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International Spotlight: The Ten Best Irish Films

By Martin Keady · March 17, 2017

Welcome to International Spotlight – a series in which we pick a country, and select ten of its best, most influential contributions to global cinema. Why do we do this? Because, although streaming has made foreign films more accessible than ever, chances are that most of us were raised in a cinematic echo-chamber consisting primarily of one key food group: Hollywood.

Don’t get us wrong! America is responsible for many of the most iconic films of all time, but it’s important to remember that variety is the spice of life – something that holds doubly true for screenwriters looking to hone their craft.  

So, here we are. With the first in a series of lists meant to broaden your horizons by highlighting the best of the best from around the world. Some of our picks highlight culture and geography, while others will draw your attention to artists too singular and influential to ignore. All are worthy of your time.

 For a small country, Ireland has had a disproportionately large influence on the arts, particularly literature and music. If the Scots can legitimately claim to have made many of the scientific and engineering breakthroughs that created the modern world, the Irish can argue that since Shakespeare they have produced almost as many great writers of English literature as the English themselves, while the Irish influence on music, both traditional and popular, has also been enormous.

In film, however, Ireland remains a small island with a relatively small industry and the fact is that almost as many great Irish films have been made by outsiders or exiles, including members of the huge Irish diaspora (the “Paddy-aspora”, as it has been dubbed), as by Irish natives. Hence, several of the films on this list have been made by second or even third generation Irish immigrants, who have nevertheless retained a close connection with their ancestral homeland.

So without further adieu, and in honor of today’s Feast of Saint Patrick, here’s our list of the top ten Irish films. 

10. BROOKLYN (2015) (Written by Nick Hornby, based on the novel of the same name by  Colm Tóibín; directed by John Crowley)

If Colm Tóibín is the modern literary heir to James Joyce and William Trevor, weaving masterpieces from what appears to be the minutiae of everyday Irish life, then the screen adaptation of his novel Brooklyn is a worthy heir to earlier Irish films that feature higher up on this list. Brooklyn is the story of a young Irish woman, Ellis, who is forced to emigrate to America in the early 1950s in order to support her family. From this apparently commonplace tale, Tóibín created an intimate epic, encompassing an extraordinary Atlantic crossing and the living of a double life, as Ellis finds herself attracted to two very different men on either side of “the pond”. Nick Hornby does a fine job in translating Tóibín’s dreamlike writing into cinematic reality and so the film retains much of the power and sensuality of the original novel.

 9. THE FIELD (1990) (Written and directed by Jim Sheridan, based on the novel of the same name by John B. Keane)

The Field is a modern-day tragedy, in which Richard Harris (arguably Ireland’s finest ever screen actor, even if he often had to play English enemies of the Irish, such as Oliver Cromwell), plays the aptly named Bull McCabe, a veritable beast of a man who seems to value his land far more highly than he does the people who live on it, including his own son. As he tries to buy the small patch of the Emerald Isle that he has rented for generations, he comes into conflict with others who want it for themselves, in particular an American speculator who wants to drown it in order to build a dam. Bull’s fight for his field is emblematic of the deep Irish attachment to the land, which in part stems from the fact that for nearly a thousand years Ireland was occupied by the English, the “landlords” who would only let their Irish underlings rent the land and never actually own it for themselves.

 8. THE CRYING GAME (1992) (Written and directed by Neil Jordan) 

Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan are the two great modern Irish movie directors, as demonstrated by the fact that they both have two films in this list. Between them, they have done much to create a “new Ireland” in the eyes of the world: one still affected by age-old conflicts but desperately striving to create a better, fairer country for the future. The story of The Crying Game springs from the oldest Irish conflict, which still divides the island of Ireland in two, as Stephen Rea plays Fergus, an IRA recruit who helps to kidnap Jody, a British soldier (played by Forest Whittaker). As he holds Jody hostage, Fergus reluctantly but inevitably becomes close to him, and when Jody realises that he will inevitably be killed by his captors he implores Fergus to find his beloved girlfriend and tell her how much she has meant to him. What follows is one of the greatest ever cinematic twists (one that would be almost impossible to keep secret in our own internet age), as Fergus not only finds the girlfriend but finds himself, like Jody before him, falling in love. 

