Celebrating Irishness at the Movies

And look at that, not a leprechaun in sight.
Brooklyn Irish movies
Fox Searchlight
By  · Published on March 16th, 2017

For a relatively small island with a tiny film industry, Ireland certainly gets a lot of representation in movies – sometimes via other places masquerading as Ireland, other times by representing other places (the beach landing scene in Saving Private Ryan was shot in Wexford, for example) or worlds (Ahch-To in The Force Awakens), and occasionally it even gets to play itself. The island also exports a rather impressive number of cinematic talents considering the fact that, though every third or forth person you meet on the street in, say, Boston or Chicago (a lot of places, really) will claim Irish heritage, the Republic of Ireland has a population of slightly less than 4.6 million and Northern Ireland slightly more than 1.8 million, bringing the island to a total of only around 6.4 million. In other words, still around 2 million less than before the Famine, over 150 years ago. Especially when you consider how the global population has skyrocketed since then, that’s pretty mind-boggling. To convert it to US units, the island of Ireland has half the population of Illinois in an area slightly smaller than Indiana.

There is, of course, no singular Irish experience. Ireland isn’t even a singular country, after all. “Irishness” is a much more nebulous thing than the quite easily definable “Oirishness” that can be seen in films like Leap Year or the marketing for Lucky Charms cereal. The extravaganza of St. Patrick’s Day as we know it is more “Oirish” than anything else, a mix of Irish-American customs and I-don’t-even-know-who-to-blame traditions (who decided dyeing rivers green was a smart idea?). Irish-American culture is an entirely separate beast that I shall not wrestle with today, beyond to say that the difference between Irish-American and Irish is the difference between corned beef and cabbage and bacon and cabbage (bacon as in boiled ham) – I’m not arguing for one being better or more “real” than the other, they’re just different. Yes they have the same roots, but so, ultimately, do human beings and horseshoe crabs.

As my writing for this site would indicate, I love movies. Though I was born and raised in the U.S., my mother was not, and all of that side of my family pretty much lives in Ireland – specifically Cork, because county pride is Serious Business – where I have spent the better part of most of my summers and several winters, too. As such, portrayals of Irishness have always been of interest to me, just as those of Oirishness have always been quite irritating, if for no other reason than knowing that I, being the American cousin, was most likely to hear complaints about the sins of my countrymen.

So, with all of that said, here are some films – by no means a comprehensive list, but a generous handful of selections – to help you celebrate not Oirishness, but Irishness, and the many things that nebulous term can mean:

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Until it was dethroned by The Guard in 2011, this cinematic exploration of the Irish War of Independence which follows the diverging paths of two brothers was the highest-grossing Irish-made independent film in Ireland. The director Ken Loach is British, but the film is shot on location in Cork and features Cork natives Cillian Murphy and Orla Fitzgerald as the lead and love interest, and generally, all the Irish characters are played by Irish actors. A controversial release that sparked new debate regarding reinterpretations of this tumultuous period of Irish history, it’s a beautifully crafted film that took home the Palme d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. That said, it’s also the emotional equivalent of stepping on an unexpected LEGO in the dark.

Hunger (2008)

Regardless of whether or not you see him as a hero, Bobby Sands is an Irish icon. This 2008 biopic about the leader of the 1981 hunger strike in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison that resulted in the deaths of 10 Irish republican prisoners (and zero concessions from the British government), the feature-length debut for British director Steve McQueen, was co-written by Irish playwright Enda Walsh (whose other credits include the stage adaptation of Once and both the play and screen adaptation of Disco Pigs – the stage play marking Cillian Murphy’s professional acting debut and the movie adaptation his breakout screen performance). Though he already had a number of television and a couple of movie credits under his belt, Hunger also marks a key point in German-born Killarney-raised Michael Fassbender’s journey to cinematic stardom.

However, if you’re not feeling in the mood for a feature-length biopic about a starving man, or if you simply don’t have the time, but would still like to enjoy a performance that can be regarded as a milestone in Fassbender’s career, I present to you: “Quarrel.”

Because before he was Magneto or Mr. Rochester or Lt. Archie Hicox or even Bobby Sands, Michael Fassbender was perhaps best known for being the broody guy who swam across the Atlantic Ocean in a Guinness commercial. And really, it doesn’t get much more Irish than that.

Michael Collins (1996)

This one was a hard choice. The casting of Julia Roberts as Kitty Kiernan is one of those quandaries that is ridiculously obvious—it was the late 90s, Roberts was at peak star power – and yet one still can’t help asking “why?”. Liam Neeson’s Cork accent isn’t 100%, but especially by comparison it’s spot-on – as director Neil Jordan has more or less admitted, Neeson was more chosen for his incredible ability to maintain a “gentle giant” persona even when his character’s actions are far from gentle than, say, his ability to convincingly sound like someone from the Rebel County.

So then why is it here? Two reasons: first of all, I couldn’t not include a film by Neil Jordan – he’s one of the most successful Irish film directors of all time (his other films include The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire) – and second of all, it’s Michael. Collins. The father of the Irish Republic (note: the source of this statement is about 30% historical fact and 70% childhood indoctrination). My mother has a picture of him on her desk. There are borderline Big Fish style tall tales about his life that were repeated to me early and often enough that I can’t even remember who told them to me. Until such a time as a superior biopic is made, there is no way for me to have a list of movies related to Irishness without featuring this one.

