively ordinary and pleasant. Felicity thinks to herself,

He was a fine figure of a man … with robust, practical looks that appealed greatly to her. Clear blue eyes ready to laugh, red-gold hair with a crisp curl to it, and a square jaw that spoke of firmness.

What a pair they make, Felicity, the beautiful rebellious heiress and Miles, the fast-talking horse-trader to the aristocrats. And yet Miles is no stranger to their ranks, since he was educated at Harrow and will inherit an Irish title that holds both money and power. Their Irish nationalism is tempered with realism and they draw strength from their shared Irish past. Of all the Rogue stories, only Dangerous Joy has a touch of woo-woo or the supernatural, another characteristic of many Irish-set romances. And speaking of the supernatural, Nora Robert’s Dark Witch is just one of the latest of her many books that combine an Irish setting with the supernatural.

Possibly harkening back to the historical novels of Georgette Heyer, Ireland is often presented as a bucolic refuge from the madness of the ton. As Lord Dolphinton, an Irish peer, says to Kitty Charing in Cotillion, when he tells her about Hannah, his penniless lady-love, “I don’t want a fortune. I want horses.” Hannah agrees with him, saying to Kitty,

“… I think it will suit him much better to live in the Irish place of his than to be racketing about town, the way he’s made to. He can have his horses, and though I daresay I shall find it a damp, ramshackle place, I don’t care for that, because I’ve always had a taste for the country…”

In addition to the delights of the countryside, Ireland is also an island, and the ocean and its mysteries also play a role in many Irish stories. Nora Roberts weaves the story of the ill-fated Lusitania with a lost family heirloom in Three Fates. The Sullivan children, Malachi, Gideon, and Rebecca, weave their quest for revenge through a compelling saga. Their American loves—all with a connection to Ireland and three silver statues—like the reader, learn all about the Irish tourist renaissance, the power of music, Guinness, and pubs, what it’s like to run a boat business in Cobh, and lastly, a sense that the past informs the present and the future. There is a hint of underlying darkness in many of these tales.

As John Banville put it, writing in the New York Times (December 17th, 2011), “Irish memory is long, and darkened by bitterness.” The bitterness is overlaid by joy in romances but it’s a persistent strain that is woven through many Irish stories, giving it a piquancy that is unique.

The Deception by Joan WolfThe past also lives on through the Irish fathers and mothers who abound in historical romance, like Kate Fitzgerald in Joan Wolf’s The Deception. She’s the granddaughter of a viscount, but her father, who is murdered in the opening scene, was an Irish horse trader. One of Wolf’s earliest contemporaries was Wild Irish Rose, 1985. Doesn’t this have a familiar ring to it: “Heiress Sara Underwood was tired of the extravagances of the world she belonged to. When she visited her family’s Kentucky horse farm, she met Daniel Riordan, the man who trained her grandfather’s thoroughbreds. Daniel had an Irish brogue and eyes that enchanted her. But he was poor and proud as well as handsome.” Obviously, many readers never tire of romantic misalliances accompanied by horse sweat, an Irish brogue, and mist rising over the fields in the morning.

Beyond the romance genre, there’s a book for every Irish inclination. Here’s a sampling: the women’s fiction of Maeve Binchy, the dark noirish mysteries of Stuart Neville (set in Northern Ireland after the “Troubles”) or travel back to the 7th century with Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma mysteries.

I’d like to conclude with Hashtag #IrelandInspires. If you have the merest drop of Irish blood, I defy you to watch this YouTube montage of the Ireland of today, accompanied by a whimsical Irish version of “Higher Love,” and not wipe a tear from your eye. Ireland is a place that holds many memories for those of Irish heritage but it’s a nation that is evolving and changing, while continuing to showcase the elements that romance novels have drawn upon so eloquently for decades.


Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. When I rediscovered the world of romance, my spirit guide was All About Romance's Desert Island Keepers — I started with the “A” authors and never looked back. 

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Rebecca Eschliman
1. Cyranetta
One of my favorites was one (alas, not yet available in e-book form) written by Anne McCaffrey and set in Ireland -- The Kilternan Legacy
Janet Webb
2. JanetW
Thank you! Didn't JoAnn Ross also have a connected set of books with an Irish background? It's easy to understand the appeal.
3. Ros
I'm not sure Heyer is quite as kind to Ireland as you make out. She mostly portrays it as a place where you can pick up good horses cheaply, whose titles don't confer real status, and where you can hide your embarrassing relatives away from the ton. In fact, she gives the distinct impression of holding all the prejudices against Ireland that were common in both 19th and 20th century England.
Janet Webb
4. JanetW
Not sure I would disagree with any of that ... but for the purposes of my piece, Ireland, as it often is, is portrayed by Heyer in Cotillion as a bucolic paradise for a horse-mad Irish earl who probably, in the eyes of Freddy and his family, is better off living there (as is Kitty's French cousin better off running a high class gambling den anywhere-but-London). Heyer certainly seems to reflect opinions that were not uncommon at the time. But to be fair to Kitty and Freddy, they helped their cousin escape from a situation that was dire--his mother was about to institutionalize him.
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