No sane person will sincerely claim that the ranking of cultural entities is anything other than a sophisticated parlour game.
When it comes to Irish film, however, the debate will invariably focus less on relative placings – whether Garage is better than The Quiet Man – than on how we are defining our terms. Is The Quiet Man Irish at all? It was financed by an American studio and set in a fanciful version of the real nation.
Our rules are looser than some may prefer. Significant numbers of Irish personnel is a factor. Notable levels of Irish funding scores you a few more points on our jerry-rigged scale
When testing a novel for Irishness, we need focus our attention on the writer alone. Colm Tóibín’s The Master may be set in England and published by a British house, but nobody would claim it was anything other than an Irish book. John Crowley’s adaptation of Tóibín’s Brooklyn is Irish as well. But it’s also British and a little bit Canadian. A co-production of the BBC and the Irish Film Board (among others), it quite reasonably competed for awards at both the British and Irish Academies. Few of the films on this list pass the purity test for absolute uncorrupted Irishness.
Our rules are looser than some may prefer. Significant numbers of Irish personnel is a factor. Notable levels of Irish funding scores you a few more points on our jerry-rigged scale. Shooting a film in Ireland gets you a long way down the road, but, as should be obvious, external productions that use the country as a stand-in for somewhere else aren’t getting anywhere with the jury. Neither Saving Private Ryan (Normandy in Wexford) nor The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (the Berlin Wall in Smithfield) was up for consideration.
Setting a film in Ireland is not in itself a qualification. We would never have been much tempted by Waking Ned, a British production filmed in the Isle of Man, but Yann Demange’s 1971, a British film shot in Liverpool and Sheffield, would have walked in if Northern Ireland Screen had lured the filmmakers to the real Belfast.
This is not a ranking of Irishness. Once a film has qualified it competes equally with all others. Some may reasonably think our top film among the least Irish of the bunch. So be it
Decisions also had to be made as to what we mean by a feature film. We settled on a production made for theatrical exhibition that exceeds 70 minutes. Pat O’Connor’s fine The Ballroom of Romance fails on two counts. It is a television production that comes in at 65 minutes. (At the 1983 Bafta awards, it won in the TV section, not the film race). Playing hardball on length, we had to regretfully exclude the early work of Vivienne Dick, Bob Quinn’s legendary Poitín and more recent films such as Graham Seely and Kevin Brannigan’s The Man With the Hat.
The final ranking is – as all such rankings must be – the creation of a fleeting mood. The order may have been different an hour or so later. It is not, however, a ranking of Irishness. Once a film has qualified it competes equally with all others. Some may reasonably think our top film among the least Irish of the bunch. So be it. Having made the grade, we asked only whether it is better than the rest. The answer today was “yes”. Tomorrow, who knows?
Cathal Black, 1995
Black was among those who made Irish films happen at a time when such things were as rare as Irish space probes. He reached maturity with a rural saga, adapted from a John McGahern story, that covered a great many domestic neuroses – emigration, the Civil War, generational discord – in an impressively small space.
49. Cardboard Gangsters
Mark O’Connor, 2017
Weed-peddler Jayson (writer and star John Connors) and his crew get an opportunity to offload some heroin, a career move that pits them against local kingpin Derra (Jimmy Smallhorne). Unabashedly masculine and in thrall to the Goodfellas template, this is the most polished collaboration between the director and the multitalented Connors.
John Crowley, 2003
A decade after Pulp Fiction, any collection of interweaving urban stories was likely to attract the adjective “Tarantinoesque”, but Mark O’Rowe’s abrasive script sang to his own unsentimental melodies. Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy and Colm Meaney buzzed about a heightened Dublin. The shot of kissing buses still hangs in the brain.
47. Snap (Carmel Winters, 2010)
Fifteen-year-old Stephen (Stephen Moran) snatches a toddler from a park and holds him captive for five days. Three years on, his mother (Aisling O’Sullivan) investigates in this cleverly constructed and unsettling mystery from the director of Float Like a Butterfly.
Lance Daly, 2008
Daly recently had a domestic hit with the Famine drama Black 47, but we’ve gone for his quieter film about a couple of young Dublin neighbours who light out for the territory at Christmas time. The director draws beautiful, unhurried performances from Kelly O’Neill and Shane Curry. A minor-key gem.
