With St. Patrick’s Day celebrations already dwindling into dim and distant memory (perhaps dimmer for some than others) thanks to time zones and the cruelty of this year’s calendar, it’s time to seek some more lasting mementos of Irishness. Where better to go looking but the cinema? Ireland may have the highest rate of cinema attendance per head in the world, or at least likes to think so. It’s hard to say why we should have such a cinematic passion (Gaelic lyricism? The sheer level of annual precipitation?) but one way or another, it seems we can’t get enough of it, and it’s fair to say we produce our share. But what makes a film “Irish”? The setting? The director? The financing? The cast? You’ll find no answers here – this list was assembled very much in the spirit of the average St. Paddy’s Day celebration, being mostly decided by whim and the weather. You’ll notice a distinct casting overlap (stand up Cillian Murphy, Tom Murphy – R.I.P. – and Colm Meaney) partially due to my own leanings and partially due to the fact that the Irish acting world is sometimes the definition of “a grand little place”.
Here are six of my favourite Irish films, plus a couple that don’t quite fit the mould, and some you should avoid entirely. As accompaniment: the excellent Nialler9’s modern Irish playlist as an antidote to the Flogging Molly/Dubliners overdose likely to have threatened in the last day or two.
This most ensemble of ensemble comedies was impossible to avoid in early-Noughties Dublin. However, a decade later it still stands pretty up well – robust and zippy, filling a discouragingly drab and familiar Dublin (inner-city tykes as agents of pure chaos, customer service with a scowl) with spasms of snappy action (see: one of the most amusingly soundtracked car chases going, though be warned that it’s late in the plot) and a decently sharp script. And there are few finer insults than “You just don’t have the requisite Celtic soul.”
Adam and Paul (2004)
A junkie Waiting For Godot. The titular pair, two hapless, hopeless heroin addicts shamble around in search of food, shelter and smack, encountering figures from their past and characters from every corner of down-at-heel Dublin life. This is another one that the tourism board is unlikely to bandy about. Dark, real and frequently hilarious.
Five aging Irish emigrants meet at the wake of their old friend, where old grievances are aired and doubts raised about the nature of Jackie’s death.This film, adapted from Jimmy Murphy’s play, is a) unremittingly bleak and b) mostly in Irish. Do not be daunted. A brutally unromantic measuring of the lot of a generation that went to London full of dreams and stayed there long after they faded, neither embraced in their adoptive home nor wanted in their former one, this is an open-eyed and lyrical look at men left behind.
Breakfast On Pluto (2005)
Adapted from Patrick McCabe’s rather darker book, this is a confection almost as strange and beautiful as its fur-ruffed protagonist. Patrick/Kitten Braden (Cillian Murphy, a mop-haired marvel) wafts through the 1970s on the tail of a glamorous errant birth mother, undaunted by eddies of prejudice and tides of IRA-campaign horror, never quite surrendering a dreamy optimism and tenacious sense of self – as a girl or as a boy. A great glam rock soundtrack and technicolor production design don’t hurt.
The Field (1990)
If you’re mystified by the Irish attachment to land, or indeed the ancient roots of the property bubble that ultimately dealt the Irish economy such a body blow, give this adaption of John B. Keane’s play a look. This is a dark, dark cracking open of some of the most unsettling societal faults at play in mid-century Ireland – pride, avarice, prejudice, repression, clannishness, a death-grip desire to hold on what you feel is yours. It’s all here at its most extreme, mostly personified in Richard Harris’s terrifying Bull McCabe.
The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006)
Ken Loach’s lyrical, wrenching look at how the bright-eyed ideals behind the Irish War of Independence sundered messily into civil war wears its politics as plainly on its sleeve as any of his other works. In some ways it’s surprisingly even-handed – there’s hardly a glimmer of humanity among the Brits onscreen, but the desperate tactics and later the hideously escalating discord among the Irish side leaves nobody with any illusions of glory. Imperfect but passionate – and it’s beautiful to boot.
Steve McQueen’s astonishing first feature handles a seriously divisive political episode with a perhaps unexpected skill, by dint of its zeroed-in focus – it turns a visual artist’s unblinking eye on the grit-toothed grimness of the Northern Ireland of Bobby Sands’ day, taking in both squalor and loveliness, brutality and everyday beauty, setting in amber the terrible will at the heart of the hunger strike. There’s a suspense suffused with the terrible knowledge of what is happening to Sands’ body, a grinding horror with a preventable yet inescapable end. A harrowing soap bubble held in delicate orbit by Fassbender’s spell-binding turn.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Directed by an American, mostly set on the continent, and starring an American who doesn’t so much as try for a brogue. Ignore all that. If it’s Hibernian homesickness you’re after, check out those sweeping vistas, brought so vividly to the screen by Kubrick’s and John Alcott’s painterly cinematography. Ireland crops up as itself for the first act, and also stands in for much of Europe thoughout the rest of the film.
Honourable mentions: My Left Foot, In Bruges, The Guard, The Commitments, War of the Buttons, His & Hers.
The Boondock Saints (1999)
Yes, yes, it’s absolutely American in its production and setting. But there’s no denying that Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery are both trying for vigorously American-Irish accents (the latter doing slightly better), people still cite this as a “classic” on St. Patrick’s Day, and that the whole thing is out to mine a plasticky Irish-pub, ten Hail Marys, Dropkick Murphys fetishization of the Emerald Isle’s traces for all it’s worth. Does it have a stupid charm? Absolutely. Is it worth considering for Willem Dafoe and Billy Connolly? You bet. Does it say anything about being Irish-American? Speaking purely as the Irish half, I have to hope not.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
I mean really. Probably the very worst of the stage-Irish rash of the 1950s. While it does at least star two Irish leads (Albert Sharpe and Jimmy O’Dea), one of these is playing a leprechaun. Plus Sean Connery proves that being Scottish is no guarantee of being a step ahead in the Celtic accent stakes (a fact later painfully reinforced by Gerard Butler – Lord above.) Full disclosure: at the age of six I did think that colour-changing horse was pretty cool, but even then the songs made me cringe.
Far And Away (1992)
At this stage I’m running out of steam. This one ticks off just about every stereotype you could imagine, in a decade that should really have known better. Nicely costumed, but in Ireland more or less unwatchable, and certainly unlistenable thanks to Tom Cruise.
Worst accent by an actress in a leading role: Julia Roberts, Michael Collins.
While Alan Rickman does a fairly uncanny Dev in Neil Jordan’s slightly overheated drama, even Liam Neeson’s Cork accent is just slightly suspect in moments of stress. But it’s Roberts’ Kitty Keirnan who limps in last – she gives it a fair bash, but those Hibernian vowels just keeping slipping away from her, leaving her frequently abandoned somewhere between Dublin and Dallas.
Refreshing counterpart: Maggie Smith in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Mild and sometimes hard to place, but really rather good.
Worst accent by an actor in a leading role: Brad Pitt, The Devil’s Own (tied with Butler and Cruise, above.)
While Pitt’s unintelligible muttering in Snatch was really pretty enjoyable, in this earlier (pretty disastrous) film he’s shooting for a Serious Northern Accent and landing… Short. Nowhere near the horror of some of the offerings mentioned, but too shaky to overlook entirely. On the plus side, this sort of mangling was probably what led to the beauty of “Gorlomi” later in life, so it’s ultimately worth it.
Refreshing counterpart: James McAvoy’s solid Dublin effort in Inside I’m Dancing, and Daniel Day-Lewis in any of his Irish-based films. No wonder we keep claiming him as our own.