10 great films set in Ireland

Ireland has inspired filmmakers from across the world. Here are 10 of the best Irish films and features set on the Emerald Isle.

26 March 2016

By Alex Davidson

My Left Foot (1989)

So many images of Ireland on film, including several of the movies on the list, have been created by foreign directors. The Quiet Man (1952), perhaps the most famous and, in terms or establishing Irish identity clichés, influential film made in Ireland, was directed by John Ford, written by Frank S. Nugent and starred John Wayne, all Americans (although Ford’s father was born in Spiddal). Some of the most famous ‘Irish’ films were directed by Brits, such as The Commitments (1991), The Magdalene Sisters (2002) and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). An excellent documentary on the subject, Irish Cinema: Ourselves Alone? (1996) is available on BFI Player.

So many films by great Irish directors are elusive, resting in archives rather than being easily accessible online or DVD. Films by talents such as Joe Comerford, Margo Harkin, Pat Murphy and Thaddeus O’Sullivan are longing for rediscovery. But many marvellous films are more readily available, and several films just missed the list, including the bawdy comedy The Snapper (1993) and sleeper hits like Intermission (2003) and Once (2006).

Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)

Director: Robert Stevenson

Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)

There are a host of stereotypes in this Disney feature that could have made it a disaster. A British director depicting drunks telling tall tales, leprechauns prancing in the mountains and lashings of celtic mysticism and blarney sounds unholy on paper, yet somehow this neglected family film is one of the best live action films Disney ever made. Dodgy accents aside, Janet Munro and a pre-superstardom Sean Connery are winning romantic leads, but the real chemistry is in the comedy between wily Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) and the king of the leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea), who engage in a delightful battle of wits.

The special effects are terrific, and though it was shot in a studio, its affectionate depiction of an Ireland that exists only in the imagination is charming. But the real trump card is in the villain of the piece. During this period, Disney was at its best when it embraced the dark side, and the banshee that appears towards the end of the film is genuinely scary, and still terrifies younger viewers.

Young Cassidy (1965)

Directors: John Ford, Jack Cardiff

Young Cassidy (1965)

John Ford had directed many Irish-themed films by the time he began production on Young Cassidy, a biopic on the life of playwright Sean O’Casey (played by Rod Taylor). Owing to illness he had to be replaced by Jack Cardiff, who created a powerful portrait of one of Ireland’s greatest writers, who authored masterpieces such as The Plough and the Stars (which Ford had previously adapted in 1936) and Juno and the Paycock (filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1930).

Young Cassidy charts O’Casey’s life from his early years in Dublin as a campaigner against British rule in Ireland to his career as a writer and his relationship with the manager of The Abbey Theatre, where his plays provoked riots. The film has strong supporting roles for Julie Christie, Edith Evans and Michael Redgrave (as W.B. Yeats), although the best performance is from Maggie Smith as Nora, O’Casey’s unlikely romantic interest.

Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

Director: David Lean

Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

This complex epic, filmed around Kerry’s coastline, is one of David Lean’s least admired films. Although it was a big box office success and was nominated for several BAFTAs, critics were damning, and David Thomson described it as “bad as any film any ‘great’ director ever made”. Forget the carping, it’s one of Lean’s most interesting films, with moments of passion worthy of Madame Bovary. The two sex scenes – the horrifically awkward wedding night between Charles (Robert Mitchum) and Rosy (Sarah Miles), and her fling with the British soldier (Christopher Jones) in the forest – are unlike anything else in Lean’s canon.

Common themes in Irish culture – British oppression, the dominance of religion – breathe through the narrative. While the cruel villagers, who taunt the disabled Michael (John Mills, who won an Oscar for the role) and, at the end, attack Rosy in the most disturbing scene of Lean’s work, verge too strongly towards caricature, the themes of intolerance and prejudice still resonate.

Poitín (1977)

Director: Bob Quinn

Poitín (1978)

Poitín is the first Irish-language feature, a tough black comedy is set in Connemara, the same district where The Quiet Man was filmed, although tonally Poitín is on another planet. Unlike in John Ford’s film, there are no loveable villagers here, although there are plenty of drunks (poitín is a potent distilled liquor). Almost every character is despicable, and the film provoked negative reactions from viewers on its TV broadcast on St Patrick’s Day in 1979.

Two crooks attempt to outwit an old moonshiner and his daughter, but find they are way out of their depth in this story of avarice and cruelty. Cyril Cusack plays the elderly bootlegger, and Niall Tóibín and Dónal McCann are excellent as the greedy lowlifes. A particularly arresting scene shows the two criminals pelting each other with rotting potatoes, and the subversion of the perceived national identity of Ireland is scathing.

