In this feature, we look at the best Irish movies of all time, ranked in order of greatness.
Ireland has a proud tradition of producing some of the industries finest films that have gained worldwide acclaim. So, here are the top ten best Irish movies of all time.
What is it that makes a movie great rather than just watchable? What makes a movie stay in your memory, and you watch it over and over again?
I remember going to see my first film. My mother had taken me to a cinema, one of the then many in Limerick. Now there are none in the city centre and only two multi-screen complexes way out in the suburbs.
The film was Summer Holidays starring Cliff Richard, and I saw it during the summer of 1963. I was four, and I discovered for the first time the magic of cinema.
A short history of film in Ireland – a now booming industry
Back in those days, Ireland didn’t have much of a reputation for feature film production. Yes, John Fords’ The Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara was filmed in Ireland in 1951 and went on to achieve two Oscars.
And of course, Shake Hands With The Devil starring James Cagney was filmed both in Dublin and at Ardmore Studios in 1959.
However, it wasn’t until 1980 that Irish film production really took off with the establishment of the Irish Film Board. Now called Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland, the board was set up to fund, produce, and promote filming making on the Island.
Also in 1980, fiscal incentives were first introduced by the Irish Government. These and subsequent tax laws have helped turn Ireland into a vibrant location for feature film production.
Now for the list of the ten best Irish movies. With literally hundreds to choose from this, this was a difficult task.
10. Brooklyn (2015) – a film about an Irish woman who emigrates to the U.S.
A great film will tell a great story and ideally bring about a strong emotional response.
Based on Colm Tobin’s novel of the same name and starring Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn tells a great love story. It tells the tale of a young small-town Irish girl now living in New York. She is torn not only between two lovers but also between two countries.
Premiering at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Brooklyn was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Ronan.
Filmed in Wexford, Dublin, and Coney Island, New York, it is not only one of the best period drama films to come out of Ireland in recent years. Rather, it is one of the best Irish movies of all time.
9. Once (2007) – an Irish romantic musical drama
A great film is often helped by a great soundtrack, and Once is no exception.
“Take this sinking boat and point it home; we still have time” is probably the most remembered lyrical lines from the romantic drama.
Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Once is a typical boy meets girl narrative but with a twist. What makes this a great film is its Oscar-winning soundtrack.
Great actors bring a story to life; the actors must convince the audience they are the characters they’re portraying.
The above is particularly true of this film depicting the biographical story of Dublin writer and painter Christy Brown, who is born with cerebral palsy. Its stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker most definitely brought Brown’s story to life in Jim Sheridan’s 1989 production.
My Left Foot is truly one of the best Irish movies of all time. Indeed, Day-Lewis and Fricker both won Academy Awards for best actor in both the male and female categories.
7. The Crying Game (1992) – a bizarre film about The Troubles
A great film will showcase new or previously unexplored ideas or themes.
“One day soon, you’re going to tell the moon about the crying game.”
The Crying Game certainly achieved the above, and I need to be careful here not to give the game away, but if you’ve seen the film, then I guess you know about the sting in the tail.
The film’s plot revolves around the story of an IRA hitman, played superbly by Steven Rae, who, after killing a British soldier, goes on the run to England. There, he meets and falls in love with the soldier’s girlfriend, and gets involved with his former IRA comrades.
The film was not initially commercially successful. However, after its American release, it went on to great commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic, helped in no small way by the popularity of its soundtrack.
The film’s writer and director, Neil Jordan, took home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and the film was nominated for six Oscars.
6. Hunger (2008) – one of the best Irish movies about The Troubles
A great film should both dazzle and challenge the viewer. Hunger was Steve McQueen’s first foray into directing, and he also co-wrote the story along with Irish playwright Enda Walsh.
Premiering at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, it was awarded the Caméra d’Or award for first-time filmmakers.
The plot centres on IRA volunteer and MP Bobby Sands, who led the second IRA hunger strike at the Northern Ireland Maze Prison in an attempt to regain political status for republican prisoners.
Sands is portrayed by Irish/German actor Michael Fassbender. Interestingly, and in light of the film’s subject matter, Fassbender’s mother is the great-grand-niece of Irish revolutionary and politician Michael Collins.
The film is shocking, violent, and disturbing, not for the fainthearted.
