The Portrayal of the Irish in Movies

When I first visited the US in 1985 for a summer holiday I was amused and entertained by the clever television advertisements. The one that sticks out in my brain has the line  “Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?” at the end. It always made me laugh. Or it used to, until Ryan O’Rourke of The Wild Geese Online made me think about it from a different perspective. O’Rourke asks his readers to observe, “how Irish culture and Irish people are portrayed and represented in the media (including television and film).“How has film shaped people’s view of the Irish. Or, let’s talk about you, the theater going public…What do you think of the Irish in film and media?

O’Rourke mentions The New York Times piece by Maureen O’Dowd, Beautifying Abbey Road, Jan. 7 2014.

O’Dowd says, “My grandmother and her nine sisters were tall, strapping women who immigrated to America from Ireland in the second decade of the 20th century and found jobs as maids, cooks and nannies for rich families.” Noting the difference between the reality of her grandmother and grand aunts’ lives as maids and the upstairs-downstairs co-existence created by Julian Fellowes, O’Dowd states, “It was a much tougher life than the democratized fantasy shown in “Downton Abbey.” Yet, this is how Fellowes wants his audience to see the lives of servant and master.

Allen Leech as Tom Branston in Downton Abbey (Image Source:

Allen Leech as Tom Branston in Downton Abbey (Image Source:

It is the Irish Chauffer, Tom Branston, that strikes me as a watered down Irishman, the metamorphosis from Irish rebel to English gent making him more palatable to his in-laws.

Branston, played by Irish actor Allen Leech, marries the youngest daughter of the Crawley family causing the gentry to completely lose the plot. He is, after all, the chauffeur, and even worse, he is Irish. Should I be insulted? I don’t think so.

The story isn’t about the Irish, it is about how the landed gentry survived a class shift after World War 1. Do I think the character of Branston is a bit, hmm, stereotyped? You can bet your britches. But at the same time I admire Leeche’s performance of a young man with politically opposing ideas trying to fit in with his in-laws. And I like the fact that Fellowes nods at the deep connection between the Irish and the English by creating the character of Branston. Now, what I was insulted over was when Branston’s brother, Kieran, was cast as a drunk. How original? *BURP!*

So, getting back to the beginning…”Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?” Or in other words, how does the media portray the Irish? The words political, fighting, religious, superstitious, witty, and ownership all come into play when thinking of how the Irish have been portrayed on film. The lens of a camera is really the eye of the director, and that’s whose perspective we are seeing.

The Lad From Old Ireland is one of the first “on location” movies made outside of Hollywood. Filmed in Beaufort, Co. Kerry and New York City in 1910 it is a silent movie which chronicles the immigration of Terry O’Connor, played by Canadian actor Sidney Olcott, and his eventual return to Ireland to bring his sweetheart back to America with him. The script was written by Gene Gauntier, who also acted in another Irish film in 1912 called You Remember Ellen, based on the Thomas Moore poem. Both films show an impoverished Ireland, where men and women toiled side by side in the fields. Ireland of the early 1900’s was a place where  an honest heart and hard work was always rewarded with love and riches beyond believing.

John Ford, an Irish-American, had a very “twee” version of the land of his ancestors. Nothing wrong with that. Ford wanted the public to see Ireland and appreciate it the same way that he did.His movie The Quiet Man made the world think that Irish women had fiery tempers, and being dragged through a field of thistles was just, “a good stretch of the legs.” The Rising of the Moon, another Ford movie, connects three tales of rural life in Ireland. It is Ford’s perspective, once again, of wives who obeyed their hubbies and would happily “keep the bed warm,” at the rising of the moon. No man did more for the Irish accent, Irish sayings and pint drinking than Barry Fitzgerald, a Ford favorite. In Broth of a Boy,  lines like, “He’s as useless as an undertaker at a wedding,” sure make the Irish amiable, and worth listening to.

Hilton Edwards, had a deeper connection to Ireland. Edward’s was of Irish-English heritage and he co-founded the Gate Theater in Dublin with his partner Micheál MacLiammóir. Edwards’ Return to Glennascaul made the theater going public see Ireland as a haunted land. With its ancient history, the idea of Ireland’s countryside and abandoned mansions brimming with ghosts is one that seems to do well on the big screen. High Spirits with Liam Neeson and Peter O’Toole comes to mind. There is also the 1963 Francis Ford Coppola film, Demtia 13. Gorey, horrific, psychotic and violent, and very hokey. More recently we have Into The West with Gabriel Byrne and The Eclipse by Billy Roche and Connor McPherson. One of my favorites actually.

There are serious political films too. Shake Hands With The Devil, is a close look at the Irish War of Independence in 1921, a fight for freedom from English rule. Starring James Cagney, Noel Purcell, and again we see the connection between Ireland and England as notable English actors such as Michael Redgrave and Glynis Johns also appear in the film.The Wind that Shakes the Barley is also well worth seeing. Another film that’s worth watching for its delicate portrayal of Catholic and Protestant disputes in Northern Ireland, and female submission due to religious doctrine is December Bride. How could I possibly forget Liam Neeson in Michael Collins?

Rural folk and land ownership is the main focus in Jim Sheridan’s The Field. Just how far the Bull McCabe goes to own the field his father toiled in is eye opening. The Bull only knows one law, and that is the law of the land. The Field isn’t really a field though, it is really Ireland, McCabe is all the Irish rebels rolled up into one being. The Guard is John Michael McDonagh’s quirky view of the rural Irish: witty, likable racists. Throw Calvary into that quirky view and you’ll see the Irish as gun toting, revenge seeking and anti-religious. Not too far off the mark alright. They don’t call it the wild-west for nothing.

