Though intended as a celebration if Irish heritage and culture, many tend to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a trip to the pub and a plate of corned beef — occasionally forgetting, perhaps, that there’s more to Ireland than depictions of leprechauns. It’s all in good fun, I suppose.
If you’re going to be at home (with or without the traditional pint), you might as well toss on a movie or three. Most of these films feature Irish actors in front of and/or behind the camera, and many of them deal with Irish history and folklore, so you might even find yourself soaking up a tiny bit of actual Irish culture with very minimal effort.
Writer/director Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film is an obvious choice for St. Patrick’s Day viewing this year. Set at the beginning of a nearly three-decade-long period of political and ethnic conflict, but viewed from the perspective of a child, the film earned an impressive seven Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture. All that and Judi Dench…what more could you ask?
The musical drama depicts a week in the life of a Dublin street busker (Glen Hansard) and a Czech singer-songwriter (Markéta Irglová). With compelling, naturalistic performances from lead actors who are also real-life musicians, the charming romance set a precedent for a more uniquely modern style of movie musical — the fact that nobody really followed Once’s lead only makes it feel that much more unique (at least until the director’s own Sing Street, which we’ll get to later).
The Commitments (1991)
Stay in Dublin for another cult classic musical, this one a big-hearted comedy about a young music fanatic (Robert Arkins) who dreams of managing a local soul band in the style of the Black American recording artists he loves. Sadly, he can’t find anyone in Dublin with that kind of talent or experience, so he sets about building a band from scratch. In the best tradition of scrappy underdog films, the assembled “musicians” have not much talent, but a ton of heart.
The Snapper (1993)
Another charming slice-of-life from writer Roddy Doyle (from The Commitments), The Snapper deals with the complications for a devout Irish Catholic family (led by Colm Meaney), when outspoken daughter Sharon becomes pregnant following a one-night-stand and refuses to have anything to do with (or even name) the father. The family is forced to come to terms with their own shame as Sharon comes to learn who her real friends are.
The Van (1996)
With The Van, you’re invited to conclude a delightful St. Paddy’s Day triple feature with films based on the works of writer Roddy Doyle (The Commitments, The Snapper, and then this one). The novels on which the films are based are sequels to each other, but the movies are mostly only related in theme and tone, so they don’t need to be watched in any particular order.
This one involves a couple of mates (Colm Meaney and Donal O’Kelly) who open a fish-and-chips food truck (well, van) in the wake of the general excitement surrounding Ireland’s surprisingly good showing at the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Soon, though, it all begins to complicate their friendship, forcing the two to choose between business success and their relationships.
Waking Ned Devine (1998)
It’s tempting to call Waking Ned Devine a dark comedy on the basis of its premise: the winner of the Irish National Lottery drops dead from the shock, prompting the entire small village to band together to convince a claim inspector that another villager is actually Ned so that they can all split the prize. But the movie is sweet and good-natured enough to compensate for any darkness.
(It’s Waking Ned Devine in North America, but you might see it listed by its original title, Waking Ned. Same movie.)
On to more serious topics, Brendan Gleeson is fabulous here as an honest and well-meaning Catholic priest who’s confronted by a parishioner who was sexually abused by a clergyman as a child. The man promises to kill Gleeson’s Father James for the crimes of the church in one week, giving the father time to wrap up his affairs — time he uses to engage with his parishioners and to reconcile with his daughter. It’s tricky mortal material, sensitively but boldly handled.
Black ‘47 (2018)
Set during the most horrific year of the 19th century Irish famine, Black ‘47 takes inspiration from American westerns in the story of an Irish soldier returning from fighting with the British army, only to find that being a veteran counts for nothing among the local constabulary and landlords. What starts out looking like a sad period piece quickly becomes a very dark but stylish revenge drama.
Michael Collins (1996)
As with any dramatized history, it’s important to remember that fact and filmmaking don’t always intersect, and director Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins — firmly planted in the historical heroic epic genre — has received some justifiable criticism for its historical inaccuracies. Having said that, the film digs deep into its subject, using the violence of the era to ultimately make a plea for peace. And Liam Neeson does the best work of his career playing the Irish revolutionary and later politician Collins.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)
Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney play a pair of County Cork brothers who sign up with the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence in the early 1920s, and the civil war that followed soon after. It’s bleak stuff, but still a compelling war story that broke box office records in Ireland upon its initial release.
My Left Foot (1989)
This was the moment when we knew that Daniel Day-Lewis was the real deal. Based on the real-life writer Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy with control only over that titular left foot, an actor might have played the role as a series of ticks and mannerisms. Day-Lewis, instead, gives a fully fleshed-out performance, one that earned him a Best Actor Oscar.