45. Good Favour
Rebecca Daly, 2017
An ailing stranger stumbles from the woodland into a small, isolated religious community. He recovers and befriends the children of the colony but his “otherness” remains, especially when things start to go wrong. Is he there as a saviour or something more sinister? As ever, Daly keeps you guessing.
Liam Nolan, Ross Whitaker, 2007
Fiercely felt documentary concerning three boxers from Saint Saviours Academy in Dublin’s north inner city. Made over two years with sparse funding, the film is as much an appreciation of a culture as a sports movie. Whitaker returned to the fight game with his great doc on Katie Taylor.
Tom Collins, 2011
In the 1970s, a group of young men leave Connemara. Decades later, they reunite at the funeral of a friend. Colm Meaney heads the cast of this award-winning bilingual drama, adapted from Jimmy Murphy’s play The Kings of the Kilburn High Road.
42. Hush-a-Bye Baby
Margo Harkin, 1989
Set in Derry, Harkin’s highly original drama follows a young woman as she navigates an unexpected pregnancy with no apparent support from an imprisoned father. Unavoidable comparisons with the notorious Kerry babies case. Strong lead performance from Emer McCourt. Sterling support from rising national treasure Sinéad O’Connor.
41. The Secret of Roan Inish
John Sayles, 1994
In the 1940s, a young girl is sent to the Donegal island of the title, where her extended family tell her about selkies and her missing younger brother. A magical piece of storytelling about storytelling with a great teller in the late Mick Lally.
40. Shadow Dancer
James Marsh, 2012
No accent issues for the untouchable Andrea Riseborough as a conflicted informant during the later years of the Troubles in Belfast. Accused of being pro-IRA by the Daily Mail and “unashamedly pro-British” by other critics. It remains a singularly strong thriller from a fine director.
Aisling Walsh, 2016
Folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) lives a troubled life in Nova Scotia as she struggles with various ailments, a lost daughter, and an abusive husband (Ethan Hawke). Slowly, however, her paintings bring visitors and admiration.
38. Silent Grace
Maeve Murphy, 2001
Murphy’s study of protests by female Republicans in Armagh Prison during the early 1980s felt like an overdue correction. It was a shoestring production, but Murphy’s poetic script and strong performances from Orla Brady and Cathleen Bradley helped it to soar. The film’s reputation has steadily increased over the intervening decades.
37. In America
Jim Sheridan, 2002
Semi-autobiographical, Oscar-nominated drama co-written by the director and his daughters Naomi and Kirsten, in which a Dublin family relocate to New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in the 1980s. There, the parents (Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton) struggle while their young daughters befriend a reclusive Nigerian photographer (Djimon Hounsou).
36. The Commitments
Alan Parker, 1991
The Snapper and The Van may be more coherent Roddy Doyle adaptations, but one can’t ignore the impact Alan Parker’s vibrant Dublin musical had on a city on the brink of unprecedented cultural upheavals. Generated a touring act, a stage production and a handful of durable careers.
35. Flight of the Doves
Ralph Nelson, 1971
Once maligned as high blarney, this adaptation of Walter Macken’s 1967 novel has gained a cult following in recent years. Two Liverpool children escape their cruel uncle (Ron Moody) and run away to Galway. Features a great St Patrick’s Day chase and the forward-thinking, inclusive anthem, You Don’t Have to Be Irish to be Irish.
34. The General
John Boorman, 1998
Or Excalibur? Or Zardoz? Boorman has had an inestimable effect on the Irish film industry. His most durable commentary on the nation is this troubling, ambiguous engagement with hoodlum Martin Cahill. Gave Brendan Gleeson his first lead role in a feature. Lovely monochrome photography from Seamus Deasy.
Joel Conroy, 2008
Cillian Murphy narrates this award-winning doc that chronicles Irish-Hawaiian George Freeth’s early 20th-century contributions to surfing alongside modern practitioners Richie Fitzgerald, Kelly Slater and Easkey Britton, as they take on a monstrous 60-foot wave off the Cliffs of Moher.
32. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Kim Bartley, Donnacha Ó Briain, 2003
Fascinating – and controversial – documentary concerning the 2002 coup d’etat attempt on the Chávez regime in Venezuela. Works, among other things, as an eloquent treatise on media manipulation.
Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell, 2019
This beautifully shot documentary portrait of life in the strip of the title, home to nearly two million Palestinians, was filmed over four years. For all the trials and turmoil on screen, it’s a representation of, as one taxi-driver puts it, people who “just want to live their lives”.
