The Best of Irish Cinema

James Gallagher

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, which meant that I got the chance to embrace the drunken Irishman within and go on and on about the half of my DNA bestowed upon me by my Dublin-born Dad. I took the afternoon off work – but shush, don’t tell them that – to listen to The Dubliners (slash The Corrs…) on a loop, pretend I like Guinness, watch Father Ted and indulge in some top quality Irish cinema.

Irish cinema, like Irish television, is an entertainment medium that isn’t given anywhere near the recognition or respect that it deserves. Case in point; can you name, off the top of your head, a decent Irish TV show that wasn’t produced by Graham Linehan? Exactly… Of course, in the spirit of the great nation itself, Irish cinema is a peculiar beast that combines the best of British kitchen-sink culture with a much more European outlook and approach. The deep divisions that drive the nation’s politics, culture and society also drive the wonderful cinema that its greatest filmmakers have produced, resulting in a curious mix of influences that grants its best output a similar feel to some of the great “New Wave” works of the sixties.

As a result of this, Irish cinema remains relatively untainted by Hollywood. It is, along with its South American cousins, one of the final few bastions against what I call “cinematic gentrification”, in which all films – irrespective of their subject matter and country of origin – start to look the same. Don’t get me wrong, Irish cinema isn’t some haven of artistic perfection but it has a unique feel to it that is distinctly lacking in a lot of modern American, and indeed British, cinema.

But which Irish films do I consider the best of the best? Well, I’ve thrown together a list of five greats that you absolutely need to watch, though the criteria for these choices isn’t all that dissimilar to the criteria that allowed Gravity to win Best British Film at the BAFTAs… basically, I’ve tried to pick films that explore an important aspect of Irish culture or history, to give you some idea of the major influences that drive the medium. Before we begin though, here is a list of just some of the “honourable mentions” that you should also watch;

The Boxer Veronica Guerin / Once In the Name of the Father Barry Lyndon Six Shooter / Grabbers Michael Collins Song for a Raggy Boy / What Richard Did The Butcher Boy.

And now for the top five. These are all post-1990, though don’t think that that means that pre-90s Irish cinema is awful. Far from it (John Ford’s The Quiet Man, for example, was released in 1952, while the aforementioned Barry Lyndon was released in 1975), I just happen to think that these five are the best. They’re in no particular order, as ranking them was just too damn difficult…


Based on the novel of the same name by Roddy Doyle, this musical dramedy might well be the greatest musical of all time. Directed by Alan Parker (who also directed Fame and Evita), it tells the story of a bunch of working class Dubliners who go on to form a soul band. It is a classic tale of class divisions and musical differences, beautifully realised as a kitchen-sink drama. Perhaps the most fun you’ll ever have watching an Irish film!


Stephen Frears’ Philomena has brought the evils of the Magdalene Laundries back into the public consciousness over the last six months, but it’s The Magdalene Sisters that really gets to the dark heart of how vicious these places were to young, s–called “fallen” women. Directed by Peter Mullan and starring Anne-Marie Duff and Geraldine McEwan, this harrowing story of abuse within the Roman Catholic Church is a must watch. Just make sure you have a box of tissues on standby…


Steve McQueen recently won an Oscar for the brilliant 12 Years a Slave but, for me, his feature-debut Hunger is his most-accomplished film to date. Starring Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, an IRA member remanded in the Maze Prison, the film tells the true story of the 1981 hunger strike that resulted in the deaths of ten prisoners. Visceral, traumatic and full of McQueen’s directorial trademarks, Hunger is without question one of the best films about the Troubles I’ve ever seen.


Except, perhaps, for this one… Ken Loach brings his neo-realist, kitchen-sink style to the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War with his tale of two brothers (played by Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney) who join the IRA but ultimately end up on different sides of the conflict. It offers a fantastic but unforgiving look at what Loach sees as British imperialism, though the politics of the film never supercede the drama.


Alright, after all the high-drama, let’s end with something a bit more light-hearted… John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard is a brilliant dark comedy starring Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle and Mark Strong. What starts off as your classic tale of mismatched colleagues working together soon becomes a rather dark look at drug addiction, alcoholism and depression… though all of these themes are handled with typical Irish charm. The Guard is a great laugh and it’s also – at least in terms of box-office receipts – the most successful Irish film of all time (an accolade previously held, funnily enough, by The Wind That Shakes the Barley).


What about you then? What are your favourite Irish films? Let us know below or badger me on Twitter @theugliestfraud =)

About James Gallagher

James is a film addict, a bitter misanthrope and a graduate from the University of Sheffield. Raised in Birkenhead, he is like a (very) poor man's Paul O'Grady. He has lots of opinions – almost all of which are wrong – and can normally be found reading, writing and drinking whisky. @theugliestfraud

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