As sure as St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Eire, filmmakers have portrayed the Irish as the good, honest, hardworking people they are. Or at least they showed them drinking, fighting, keening, clogging, fiddling and walking around with shillelaghs.
Taking a cue from one of Auld Sod’s favorite son’s, we’ve broken down Irish-themed films into the various facets of Irish life they attempt to convey. Slainthe!
Portrait of the Irish as Drunks
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987)
Lonely piano teacher Maggie Smith pines away for Bob Hoskins, an opportunistic con man who attempts to bilk her for his latest scheme. Eventually, she turns to the drink, which actually makes her life better.
Portrait of the Irish as Gangsters
Public Enemy (1931)
While Scarface (1932) and Little Caesar (1930) may be the grandfathers of The Godfather, Wild Bill Wellman’s ultra-violent mobster opus is their early talkie cinematic superior, owing much to the riveting performance of James Cagney in his debut starring role as Prohibition-era gangster, Tom Powers.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Irish mob boss, Leo (Albert Finney) and his o’consigliere, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) protect Jewish hood, Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) from their rivals in the Italian Mafia in this Coen Brothers’ classic.
Portrait of the Irish as Cops
State of Grace (1990)
Sean Penn is the cop, Ed Harris is the mob boss, Gary Oldman is the mob boss’ brother and the cop’s best friend, Robin Wright is the mob boss’ sister. The cop’s childhood sweetheart, John Turturro is the hood, and Burgess Meredith is a guy named Finn.
Portrait of the Irish as Sinn Fein
The Gentle Gunman (1952) An impassioned cry for peace that has since fallen out of favor.
Odd Man Out (1947) An IRA operative robs a bank, is wounded, hunted,
and ultimately dies like a dog in the streets in the role that made James Mason a star.
Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) James Cagney stars as the overzealous leader of the IRA in this uneasy production of shifting loyalties.
River of Unrest (1937) Yet another tale of star-crossed lovers set in the Sinn Fein Rebellion, a British Army officer is forced to shoot the revolutionary brother of his Irish girlfriend.
The Dawning (1989) Rebecca Pidgeon becomes the unwitting messenger of death when she’s duped by old salt Anthony Hopkins and young buck Mark O’Regan.
Hidden Agenda (1990) Ken Loach’s taut thriller about a British cop and an American human rights activist who uncover a cover-up in the deaths of an IRA sympathizer and an American attorney.
Portrait of Michael Collins as a Young Man
Michael Collins (1996) A violent biopic of the revolutionary leader, played herein by Liam Neeson, writer/director Neil Jordan pulls no punches in examining the causes and effects of the bloody turmoil in Northern Ireland.
Beloved Enemy (1936) Only marginally based on the real-life story of Michael Collins, this Sam Goldwyn production plays out more like an operatic tale of star-crossed lovers than a gritty drama about “the troubles.”
Jim Sheridan’s Take on the IRA
In the Name of the Father (1993) Wrongly convicted of an IRA bombing, hippie Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his father Giuseppe (Pete Postelthwaite) are sent to prison, where the elder Conlon dies in one of the most tearjerking moments in film history.
Some Mother’s Son (1996) Sheridan returns to prison with this dually heartbreaking and heartwarming story of two mothers (Helen Mirren and Fionnula Flanagan), on opposite sides of the IRA issue, whose Sinn Fein sons instigate a lethal hunger strike in the Belfast prison where they are jailed.
The Boxer (1997) Danny Flynn, a boxer and IRA activist released after 14 years of prison, returns to Belfast, the ring and the woman he loved with varying degrees of success.
The Greatest Film Written and/or Directed by Jim Sheridan Not About the IRA
My Left Foot (1989) Maybe the only handicap film where the gimpy character, herein writer Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis), is an alcoholic jerk with very few redeeming qualities save his ability to type with his toes.
A Film That’s Not Really About the IRA But Don’t Tell That to Neil Jordan
The Crying Game (1992) Sure, Stephen Rea is an IRA agent who kidnaps British soldier Forest Whitaker, but this is really a story about love and honor and a woman with a penis.
Charming Little Comedies About the Lack of Good Spouses, Good Jobs and/or Both in Modern-Day Ireland
The Closer You Get (2000) On behalf of the lovelorn lads in his Irish village, fed-up Ian Hart places a personals ad in the Miami Herald for, prompting sassy lassie Siobhan (Niahm Cusack) to send away for Spaniards.
Waking Ned Devine (1998) One of the 52 residents of Tulaigh More is the lucky winner of the seven million pound lottery jackpot. Unfortunately, he’s dead. The citizenry bands together to hide his condition from lottery officials so the 51 remaining Tulaigh Moreans can split the pot. And at least two septugenarians are full-on naked.
The Matchmaker (1997) Massachusetts senatorial aide Janeane Garafalo travels to Ireland to help rustle up something, anything that will land her boss the Irish-American vote and, in the meantime, becomes embroiled in the matchmaking plot of two lasses who bet Janeane and bartender David O’Hara are soulmates.
The Playboys (1992) Oldie constable Albert Finney likes pregnant youngie Robin Wright who falls in love with rakish youngie Aidan Quinn who is wrongly arrested for smuggling supplies to the IRA.
Portrait of the Irish as James Joyce
The Dead (1987) John Huston’s swan song was this wonderful adaptation of the closing story from The Dubliners, the definition of “personal filmmaking” since essentially this was Huston performing his own eulogy.
Ulysses (1967) How do you adapt the unadaptable? Somehow, Joseph Strick managed and the result, although lacking at times, is admirable.
Portrait of the Artist as Young Man (1979) Joseph Strick continues his obsession with Joyce, adapting this slightly easier to adapt novel.
Portrait of the Irish as Little People
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) Fulfilling almost all the requirements of being Irish in one fell swoop, blarney-spinner Darby loses his job, stumbles upon the leprechaun kingdom, nearly kills his daughter, and plays the fiddle while hundreds of midgets dance around him.
Finian’s Rainbow (1968) Before he made The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, Francis Coppolla directed porno, low-budget horror and this strange musical about bigotry starring Fred Astaire as an Irish-American Southerner granted three wishes by the leprechaun, Ogg.
Leprechaun (1993) This underrated horror-comedy starring Warwick Davis as a murderous leprechaun marked Jennifer Aniston’s first screen role, put Trimark in the black, and spawned four sequels, including Leprechaun in the Hood, in which Davis returns to wreak havoc on the hip hop industry with the help of Ice T.
Kissing the Blarney Stone: My Favorite Irish Fantasy Films That Have Nothing to Do with Leprechauns
The Fifth Province (1997) In this quirky and oftentimes disturbing fairy tale, the titular county is the otherworldly territory of magic and boundless possibilities, the ethereal plane upon which love exists. It’s also the stratum our manchild hero, Timmy escapes to with time-traveling Iberian, Marcel.
The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) John Sayle’s family film, if you can call it that, about a delusional young girl who imagines she sees her drowned baby brother frolicking in the seaside grasses of Roan Inish.
Da (1988) Martin Sheen plays an Irish-American playwright who argues with the ghosts of his dead Mother and Da and even a manifestation of himself as a teenager. What the hell? It’s cheaper than therapy.
The Butcher Boy (1997) Chopping up animal parts all day, the Butcher Boy’s fantasies don’t involve faeries and rainbows.