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Film

The 10 greatest Irish movies of all time

Ireland has great splendour, culminating in a country that is rich in atmosphere and texture. Between the greenery and the songs comes a land that is rich in quality and songcraft, creating a country that is rich in mythology and geography.

It is little wonder that so many filmmakers – Steven Spielberg, Mel Gibson, Rian Johnson – have chosen to film in Ireland, but this list will only focus on films that are directly set in Ireland. For this list, we are including Northern Ireland, but we are not including films that only used Ireland as a backdrop for another country (The Lion In Winter, The Last Jedi) and we are not including films about Irish people in other countries (The Long Good Friday, The Crying Game).

Barry Lyndon might be the single greatest achievement in modern cinema, but it’s barely an Irish film, either by geography or by virtue of its cast. The film also regrettably leaves out My Left Foot, because it discriminates against actors who have genuine disabilities. Other films that nearly made the cut includes The Snapper (discounted because it’s a sequel to a better-known film) and Into The West (discounted because the list would be too heavily focused on Brendan Gleeson).

The ten films presented were chosen by virtue of their importance on this country’s history, political landscape and entertainment value. It doesn’t look like the trend is going to change any time soon, and the film industry will only strengthen over time in Ireland.

The 10 greatest Irish movies of all time:

10. Sing Street (John Carney, 2016)

This charming, whimsical musical is like a modern-day The Commitments, albeit much frothier and based on synthpop as opposed to soul. The film is set in 1980s Dublin, where a young teenager realises that the best way to charm a woman isn’t to seduce her but to sing to her. Sure, it’s frothy, but it’s refreshing to watch a film about 1980s Ireland that doesn’t involve turbulent politics of constant recession.

The film certainly struck a chord in Britain, where the film transported viewers back to a more innocent, sugar-coated time where music and friendship were the only things needed to keep a person afloat. In many ways, the geography is immaterial to the success of the film, but there’s no denying that the songs boast an infectious quality to them, particularly ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’, the best Duran Duran song that never was.

9. Calm With Horses (Nick Rowland, 2019)

This film had the misfortune to come out during the pandemic, but the script was dense enough and powerful enough to survive the indiscretion. The film made a superstar out of Barry Keoghan, who has since gone on to star in comic book pictures Eternals and The Batman. Niamh Algar was another highlight, giving a spirited performance as Ursula, a wayward spirit who entrusts her child with Cosmo Jarvis’s Arm.

Jarvis is English but felt the country armed him with the training to whip the accent into shape. “We were staying in places with local populations who didn’t really give a shit about the film,” he remembered. “You’d just be down the pub, and you’d chat with anybody, so all of the resources that I needed were there”. His accent is excellent, and co-star Algar was shocked to hear him on the phone speaking in his English voice.

8. The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952)

Yes, we hear you now: The film is horribly old fashioned and captures Ireland on the brink of recession. Indeed, it’s only by the presence of a headstrong American – played with certain grit by John Wayne – that some of the local villagers give themselves the permission to change. It all sounds strangely quaint, but this was the 1950s, and the film holds a lingering passion that shows that the Irish population were that bit more prepared to throw themselves into the hands of love with some abandon and spontaneity.

The film is also a stunning portrait of an Ireland surrounded by greenery and earthly splendour. And Maureen O’Hara certainly looks stunning, embodying the type of Irish maiden that so often permeates the ballads and folk tunes heard in the pubs and restaurants across the island.

7. Ryan’s Daughter (David Lean, 1969)

Now, this one raised eyebrows when it was released in 1969. The film centres around Rosy Ryan, a discontented housewife who throws herself into the arms of a British soldier. Worse than that, her father acts as an informer to the army, cautioning them to the rise of the rebels in Kerry. But when the villagers have to choose between the pub landlord or his daughter, they cast his sins upon her, shunning her in public.

The film is seen as lesser David Lean and granted it lacks the grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago, but the film is nonetheless a damning indictment of Catholic values in a country that was still espousing them as late as the 1980s. The film also holds a deeply sensual montage, in which Rosy disrobes in the middle of the pastoral landscape.

6. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)

This piece is notable for boasting a long, extended take of a conversation between Bobby Sands and a priest, as the pair discuss the ramifications of hunger-striking and protesting. The take was ambitious and required a huge commitment from actors Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham, who was caught in the urgency of the script at hand. There’s nuance, there’s a tragedy and there’s beauty from the two actors.

The release of the film preceded Prime Minister David Cameron’s public apology for the senseless Bloody Sunday killings, but the film is surprisingly even-handed about the Northern Irish conflict, showing both sides with great reverence and respect. The film boasts a career-best performance from Fassbender, and he went on to work with Steve McQueen on two other projects.

5. The Commitments (Alan Parker, 1991)

The film that put Dublin on the map? It’s not our place to say whether or not it applies to certain levels of rhetoric, but The Commitments was also the film that showed what levels of music the country was capable of. Virtually everyone who worked on the film wound up doing more and more interesting stuff: Guitarist Glen Hansard formed The Frames and bagged an Oscar in 2008 for Falling Slowly, while Papa Rabbitte Colm Meaney has appeared in everything from Con Air to Layer Cake.

It showed that Ireland wasn’t the twee country of The Quiet Man, but a land of rockers, rollers and drug takers, keen to get their leg over a girl that took their fancy. Consider the line, “I bet U2 are shitting themselves”. It sounds pointed, but the band in question could have put a good fight against the writers of The Joshua Tree.

4. Adam and Paul (Lenny Abrahamson, 2004)

Far Out readers may recognise Lenny Abrahamson as the director of Normal People, but before he wrote a probing, detailed series about Dublin and its citadels, he created a more intimate piece about homelessness in Dublin, in a work that only grew more prevalent by 2019 when the city experienced great levels of homelessness. In its own way, the film modernised the works of Samuel Beckett, as the titular pair invoke memories of Waiting for Godot.

For Abrahamson, the film was typical of his future work. “A lot of my work is about people who are stepping away from society,” he told Far Out. “I think it’s fair to say that I look at those marginalised, or feel different, in society. It helps us to empathise with the characters if they’re outsiders looking in. That’s definitely there in my work. Films like Adam & Paul, Garage; they’re about marginalised lead characters.”

3. The Dead (John Huston, 1987)

John Huston spent much of his life in Ireland, so it’s fitting that his last feature was an adaptation of a short story written by James Joyce. The film works as a chamber piece, as the years, characters and contradictions pass in front of the viewers’ wandering eyes. It was Huston’s final effort, and the director did not live long enough to promote the film, having directed the actors from the sanctity of a wheelchair. And yet the work is rich with beauty, interchanging the actors from place to place, pivoting from one angle to the next.

The Dead comes from the end of Dubliners, as the passage centres around Joyce’s fascination with the changing Ireland, as a sophisticated man in Dublin is blown away by the beauty of Connaught, Ireland’s most earthly province, and a region years detached from the more metropolitan beauty of Joyce’s city.

2. The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan, 1997)

Buoyed by the success of Michael Collins, Sligo native Neil Jordan decided not to direct another seminal war epic, but to scale his ambitions down and direct a more lo-fi tragicomedy that dealt with the paralysis of Francie Brady, a 12-year-old dealing with his mother’s suicide. Indeed, the film might be an Irish Wes Anderson feature, concentrating on the absurdity in life, particularly when it comes to weightier topics.

Although death cements the film, the central dissertation is fundamentally a hopeful one. Brendan Gleeson stars as Father Bubbles, who demonstrates a deep sense of empathy for the central character, particularly in light of his recent troubles and emotional turmoil. Gleeson is a ubiquitous fixture in Irish cinema – he’s in our number one pick.

1. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

John Michael McDonagh had previously directed an effort set in Ireland with The Guard, but this is the superior effort, creating an evocative Western based on a priest carrying the sins of the Fathers before him. Keen to distance himself from the wrongdoings of the Catholic Church, Brendan Gleeson’s Father James tries to make peace with his parishioners, only for an assailant to threaten him during confession.

Gleeson is magnificent as the priest, unable to fathom the differences between his spiritual practices and the wants and needs of his village people. Densely produced, the film leads to an unlikely climax, as the traditionally nice Chris O’ Dowd emerges from the sidelines to become the villain he blames the Catholic Church for creating. O’Dowd has rarely been better.