 7. THE BALLROOM OF ROMANCE (1982) (Written by William Trevor and Pat O’Connor, based on the short story of the same name by Trevor, and directed by O’Connor) 

The Ballroom of Romance may have originally been a “TV movie”, co-produced by the BBC and RTE (Ireland’s own national broadcaster), but like Kieślowski’s Ten Commandments, which was also originally made for TV, it is simply too big to be contained within the confines of a traditional TV set and deserves to be shown on the biggest of screens. It tells a heart-breaking story, as middle-aged Bridie (played by Brenda Fricker, in one of her earliest TV or cinema roles) visits her local dance hall in search of the love and romance that she craves. However, she finally realises that she is no longer as young or as beautiful as she once was and will never marry, at least not to a man worthy of her. The ballroom that had been her source of hope and distraction for so long has effectively become a prison, which she can only escape by abandoning her hopes of marriage forever.

6. MY LEFT FOOT (1989) (Written by Shane Connaughton and Jim Sheridan, based on Christy Brown’s autobiography of the same name, and directed by Sheridan)

My Left Foot is a little miracle of a film, telling the story of a real-life little miracle, which was Christy Brown’s self-transformation from a “cripple” who suffered from cerebral palsy into an acclaimed author and artist, by sheer power of will and deft manipulation of the titular limb, which he uses to write and paint. The film brought together for the first time the great director-actor partnership of Jim Sheridan and Daniel Day-Lewis, who would go on to make other fine films about Ireland and the Irish, including In the Name of the Father (1994) and The Boxer (1997). However, it is My Left Foot where their collaboration began and which remains the finest fruit of that collaboration, as Day-Lewis’s stunning performance, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor, proved conclusively that he was the spiritual heir to Brando and De Niro as the finest screen actor of his generation. 

5. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997) (Written by Patrick McCabe and Neil Jordan, based on the novel of the same name by McCabe, and directed by Jordan) 

Jordan’s second entry on this list is probably his finest film. The “Butcher Boy” of the title is Francie Brady, played by Eamonn Owens in a bravura performance by a child that sadly did not translate into an adult acting career to match it. Nevertheless, if Owens only ever has The Butcher Boy to show for his life, it will be enough, as he plays a troubled 12-year-old who has such a troubled family life (with a suicidal mother and alcoholic father) that he imagines a nuclear apocalypse – an ever-present threat in the early 1960s, when the film is set – to be a sweet release from his appalling existence. However, worse is to follow as his mother’s death eventually leads to him being sent away to an ironically named “reform school”, where he is sexually abused by a Catholic Priest, played by the legendary Milo O’Shea, one of the greatest Irish screen actors (who appeared in everything from Cheers and Frasier to the next entry on this list). Finally, Francie takes revenge against the unfeeling, unthinking society that created him, with devastating consequences for himself and others. 

4. ULYSSES (1967) (Written by Fred Haines and Joseph Strick, based on the novel of the same name by James Joyce, and directed by Strick)

Ulysses is arguably the greatest novel of the 20th century, the culmination of early 20th century writers’ experimentation with the then-new literary conceit of “stream-of-consciousness”, which finally allowed writers to represent truthfully the turbulence, even torture, of the average human imagination. If the film adaptation of the book does not have that lofty status, it is still superb and an exemplar of the art of screen adaptation. Somehow Haines and Strick condensed much of the thousand or so pages of Ulysses into a film lasting just over two hours while still remaining faithful to the book, almost exclusively using lines from it while transforming them through dazzling black-and-white photography. And the cast is magnificent, with the aforementioned Milo O’Shea the very embodiment of Leopold Bloom and Barbara Jefford a suitably sensuous and sexy Molly Bloom, whose final, orgasmic monologue is a fittingly cinematic treatment of probably the finest piece of writing of the last hundred years. 