Fassbender gives a tremendously insightful and physical performance in a film that uses dialogue sparingly. The one significant exception is when Fassbender discusses the planned hunger strike at length with a visitor.
It is a must-see and one of the best Irish movies about The Troubles.
5. The Commitments (1991) – a great musical comedy-drama film
The setting is one of the principal elements that lift a film from mediocrity to greatness. The setting should emphasize the theme and mood of the film but never be allowed to distract from the story.
In his film, The Commitments, director Alan Parker gets the balance between the gritty North Dublin backdrops and the comic musical plot exactly right.
Based on the 1998 Roddy Doyle novel of the same name, the plot centres around the trials, tribulations, and relationships of a hopefully up and coming Dublin soul band.
The film is genuinely funny, the soundtrack, though not written explicitly for the film, is exceptionally performed, and the roles acted superbly, including the Elvis obsessed father of Jimmy Rabbitte.
4. The Guard (2011) – a classic Irish comedy film
“I can’t tell if you’re really ******* dumb or really ******* smart.”
A great film has great dialogue, and the dialogue between good cop FBI Agent Wendell Everett, played by American actor Don Cheadle, and bad cop Irish Garda Sergeant Gerry Boyle, played by Brendan Gleeson, is, to put it simply, comic sarcasm at its best.
In The Guard, Gleeson plays the slightly corrupt policeman to a tee. He is crooked, prostitute using, and disrespecting of his superior officers. However, his one saving grace is his love for his mother, making him a likeable rogue.
Yes, the film has the usual drug-crime plot, a well-executed shoot-out as a climax, and uses the striking Connemara landscape unobtrusively but effectively. However, what lifts The Guard above other similar movies is the flowing well-crafted relationship between Gleeson and Cheadle.
3. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) – a classic Irish history drama
Until it was surpassed by The Guard, Ken Loaches war drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley was the highest-grossing independently Irish-made film.
The film was shot mainly in County Cork. However, the execution scene was shot on location in Kilmainham Jail in Dublin, where many of the leaders of the Irish rebellion were executed.
A young Cillian Murphy plays the film’s main protagonist Damien who is about to leave Ireland for London. However, he becomes reluctantly involved through his brother in the fight for independence.
The film received mixed reviews, with many sections of the English press critiquing the storyline as showing the English as sadistic and the Irish rebels as romantic heroes.
However, many critics have hailed the film as one of the best and openly honest war dramas ever produced. It really is a must-watch and one of the best Irish movies about the civil war.
2. The Magdalene Sisters (2002) – a compelling Irish drama film
A really great film will have elements of controversy. When The Magdalene Sisters was first released, it was condemned by the Vatican as being anti-religious.
However, this is a fictional composite of the too real stories of those who suffered at the hands of religious orders in Ireland during the sixties. Thus, it is more about the abuse of power than anything anti-religion.
The story revolves around four ‘fallen women’ sent to work in the Magdalene laundries. We see how they suffered horrific mental, physical, and sexual abuse.
The actors give compelling performances, particularly Eileen Walsh, who played Crispina, an intellectually challenged unmarried mother.
Written and directed by actor/director Peter Mullan, this harsh and gritty film does contain sufficient comic moments to somewhat lighten and lessen its horrific theme. It has achieved its deserved global recognition.
1. Michael Collins (1996) – one of the best movies about Ireland
An epic film directed by Neil Jordan, Michael Collins tells the story of the Irish patriot, revolutionary, politician, and statesman that Collins was.
The cast was lead by Irish actor Liam Neeson. With stars such as Alan Rickman, Julia Roberts, Brendan Gleeson, and Stephen Rae adding their combined talent to this biopic, all the ingredients for a great film were present.
However, the film was not a huge commercial success; a budget of 25 million only returned a marginal box office return of 28 million. It did receive exceptional critical and audience approval, though.
There is some debate over minor historical discrepancies. However, the film overall shows the grittiness and violence of the War for Independence and the subsequent Civil War honestly and realistically.
Since 2013 there has been a 25% increase every year in funding raised from Irish tax relief eligible projects. In 2014 alone, €237m was committed to the country’s economy from film production.
Gone are the days of the Irish being depicted as drunken fighting leprechauns.
Now with Irish films achieving tremendous success across the globe, taking in £150m and achieving ten Academy Award nominations in 2016 alone, we have an industry capable of doing what we do best, telling a good story well.