30. The Secret of Kells
Tomm Moore, 2009
Cartoon Saloon, based in Kilkenny, has been one of the great success stories in Irish cinema history. The first of its three(!) Oscar nominations in the feature animation section came with this gorgeously rich fantasy structured around the creation of the Book of Kells. A phenomenon.
29. December Bride
Thaddeus O’Sullivan, 1991
Two brothers (Donal McCann and Ciarán Hinds) and a servant, Sarah (Saskia Reeves) form a scandalous love triangle in rural Ulster at the turn of the century. Sarah’s continued distaste for convention brings her into conflict with locals, a minister, and finally, her own children.
28. Bloody Sunday
Paul Greengrass, 2002
Though made for Granada TV, Greengrass’s kinetic take on a seismic tragedy debuted at Sundance and received a theatrical release. So it counts. James Nesbitt is excellent as the heroic Ivan Cooper. Ballymun does good work as Derry. But it is the dynamism of the filmmaking that sticks in the memory.
Lenny Abrahamson, 2007
A lonely petrol station attendant with learning difficulties (Pat Shortt) befriends his 15-year-old co-worker in an award-winning drama that delicately segues from comedy to tragedy.
26. The Image You Missed
Donal Foreman, 2018
Foreman is among the most interesting and original of younger Irish filmmakers. This eccentric documentary combines a study of his father, the late filmmaker Arthur MacCaig, with a consideration of political instabilities in Northern Ireland. A singular piece from an original mind.
25. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017
The Greek director’s characteristically curveball adaptation of Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides sees Colin Farrell’s cardiothoracic surgeon stalked by a vengeful Barry Keoghan.
24. His & Hers
Ken Wardop, 2010
Wardrop has carved out his own niche in documentary, making elegantly composed collages of ordinary lives. His 2010 masterpiece – a real hit on domestic release – moves among 70 women, their contributions arranged in order of age from infants to wise elders. Charming. Heart-breaking.
23. The Butcher Boy
Neil Jordan, 1997
When his mother commits suicide, 12-year-old Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens), retreats into violent fantasy fuelled by comic books, cowboys and Indians and atomic age anxieties in a black comedy adapted from Patrick McCabe’s 1992 novel.
22. Odd Man Out
Carol Reed, 1947
Beware. Whatever the Belfast locals may tell you, the scene in the pub was not actually shot in the Crown Bar. Many of the exteriors were, however, filmed in the city. So we can count Reed’s masterly thriller as among the great Belfast films. James Mason is the IRA man on the run.
21. The Rocky Road to Dublin
Peter Lennon, 1967
Dublin has never looked more unlovely and backward than in journalist Peter Lennon’s contemporaneous depiction of Ireland, as the filmmaker begs the question: “What do you do with your revolution once you’ve got it?”
20. The Farthest
Emer Reynolds, 2017
Stunning documentary from a versatile talent – also one of our best editors – on the Voyager space probe. A sense of awe permeates the boffins’ descriptions of great achievements completed with relatively rudimentary computing power.
19. Good Vibrations
Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, 2013
In the 1970s, as sectarian conflict in Belfast rages, DJ Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer) opens a record shop “on the most bombed half-mile in Europe, ” and the Ulster punk scene is born. An energetic delight from the directors of Ordinary Love and Cherrybomb.
Pat Collins, 2012
Sui generis oddity concerning a sound recordist travelling Ireland in search of landscapes free from the noises of men. Along the way, he ponders human life its relationship with nature. It might be a documentary. It might be an experimental drama.
17. The Magdalene Sisters
Peter Mullan, 2002
In the early 1960s, four young women – rape and incest survivor Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), too-pretty Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), unmarried mother Rose (Dorothy Duffy) and intellectually disabled Crispina (Eileen Walsh) – are forced into a Magdalene asylum. Hugely affecting historical drama.
John Carney, 2007
Conceived as a low-budget distraction between larger projects, Carney’s ambulatory musical - featuring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová – became a phenomenon for the ages. Won an Oscar for best song. Generated a hit stage show. Carney moved on to further success with Begin Again and the lovely Sing Street.
15. The Fading Light
Ivan Kavanagh, 2009
If you are a carer – or just a human – your heart will break watching this criminally overlooked drama. Two sisters ponder the fate of their disabled brother (a tour de force performance from Patrick O’Donnell) as they tend to their dying mother.
