40. Bessie Burgess
From The Plough and the Stars
It befits an unsentimental classic like The Plough and the Stars that its heart resides in such an unlikely place. Bessie Burgess, the cantankerous, self-demolishing, crowing unionist (“Oh, youse are all rightly shanghaied now!” she spits at her revolutionary neighbours) is ultimately the spine of compassion, quiet heroism and genuine sacrifice amid all the posture and chaos of Seán O’Casey’s street-level view of the 1916 Rising.
From Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling
For a modest, sensible twentysomething from Ballygobbard, Aisling has taken Ireland by storm. The first three books featuring her, written by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, are the bestselling Irish fiction titles this century. Compared to “an Irish Bridget Jones”, Aisling is as much in the tradition of a Maeve Binchy or Marian Keyes heroine as she is a rival to Helen Fielding’s creation.
38. Connell Waldron
From Normal People
Book, 2018; TV drama, 2020
Despite being a young man both studying literature and writing it, Connell’s trademark characteristic is an inability to be articulate, especially with Marianne, his love. What Sally Rooney’s creation doesn’t, or can’t, say to her during their school and college years together is partly what makes his character so realistic, frustrating and engaging.
37. Catherine McKenna
From Grace Notes
In Scotland, Catherine, a composer, is trying to literally compose her life. She is a new mother, but her partner is abusive. She is estranged from her family back in Northern Ireland. Music and her career-changing composing commission both ground her, Bernard MacLaverty’s novel, and then lift her onwards from where she has been in a paralysis.
36. Sadie Jackson
From The Twelfth Day of July
Sadie, a Protestant teenager, is sassy and feisty. As we follow her love-across-the-divide relationship with Kevin, a Catholic, over five books, we grow with them. Joan Lingard’s young-adult-fiction series brought the Troubles home to generations of young people elsewhere and brought fiction home to young people in Northern Ireland.
35 Cathleen Ni Houlihan
From Cathleen Ni Houlihan
“Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” WB Yeats wondered about Cathleen Ni Houlihan. If so, they must have been as naive as the question. In 1798, a mysterious old lady disturbs a family dinner to sing of blood sacrifice, tell of her stolen “four beautiful green fields”, and lure a young man to join the Rebellion. Thus appeased, she transforms into a girl with “the walk of a queen” and struts away into several more Irish dramas.
34. Maggie Poplin
From Big Maggie
Like all wives, says Maggie Poplin, in 1969 Kerry, pride, ignorance and religion were “the chains around me”. Those break with the death of her husband, grieved as intensely as spilt milk, while her children’s futures come under “new management”. In every pyrrhic victory of her tough love, John B Keane creates a stunning vision of an admirably monstrous, enduring figure: the Irish Mammy.
33. Sr Michael
From Derry Girls
TV comedy, 2018
The sardonic Sr Michael is instantly recognisable to every convent-educated citizen on the island. Once described as “the small angry penguin woman”, she is in fact mordantly acerbic. Brilliantly observed by series creator Lisa McGee and chillingly well played by Corkonian Siobhán McSweeney, Sr Michael will probably end up with a show of her own.
32. Fr Fitzgibbon
From Going My Way
Barry Fitzgerald was so good, in Leo McCarey’s film, as the traditional priest at odds with hipster Bing Crosby that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated him twice. The Dubliner is the only person to be shortlisted in both best actor and best supporting actor for the same role. He won the former and they then changed the rules.
For all the praise that comes Stephen Rea’s way, he is still insufficiently celebrated for his stillness. Danny, a saxophonist in a touring band, took a lot of contemporaneous misery on his shoulders in Neil Jordan’s debut feature. A revenge thriller. A meditation on desire.
30. Eilis Lacey
Book, 2009; film, 2015
Saoirse Ronan confirmed her status as a senior actor with her portrayal of Colm Tóibín’s creation, the Wexford woman who gets torn between an only modestly glamorous New York and comfortable life at home. Eilis is buffeted by prejudice and jealousy, but she emerges as a triumphant heroine for the ages.
29. The hot priest
TV comedy, 2019
Played by the Irish actor Andrew Scott in the second series of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, the cleric became last year’s most unlikely sex symbol, his desirability enhanced when he uttered the word “kneel”. Self-effacing, unavailable and psychologically tortured, he’s the best thing that’s happened to the Catholic Church since the Ascension, according to some.
