Established in 1997 by Máire O’Halloran and Nicole Shanahan, The Clifden Bookshop is a favourite of locals and visitors alike, who are drawn to its eclectically curated collections. Based in the coastal Connemara town after which it is named, it’s nestled in a scenic hinterland of sea inlets, valleys and mountains; unsurprisingly, the area has always attracted artists, poets and writers. “They have always travelled to Clifden because of the amazing light and cloud formations that are so spectacular, and consequently these are captured and immortalised in their works,” explains Máire. “Before opening the bookshop we realised there was nowhere for booklovers to stock up on reading material and artists struggled to find art supplies for 40 miles,” she adds. “Our partnership has resulted in a niche business in Clifden and we have been well supported through the years.”
If Máire and Nicole had to sum up their main goal with The Clifden Bookshop it would be to “foster and encourage a love of reading,” particularly for children and young adults. “There is a book out there that will unlock the magic and wonderment for a child and that is truly the gift of reading,” says Máire, who also relishes a chance to expand the range for her customers. “If someone is always reading popular fiction, I will suggest a non-fiction book to clear their head of the imagery. I feel fulfilled to know that I’ve set people on a journey they may not have found by themselves.”
The bookshop on Main Street in Clifden has the tagline ‘... the room with the books’ as the shop is, undeniably, tiny. “We are possibly one of the smallest bookshops in Ireland, so we need to be very creative and intuitive when selecting our stock to ensure we maximise the space available,” says Nicole. The pair have to carefully consider all titles as shelf space is limited. Yet, they manage to curate a diverse range of genres and authors, catering to their growing community. “Customers come back to us because they appreciate our selections and originality,” adds Máire. Being recognised by The Irish Times as one of the best shops in Ireland, along with winning an award for best independent bookshop at the Irish Book Awards a few years ago, has driven an influx of visitors. So too does the annual arts festival in the town. Now in its 44th year, it’s the longest running community arts festival in Ireland, with a focus on creative writing, music, theatre and film.
There is a committed personal approach at The Clifden Bookshop with Máire and Nicole curating their choice of titles and sharing these in a tailored way with each of their customers. “It’s all about matching the book to the person. And it’s lovely when people come back ready for our next recommendation.” For this International Book Club, we asked Máire and Nicole to share their picks of Irish fiction.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
What an extraordinary read and definitely the best book I have read in years. I had the privilege of reading a pre-publication copy and immediately my reaction was that this book should win a major award. It was longlisted for the Booker Prize last year and is currently shortlisted for the Dalkey Literature Festival this year. It is set in Israel and Palestine and focuses on the tragic loss of two girls, Abir, daughter of Bassam, a Palestinian and Smadar, daughter of Rami, an Israeli. There are 1001 narrative sections comprising of facts, anecdote, tales and myths interspersed with the voices of both fathers struggling with their tragedy and loss. There is a connectedness between the strands which highlights their personal journey towards acceptance, friendship and understanding. For me, I enjoyed the constant ornithological information which was instrumental to the book. Birds by their very nature are indifferent to the struggles below and pass freely over borders and these references resulted in the reader being more cognisant of the toll on us humans and our inhumanity. It's an uplifting testimony to life and resilience and a most memorable read.
Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
This is the first novel from one of my favourite writers and it has resulted in my loving each and every novel that Donal Ryan has published since. He has won numerous literary awards for his writings and when you discover him, you will understand why. This novel is set in contemporary Ireland and based on small town life, dreams, misunderstandings and tensions in this rural community during the last Recession. There are 21 chapters, each with their own character narrative and unique voice and I found myself totally caught up in their various roles in the story. Most of us living in Ireland or anyone who visits here will easily recognise some of the characters and their idioms and idiosyncrasies and their ability to be both dark and funny at the same time. Even though there is a kidnapping and a murder featuring in the story, it's far more complex. Rest assured, you will have moments of hilarity and insightful cameos and ultimately you will finish the book feeling enriched and uplifted by the wonderful and exquisite language within the pages.
Ten Days by Austin Duffy
I was immediately drawn into this original and perceptive story and found it a marvellous read. The narrator is Wolf who returns home to his home in London a year before his American wife, who is of the Jewish faith, dies of cancer. Her last wishes were that she wanted to be cremated and her ashes scattered on the Hudson in NYC despite the views of her orthodox family. Meanwhile, he is aspiring to reconnect with his 16 year old daughter who is very disenchanted with him. This writing is sad but memorable as he deals with the complexities of fractured family relationships. He also has his own issues which become apparent as the story unfolds. Austin Duffy writes with great compassion and captures voices and moods so perfectly. I would suggest that you also check out his previous debut novel This Living and Immortal Thing, which was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.
Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor
This is one of my favourite books and is a page-turner of historical fiction with a bit of crime fiction interspersed. It is set in Ireland and gives a broad background to Irish Social History. Set in the 1840s, it is the harrowing account of a group of Irish emigrants fleeing the ravages of the destitution of the Famine on board a Famine Ship called "The Star of the Sea" and aspiring to starting a new life in America. It details the immense chasm between the First Class and the steerage passengers which is also the case when they arrive in the US. Their difficulties and travails in settling into a new country is beautifully captured in this intriguing novel. I feel it will always be a title that will be of interest to us and the generations to come.
Life Sentences by Billy O’Callaghan
This is a compelling story covering three generations of one family from the 1920s to 1982 and their personal accounts of their lives through famine, war and poverty. It focuses on the bonds of family, kinship and loyalty and the always present fight for acceptance and normality despite the challenges. It showcases the issues that we all have to face, endure and solve regardless of time and past history. It is a beautifully written story with characters that will remain with you for a long time. Billy O'Callaghan is one of our new Irish writers and this offering is also semi-biographical and clearly based on oral history down through the years. The writing is evocative and weaves its magic throughout and I found myself totally immersed from start to finish.
Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen McMahon
Is the story of a marriage ever finished? That is the question David had to answer after losing his wife of 20 years Mary Rose. Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, it is an account of love and loss, set against the shimmering backdrop of a Catalonian village where they holidayed every year. At times funny, also heartbreaking. Kathleen leaves us with another beautifully written story.
Photographs by Cliodhna Prendergast.
Learn more about The Clifden Bookshop on their website.
Máire and Nicole wear TOAST cotton poplin dresses from our Spring Summer season. Shop our new collection of dresses.