In the Name of the Father (1993)
Just four years after his Oscar win for My Left Foot, Daniel Day-Lewis earned a second Best Actor nomination for In the Name of the Father. This time he portrayed Gerry Conlon, a real-life figure who was falsely accused and imprisoned, along with three other men, for a pub bombing that killed off-duty British soldiers.
Set during a 1981 hunger strike by Irish republican prisoners in Northern Ireland, director Steve McQueen’s Hunger is appropriately harrowing, with Michael Fassbender’s performance as Bobby Sands winning justifiable accolades. Smartly, the film is as much about inhumane prison conditions as it is about the specific circumstances of the strike.
The Crying Game (1992)
Though it quickly became an ugly punchline back in 1992 for its mid-movie reveal involving Jaye Davidson’s character, Neil Jordan’s Troubles-era mystery also won near-universal critical acclaim and a Best Picture Oscar nomination. If its exploration of gender roles doesn’t entirely stand up to modern scrutiny, it’s still a bold look at gender, race, and sexuality within the context of a political thriller.
Veronica Guerin (2003)
Though Joel Schumacher’s portrait of real-life crime reporter Guerin earned mixed reviews (it’s engaging, but fairly by-the-numbers stuff in the “crusading reporter” genre), there’s no question that the always great Cate Blanchett gives a great performance, lending shading to a woman whose work put her in the crosshairs of Dublin drug kingpins in the 1990s.
Much of modern Irish history is the story of those who, during troubled times, were forced to decide between home and the potential of greener pastures elsewhere. With a light touch, the Best Picture-nominated Brooklyn explores that dilemma via Saoirse Ronan’s Ellis, who emigrates to New York during the 1950s, finding both challenges and opportunities in America.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
Here’s the kick-off to what might be another St. Patrick’s Day triple feature, this time involving the beautiful animated “Irish Folklore” trilogy from director Tomm Moore and company. They’re all only thematically related, so feel free to pick and choose.
This one involves Brendan, an imaginative 12-year-old who lives in the Abbey of Kells with his controlling uncle, while secretly learning the art of calligraphy. While the abbey prepares for a Viking invasion, Brendan is recruited to complete a series of magical tasks.
Song of the Sea (2014)
In this animated fantasy, a family of lighthouse keepers is torn apart by the mysterious disappearance of the pregnant Bronagh shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Saoirse. The family soon learns that Saoirse is a half-human selkie, who must choose between her two opposing destinies.
Robyn Goodfellowe is apprenticed to her father as a hunter, the two of them travelling to Ireland to wipe out the last of the land’s wolves. Going off on her own, she encounters a free-spirited girl who needs Robyn’s help to find her mother. The girl’s tribe is rumoured to have the ability to change into wolves, and Robyn’s alliance with her new friends threatens her relationship with her father.
Sing Street (2016)
John Carney’s follow-up to his musical cult classic Once, Sing Street follows Conor Lawlor, a Dublin teen from a broken family who escapes through music, eventually forming a band and developing the confidence to pursue a relationship with the girl he likes. Like Once, Sing Street is a unique blend of joyous and upbeat musical numbers and a gritty, down-to-earth perspective.
The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)
On the west coast of Ireland, a young girl sent to live with her grandparents on the titular island becomes enamoured of the local legends surrounding selfies and other magical creatures, particularly as those legends relate to the mystery of her missing brother. It’s a charming, all-ages classic.
For a slightly more grown-up take on selfie legends, there’s Ondine, starring Alicja Bachleda as the title character, a mysterious woman who gets caught in the fishing nets of recovering alcoholic played by Colin Farrell. Sort of a modern fairy tale, their growing romance forces them to decide whether or not Ondine is meant for our world.
The Hole in the Ground (2019)
A very solid entry in the creepy kid genre of horror (and with an Irish brogue, at that), The Hole in the Ground involves a woman who starts to suspect that the boy who looks like her son…might not actually be her son anymore.
Sea Fever (2019)
The low-budget sci-fi thriller does awful lot with relatively little. It’s the story of PhD student, Siobhán, who signs on with the crew of a ragged fishing trawler in order to further her research. As they journey deeper into the Atlantic, they encounter a mysterious creature that threatens their lives, especially if they can’t figure out how to work together.
Wild Mountain Thyme (2020)
I can’t entirely recommend Wild Mountain Thyme as a bit of filmmaking, but there’s something to be said for a slightly schmaltzy romantic comedy, particularly if you’re looking for some light entertainment after a pint or two. The story of two Westmeath farmers (Jamie Dornan and Emily Blunt) on adjacent plots of land who gradually develop romantic feelings for each other is cute, if not wildly memorable.