28. Biddy Byrne
TV drama, 1983
Biddy, organic agriculturalist and wife to smiley Miley, appeared in the farming soap for more than 17 years. Mary McEvoy, the actor who played her, embodied a tough, loyal, hardworking and taciturn character beloved of Irish TV audiences. Finally wearying of feeding her thoroughbred geese, McEvoy asked to be axed just a year before the soap itself bit the well-fertilised dust.
27. Flurry Knox
From The Irish RM
The Anglo-Irish Flurry is the original cute hoor. He’s the sidekick to the British resident magistrate, or RM, Maj Sinclair Yeates; the local who knows what’s really going on; the comedic foil to the perpetual in-joke that is the major.
26. Bernard Ludwig Black
From Black Books
TV comedy, 2000
The misanthropic, hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, randomly violent and viciously discursive antiquarian bookshop owner became one of the most charming men on television when the first Black Books series aired in 2000. Created by Graham Linehan and Dylan Moran (who played the eponymous Black), the series ran for four gloriously dysfunctional and deeply funny seasons.
25. Kenneth Pyper
From Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme
In a play, by Frank McGuinness, populated with vivid characters, the gay, upper-class, haunted loyalist Pyper is still a remarkable figure, holding a fracturing story together. The lone survivor of his group of first World War soldiers, he swats away admonishing ghosts, including his younger self – a subversive maverick, who can eroticise everything from flesh to war to death. A compassionately drawn, complex emissary of sexuality and porous identity.
24. Portia Coughlan
From Portia Coughlan
It’s hard to find a more torrid version of family tragedies (outside Greek myth) than the work of Marina Carr. And it’s hard to find a more striking figure in her Gothic Midlands than the savage, desperate, unapologetically sexual Portia Coughlan. More in love with death than with life, more besotted with her dead twin brother than with anyone living, and more at home in myth than in the earthly realm, she is an unspoken psychology writ large, a creation of rugged darkness.
23. Ross O’Carroll-Kelly
From the Sunday Tribune and The Irish Times
Newspaper columns, since 1998
Speaking of lovable monsters... Paul Howard’s comic creation is a legend in his own liquid lunchtime. This self-deluded rugby jock who never grew up has outlasted the Celtic Tiger Ireland he satirised, spawning 20 novels and several hit plays.
22. Paula Spencer
From Family, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, and Paula Spencer
TV drama, 1994; books, 1996 and 2006
Roddy Doyle’s heartbreakingly resilient Paula was first delivered with unflinching accuracy by Ger Ryan. Emotionally, physically and financially battered by her life with her husband, Charlo, on a north Dublin housing estate, the character, despite her circumstances, defied stereotyping. Funny, passionate and clever, she ripped open a seam of Irish life that many would have rather ignored.
21. Gretta Conroy
From The Dead
Short story, 1914; film, 1987
Every now and then an actor grasps a literary character and makes that creation their very own. Nearly three-quarters of a century after James Joyce published The Dead, Anjelica Huston brought her unique intelligence to the role in her father’s final film. Exists both within and apart from the source material.
20. Mrs Doyle
From Father Ted
TV comedy, 1995
Mrs Doyle, part human Teasmade, part clerical carbuncle, was played by the irrepressible Pauline McLynn. The agonised housekeeper and comedy queen of Craggy Island launched a tea-cosy revival and was single-handedly responsible for an entire nation saying “Ah go on, go on, go on” any time a tipple of any description was being refused.
19. Mary Kate Danaher
From The Quiet Man
Maureen O’Hara is teasing stereotypes – the flame-haired colleen with a volcanic temper – in John Ford’s tribute to an Ireland that never existed. But the actor’s unquenchable charm gave Mary Kate eternal life. Forever waving from the arched bridge.
Tom Murphy never let go of Mommo, a character in four of his works, and nowhere more indelibly than in Bailegangaire. A bedridden woman cared-for – begrudgingly – by two granddaughters, she is lost in memory and an unfinished folk tale about a fateful laughing competition. Equal parts senile and shamanic, Mommo’s own laughter peppers the tale of a family trauma, until finally it mingles with the cathartic sobs that bring fable and life into a tight, extraordinary braid.