In Bruges

Though born and raised primarily in London (to Irish parents), Martin McDonagh is both widely regarded as Irish – he’s still most famous as a playwright, with most of his plays set in or around Galway – and considers himself Irish. Though neither of his feature-length films is set in Ireland, both star Colin Farrell showing off his natural Dublin accent. While I generally avoid ascribing particular tastes or senses of humor to specific regions – after all, who am I to make such claims? – I must say that from my perspective, and related to my personal Irish experience, In Bruges in many respects represents Irish gallows humor taken to absolute extremes. Besides, McDonagh is one of the most distinct and influential Irish storytellers working today; it would be a shame not to have him featured here.

Brooklyn (2015)

As Irish Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said in an MSNBC interview earlier this week, “the Irish story is one of immigration.” As such, no list of films celebrating Irishness would be complete without at least one film about an Irish immigrant. Adapted from a novel by acclaimed Irish author Colm Tóibín and directed by Cork native John Crowley, Brooklyn explores the complex relationship between emigrants and their homeland, and features a fantastic performance from Saoirse Ronan as Éilis Lacey, solidifying her graduation from child star to mature actress. On the Irish front, the film also has a solid supporting performance from Domhnall Gleeson (aka that one actor who was in every other movie you saw in 2015 and wasn’t Alicia Vikander). Also, British actress Julie Walters, to quote the high praise of the Irish Times, puts on “an extremely acceptable” County Mayo accent for the role of Irish boarding-house manager Mrs. Keogh – who is just a generally brilliant character besides.

Sing Street

As was the case with Neil Jordan, I couldn’t not have this list feature John Carney – or, more descriptively, that one director from Dublin who makes small-budget films about struggling singer-songwriters (his two most successful films are Once and Begin Again). As Martin McLoone notes writing about the Irish film industry in The Cinema of Small Nations, Ireland is somewhat unique in how Irish cinema “still operates in the shadow of those other arts that have long been associated with the Irish” – namely literature, drama, and popular music, a field in which Ireland “has enjoyed a level of international success that belies its small population.” While Ireland’s strong theatrical tradition shows through behind the camera – I’ve already mentioned Enda Walsh and Martin McDonagh for their cinematic contributions, but both are still primarily regarded for their work as playwrights – Carney highlights Ireland’s strong musical ties within his films. While Once is also great, Sing Street features Irish acting staple Aidan Gillen, who is woefully absent from any of the other entries on this list.

Sminky Shorts

This long-running series of short cartoons by animator Jason Sullivan (under the pseudonym Andrew James) is a great example of an Irish person poking fun at Irish accents, as opposed to the accidental mangling movie audiences often encounter. They’re more than a little ridiculous, but also good fun. My personal favorite is “Cock-a-doodle-do,” but both “I Can’t Do It” and “Tommy” are also hysterical.

Any Episode of “The Graham Norton Show”

Okay, so it’s not a movie, or even a short. But Graham Norton is an Irish national treasure (they just unveiled a portrait of him in the National Gallery of Ireland, so I’m pretty sure this is not so much my opinion as a simple statement of fact), and he deserves way, way, way more attention on this side of the Atlantic. Though most of the highlights will ultimately be regurgitated on Buzzfeed, the show is even funnier if you cut out the middle man.

Of particular note is last year’s New Year’s Eve show (clip featured above), which included the usual lineup of A-list stars and a comedian— and the newly-minted Irish national sporting heroes the O’Donovan brothers, who rowed their way to an Olympic silver medal (more than enough to make them local heroes) and then solidified their national celebrity status with a handful of interviews that went viral thanks to the wondrous thing that is the West Cork accent and such quotable phrases as “close your eyes and pull like a dog” and “’tis great to beat the Brits.”

Also worth mentioning is the 2014 episode featuring Hugh Bonneville, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, and musical guest Paloma Faith, which may perhaps be one of the most entertaining hours in talk show history. It starts with Matt Damon realizing he was somehow the only one who didn’t get the message to wear a brick red suit, and just gets better from there. One of the best moments of all, however, comes when Norton mentions he’s been told that this is Bill Murray’s first British talk show.

“Well, I think I did one, but the guy was actually Irish,” Murray responds, before talking a little bit about his experience being interviewed by Terry Wogan.

“I should probably point out that I’m Irish, too,” Norton eventually interjects.

Murray blinks and leans forward. “What?”

While Ireland much more often serves as a set for visiting productions than it does a source for its own, those relatively few films include a number of real gems. Though Ireland lacks a history of a national cinema in comparison to several other European countries, this, in particular regard, can be seen as somewhat freeing. National cinema has a history of being used to try to form a uniform perception of nationality. While a lot of the major disputes in Irish history stem from conflicting views of who is “truly” Irish, perhaps a case could be made that the nebulousness of Irish identity actually has some pros as well as cons. Either way, Irishness is certainly a lot more complicated than “Oirishness” – but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting, too.

Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.