The Dead (1987)

Director: John Huston

The Dead (1987)

James Joyce is an author whose work is often classified as ‘unfilmable’. Although Joseph Strick’s 1968 stab at Ulysses is underrated, The Dead is by far the most successful, taking a short story from Dubliners and transforming it into a stunning mediation on love and loss. After a long party, Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) and his wife (Anjelica Huston) return home, where she reveals how, after hearing a song at the party, she is experiencing the powerful memories of the love she had for a man now long dead.

The film has added poignancy, as it was the last film made by John Huston, who directed it from his wheelchair. A number of great Irish stage actors appear in the film, although perhaps the finest moment comes from the director’s daughter, seen listening to the fateful song on the stairway, swimming in overwhelming memories long suppressed. It’s a masterpiece.

My Left Foot (1989)

Director: Jim Sheridan

My Left Foot (1989)

Jim Sheridan, perhaps Ireland’s most important director, had a terrific run of five films from 1989-2003, including the powerful and poetic The Field (1990), featuring one of Richard Harris’s best performances, the passionate Guildford Four drama In the Name of the Father (1993), and the lovely and deeply moving immigrant tale In America (2003). His debut, My Left Foot, is one of his best, and won Oscars for its stars, Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Fricker.

Day-Lewis plays Christy Brown, the celebrated writer and painter, who had cerebral palsy and was only able to write and paint with his left foot. The film takes in his tough early life in 1940s Dublin – a third Oscar should have gone to Hugh O’Conor as the young Christy – and his eventual success as an artist. Although able-bodied actors playing disabled characters is increasingly becoming outdated, Day-Lewis gives a powerhouse performance, making Christy a strong and often confrontational character rather than a pitiable victim, and Fricker is superb as his supportive mother.

Into the West (1992)

Director: Mike Newell

Into the West (1992)

When their grandfather shows up with a white horse to their grim estate in Ballymun, two young brothers head off into the west of Ireland, regarding it as the last frontier, as in the western films they love. Their widowed father, formerly ‘The King of Irish Travellers’, sets off after them and reconnects with his own heritage. The film’s redemptive climax, channeling magical realism, takes place on the Atlantic coast.

Gabriel Byrne and Ellen Barkin are the adult leads, but its the naturalistic performances of Ciarán Fitzgerald and Rúaidhrí Conroy that are most memorable. Despite the serious themes of grief and poverty, it’s also a very funny film, with a great script from Jim Sheridan. The scene where the two lads break into a cinema is particularly delightful.

Adam & Paul (2004)

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Adam & Paul (2004)

Over a decade before his Osar nomination for Room (2015), Lenny Abrahamson kickstarted his career with this Beckett-influenced story of two drug-addicted men wandering around Dublin in search of their next fix. As with many of the best Irish comedies, the tone is dark throughout, veering from slapstick to gallows humour. Adam (Mark O’Halloran, who wrote the screenplay) and, especially, Paul (Tom Murphy) may be funny, but they are also unsympathetic. In the most disturbing scene, they rob a young man with Down’s Syndrome.

O’Halloran and Murphy make for a terrific double-act, and the screenplay zings with wit. The last scene – no spoiler here – will linger long in every viewer’s mind.

Calvary (2014)

Director: John Michael McDonagh

Calvary (2014)

Brendan Gleeson, one of Ireland’s greatest living actors, gave a performance of great wit in John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (2011), but his second film with the director is even more impressive. He plays Father James, who, in the opening scene, listens to a confession from an unknown parishioner who says he will kill the priest as punishment for the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of another clergyman, now dead. There are plenty of suspects, but Calvary is much more interested in exploring themes of religion, and the declining reputation and influence of the Catholic church.

The performances are superb, from Gleeson on career-best form to supporting roles from actors previously best known as comedians, such as Dylan Moran as a loathsome squire and Chris O’Dowd as a bullish butcher. The last ten minutes are overpoweringly moving. Calvary was filmed in various locations around Sligo.

Song of the Sea (2014)

Director: Tomm Moore

Song of the Sea (2014)

Tomm Moore has put Irish animation firmly on the international map. His family films have delighted audiences and critics, and explore Irish folklore and legend. The Secret of Kells (2009) was a strong debut, and was nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature, but his second film is one of the best animated works of the last decade.

After giving birth to her daughter, a mother disappears from her home on a remote island by the Irish coast, sending the father into depression, while the two children move in with their grandmother. It soon becomes clear that there is something magical about the girl, and the film is whirled into a world of selkies, faeries and witches. While Studio Ghibli is a clear influence, this is a uniquely Irish tale, and confirms the talent of one of the world’s greatest living animators.

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