Then we have the urban Irish. The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van, are Roddy Doyle’s Ireland. Agnes Browne, based on Brendan O’Carrolls book, The Mammy, gives us the urban widow’s Ireland.

From a religious perspective we have most recently Philomena, as well as The Magdelene Sisters and Song for a Raggy Boy. All worth viewing for a more precise look at the relationship between the Irish and the clergy in Ireland and why the churches are now almost empty. All are true stories.

If documentaries are your thing, there are a couple of good ones. The great documentary, Mise Éire in 1959 and then the 1967 documentary, The Rocky Road to Dublin by Peter Lennon, do more to show Ireland, and how it got to where it is, than any other serious movies.

So, how do the Irish come across in film? Are we a fighting, witty, anti-religious, pint drinking, superstitious, political, land-greedy people? I suppose the answer depends on what movies you like to watch, who’s acting in it, who directed it and who wrote it, and what their relationship is with Ireland.

There are plenty of Irish movies to choose from. So get to it. You should be done by Saint Patrick’s Day, 2016.





5 thoughts on “The Portrayal of the Irish in Movies

  1. So many great Irish films ~and so many interpretations of ‘Irishness’ In The Name Of The Father~(I just typed ‘Mother’)~Freudian slip there…. Seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor in a Leading Role (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Pete Postlethwaite), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Emma Thompson), Best Director, and Best Picture.Based on the true story of the Guildford Four.

    My Left Foot~ The Story of Christy Brown is a 1989 Irish drama film directed by Jim Sheridan and starring Daniel Day-Lewis. It tells the story of Christy Brown, an Irishman born with cerebral palsy, who could control only his left foot.

    The Commitments~ a 1991 comedy-drama film directed by Alan Parker. A film adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel of the same name, the film tells a story of working class Dubliners’ who form a soul band. Loved this~ the music was brilliant and the ‘craic’ was good

    The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a 2006 Irish war drama film directed by Ken Loach, set during the Irish War of Independence (1919–1922) and the Irish Civil War (1922–1923) This drama tells the fictional story of two County Cork brothers, Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy O’Donovan (Pádraic Delaney), who join the Irish Republican Army to fight for Irish independence from the United Kingdom
    The Quiet Man is a 1952 American romantic comedy-drama film directed by John Ford. It stars John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen. The film is notable for Winton Hoch’s lush photography of the Irish countryside and a long, climactic, semi-comic fist fight. Victor McLaglen gives a very strong performance and the on/off romance between Mary & Sean (O’Hara & Wayne) has great screen chemistry. Michael Collins ~ a 1996 historical biopic starring Liam Neeson as Michael Collins, the Irish patriot and revolutionary who died in the Irish Civil War. Some very strong performances in this film and Alan Rickman as Éamon de Valera shines through.

    I also really enjoyed Waking Ned~ a 1998 comedy film. It stars Ian Bannen, David Kelly, and Fionnula Flanagan. Kelly was nominated for a Screen Actors’ Guild award for his role as Michael O’Sullivan. The film is set in Ireland,

    Ryan’s Daughter a 1970 film directed by David Lean. Set in 1916, tells the story of a married Irish woman who has an affair with a British officer during World War I, despite opposition from her nationalist neighbours. The film is a very loose adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary.The film stars Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, John Mills, Christopher Jones, Trevor Howard and Leo McKern, with a score by Maurice Jarre. Some beautiful haunting music>>>>When I watched this it impressed as extremely powerful and John Mills performance as ‘Michael’ was just ‘breath-taking’

    Veronica Guerin is a 2003 Irish biographical crime film starring Cate Blanchett in the title role. The screenplay focuses on Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, whose investigation into the drug trade in Dublin led to her murder in 1996.

    A film I have n’t seen yet is Calvary ~ a 2014 Irish drama film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. The film stars Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran and Isaach de Bankolé. McDonagh stated that ”there are probably films in development about priests which involve abuse. My remit is to do the opposite of what other people do, and I wanted to make a film about a good priest.” He elaborates that it is tonally “in the same darkly comedic vein as The Guard, but with a much more serious and dramatic narrative. The consensus is that ‘led by a brilliant performance from Brendan Gleeson, Calvary tackles weighty issues with humor, intelligence, and sensitivity’ ~ That’ll do me…

    I could go on~ ‘Ah go on go on go on….Mrs Doyle (Father Ted)
    ”Now ~ would you like a nice cup of tea?….

  2. Wow!!! Great comment! Yes, there are a lot of Irish movies out there. I would love to sit down and watch each one mentioned in the list on Wikipedia, because it is the silver screen that shapes other people’s perspectives of what it is to be Irish. Thanks for adding to the list Dorothy!

    Keep the suggestions coming!!!

  3. I can’t leave this topic without mentioning Conor McPherson/Billy Roche’s The Eclipse~ A favourite of mine also.

    This film reverberates long after the viewing. Scenes of wind and rain, long country roads, graveyard shadows, darkness and light, anguish, loss and vulnerability. Is Ireland a haunted land?
    We see Farr on a journey where the viewer has to separate reality from imagination.
    Has Farr’s grief pushed him to the edge?
    Is what he is `seeing’ real or locked in his psyche?
    A thought provoking film which makes you consider the possibilities.

    Melies D’Argent Award for Best European Film
    Best Film & Best Screenplay Awards 2010 Irish Film & Television Academy Award
    Best Actor Award for Ciarán Hinds (2009) Film Festival
    Best Supporting Actor Award for Aidan Quinn 2010 Irish Film & Television
    Academy Awards.
    I thought Ciarán Hinds gave an exceptional performance….

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