 3. RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970) (Written by Robert Bolt and directed by David Lean)

Ryan’s Daughter may have evolved from the great David Lean’s idea of updating Madame Bovary to the 20th century, but in ultimately relocating it to pre-independence Ireland Lean and writer Bolt created a uniquely Irish tragedy. It may initially have been dismissed as Lean’s greatest folly but it is now almost universally regarded as one of his finest films, sitting just below Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai in his long list of masterpieces. Ryan’s Daughter is probably most famous for its storm scene, in which Irish villagers try to help IRA smugglers to land a cache of stolen weapons and which Lean waited nearly a year to shoot, but that is only the centrepiece of an epic construction that stands as perhaps the finest ever screen evocation of the majesty of Ireland’s landscape and its Atlantic-tossed weather.

 2. MAN OF ARAN (1934) (Written and Directed by Robert J. Flaherty)

The runner-up on this list may well be the finest documentary ever made, even if it is not entirely faithful to the facts of the life it portrays; indeed, it is often described as a “fictional documentary”, in which Flaherty persuaded inhabitants of the Aran Islands (the islands off the west coast of Ireland) to recreate fishing techniques and other cultural practices that had actually been long abandoned before the making of the film in the early 1930s. Nevertheless, in this combination of fact and fiction, Man of Aran is somehow uniquely and entirely Irish, on the basis that the Irish have long believed that if a story is good enough then it deserves to be true. In its stunning cinematography (by Flaherty himself), especially the sequences in which the fishermen hunt whales, Man of Aran portrays the awful (in both senses of the word) truth about whale hunting with a majesty that almost matches Moby Dick (the original novel, rather than its screen adaptations). Man of Aran may prove that “Aran” rightly rhymes with “barren”, but it is also a remarkable document of a way of life that held sway in parts of Ireland for nearly a millennium.

 1.THE DEAD (1987) (Written by Tony Huston, based on the short story of the same name from the collection “Dubliners” by James Joyce, and directed by John Huston)

The making of The Dead is a story that itself deserves to be made into a film and perhaps in the future it will be. It had long been the dream of the legendary director John Huston, himself an Irish-American, to film Joyce’s great short story, which many people believe tells in 50 or so pages the same story of longing and loss that Ulysses takes nearly a thousand pages to tell. However, it was only at the very end of Huston’s career, when he was on a life-support machine that provided him with the oxygen he could no longer breathe for himself, that he finally realised his dream, appropriately enough when he was almost a dead man himself. Beautifully adapted by his son, Tony, and breathtakingly filmed by Huston and his cinematographer, Fred Murphy, The Dead is the greatest Irish film ever made, not least because it has the greatest ending of any Irish film ever made and arguably of any film ever made, as Huston uses Joyce’s own words, juxtaposed with the imagery of snow falling in graveyards, to convey the appalling sense of a life wasted that Gabriel Conroy (played by the marvellous Donal McCann) conveys when he realises that his beloved wife has been in love with someone else her whole life. 

A FINAL THOUGHT: WHERE ARE THE GREAT IRISH FEMALE FILM-MAKERS?

As is tragically too often the case with any “Top 10” list of this kind, it is almost impossible to find any female directors whose work merits inclusion among the very finest films of any country or genre, not because of any intrinsic lack of merit among female film-makers but because of the sheer difficulty – in fact, the sheer impossibility for much of cinema history – that female film-makers experienced in getting films financed and made. However, there is a “great white hope” in the form of Sharon Horgan, the writer of achingly funny TV comedies such as Pulling and Catastrophe. If Horgan can follow the likes of Woody Allen in making great small-screen comedies and great big-screen comedies (or even tragicomedies), she may well become the next great Irish cinematic voice. And if she does, it will be entirely fitting, in that she herself is a product of “the Paddy-aspora”, having been born in London before being raised in Ireland, a reversal of the usual direction of traffic for Irish writers, artists and film-makers, but one that gives her a unique view on the whole nature of Ireland and its people, wherever they may live.