14. Song of Granite
Pat Collins, 2017
Collins confirmed his status among the most vital Irish artists of his generation with the docu-drama on the Irish folk singer Joe Heaney. The picture has the silvery resonance of myth, but it has much to say about the Irish experience abroad in the 20th century.
13. Mise Éire
George Morrison, 1959
Beginning with a pre-photographic representation of Dermot McMurrough and Richard II before moving into newsreels, this wildly ambitious documentary powers through such historical milestones as Roger Casement’s execution. Featuring Countess Markievicz, Éamon de Valera, Michael Collins, Liam Cosgrove and, in the trenches of the first World War, the Connaught Rangers.
John Crowley, 2015
Irish film’s annus mirabilis came in 2016 when – thanks to Crowley’s take on a beloved Colm Tóibín novel, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room and Ben Cleary’s short Stutterer – domestic films bossed the Oscar nominations. Saoirse Ronan confirmed her rising status as the Wexford girl torn between Domhnall Gleeson and Emory Cohen.
11. The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015
In this winningly absurd romantic comedy, a newly single Colin Farrell is transported to a hotel where he has 45 days to find a romantic partner or he’ll be transformed into an animal of his choosing – specifically the crustacean of the title.
10. My Left Foot
Jim Sheridan, 1989
It still seems so unlikely. Producer Noel Pearson and director Jim Sheridan imagined their study of disabled writer Christy Brown would play to a modest audience in Dublin. Boosted by a stirring performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker, it ended up winning two Oscars and relaunching the domestic industry.
9. The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Ken Loach, 2006
After seeing his friend executed by the Black and Tans, a young doctor (Cillian Murphy) joins his brother in the IRA until the Anglo-Irish Treaty comes between them. Deserving winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.
8. Adam & Paul
Lenny Abrahamson, 2004
After a long career in advertising, Lenny Abrahamson, collaborating with writer and actor Mark O’Halloran, made his feature debut with a study of two Dublin drug users that skirted Beckett and Buster Keaton while remaining utterly its own thing. The lead performances from O’Halloran and the late Tom Murphy are remarkable.
7. The Quiet Man
John Ford, 1952
John Wayne, playing an Irish-American boxer from Pittsburgh, returns to his ancestral home and falls for firebrand Maureen O’Hara. Unaccustomed to local etiquette, he fails to understand the importance of her dowry. He’d want to catch on.
6. The Crying Game
Neil Jordan, 1992
Jordan had already been up and down the sine wave – a hit with Mona Lisa, a bomb with High Spirits – when his peculiar psychological thriller broke through in 1992. Stephen Rea, the director’s muse, was typically muted as an IRA volunteer drifting towards one of cinema’s great twists.
Steve McQueen, 2008
It is hard to think of a more electrifying scene than the (McQueen and Enda Walsh scripted) encounter between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender, never better) and Liam Cunningham’s visiting priest as they discuss the morality of the former’s hunger strike.
4. Man of Aran
Robert J Flaherty, 1934
Controversy has long raged about Flaherty’s “fictional documentary” on life in the Aran Islands during the inter-war years. Scenes were fabricated. Family relationships are tweaked. But the film’s influence remains enormous. Despite its flexible attitude to the facts, Man of Aran translated truth to the emerging Irish nation (and the world).
3. Anne Devlin
Pat Murphy, 1984
A sensible young woman (Brid Brennan, extraordinary) is caught up in Robert Emmet’s 1803 revolt. Made decades before the current conversation on the female gaze, Murphy’s painterly film is a landmark.
2. The Dead
John Huston, 1987
Huston always had a romantic view of the old country. James Joyce doesn’t much invite cinematic adaptation. The director was so ill he could barely stand. Much of the film was shot in California. Yet everything came together like holy kismet for Huston’s take on the final story in Dubliners. Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann have never been stronger. Somehow the sense of place survived.
1. Barry Lyndon
Stanley Kubrick, 1975
An 18th-century Irish scoundrel (Ryan O’Neal) makes his way across Europe and wins the heart of a noblewoman (Marisa Berenson), only to succumb to “Misfortunes and Disasters” as the intertitle puts it. Cinematography that required Nasa tech. Stately composition. Bach, Vivaldi, and The Chieftains. Forget The Shining and 2001. This is Kubrick’s masterpiece.