17. Middle Sister
The harassed protagonist of Anna Burns’s Booker-winning novel is unnamed – referred to only as Middle Sister or Maybe Girlfriend – but unforgettable. Her habit of reading while walking the war-torn streets of maybe Belfast might alienate neighbours but endears her to book-lovers everywhere, as do her courage, wit and insight.
16. The Bull McCabe
From The Field
Play, 1965; film, 1990
Jim Sheridan’s translation of John B Keane’s play to the big screen has its issues, but few could argue with Richard Harris as Keane’s King Lear of the rain-hammered west. Whole libraries of resistance are etched into the crevices on his brow.
15. Lucy Gault
From The Story of Lucy Gault
It’s 1921. Lucy, aged eight, is lost, presumed dead. Her distraught Anglo-Irish parents depart their estate in Cork for good. Then Lucy is found; her whole life ever after defined by loss. Lucy is fate and fable itself; a living ghost that haunts readers of William Trevor’s book.
14. Nigel ‘Nidge’ Delaney
TV drama, 2010
Written by Stuart Carolan, this singular drama series featured numerous unforgettable characters and characterisations, but it was Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s portrayal of the dangerous, paranoid and unforgiving Nidge, a gangland general in an increasingly filthy war played out on the streets of Dublin, that elevated the series to classic status.
13. Judith Hearne
From The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
Judith Hearne, snobbish, delusional and alcoholic, craves love and acknowledgment. As she moves from one pitiful boarding house to another in Belfast, her life unspools to reveal the reasons for her vulnerability. Brian Moore’s devastating and unforgettable portrait of loneliness.
12. Jimmy Rabbitte
From the Barrytown trilogy
Books, 1987 (The Commitments), 1990 (The Snapper) and 1991 (The Van)
Irish culture is coming down with terrible fathers and horrible husbands. Roddy Doyle created one of the worst himself in Family’s Charlo Spencer, but redemption is to be found in his Barrytown trilogy’s big-hearted, long-suffering, bluff but tender Jimmy Rabbitte snr, memorably and accurately brought to life on screen by Colm Meaney.
From Adam & Paul
... and Paul, obviously. The wandering drug users in Lenny Abrahamson’s debut come across as complementary segments of the same anarchic consciousness. Mark O’Halloran plays Paul as the marginally more functional. The late Tom Murphy made something heartbreakingly pathetic of the doomed Adam.
10. Gabriel Conroy
From The Dead
Short story, 1914; film, 1987
Gabriel Conroy is at the pulsing centre of this James Joyce short story with a novel’s range. Over an evening in Dublin, his entire inner life is slowly revealed; his psyche undone. By the end of the evening, he knows that what he believed was lasting romantic love was in fact as unpredictable as snow.
9. Gar Public/Private
From Philadelphia, Here I Come!
Starved for sensation, affection and opportunity, is it any wonder a young man might be split in two? In Gar Public, we have the inarticulate, resentful lad on the eve of emigration; in Gar Private, his freewheeling, satiric, subversive alter ego. The electricity between them in Brian Friel’s play remains a singular innovation in Irish theatre and an indelible portrait of the eruptive promise within Ireland’s suffocated youth.
8. Michael Moran
From Amongst Women
Moran is the diseased oak in the family, his roots underground, coiling around all the women in his family as they try in their various ways to escape him in John McGahern’s novel. He is a monumental character, forceful and belligerent, who ultimately becomes a vulnerable man, one desperately trying to hide what he considers weakness in himself.
7. Rashers Tierney
From Strumpet City
Book, 1969; TV drama, 1980
Rashers, the wretched, ragged hero of James Plunkett’s epic about the Lockout and Dublin’s poor, represents, despite his degradation, the human spirit’s undying dignity. In lesser hands, as Fintan O’Toole wrote, he could have merely embodied the horror of poverty. Instead, he is poetic, even mystical, an exemplar of ordinary nobility and decency.
6. Francie Brady
From The Butcher Boy
Book, 1992; film, 1997
The Butcher Boy became an instant classic. Its anti-hero, Francie Brady, leapt off the pages of Patrick McCabe’s novel (and later off the stage and screen) with comic-book energy, a lovable, vulnerable, dangerously damaged adolescent, his howl of despair reminiscent of Oskar in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum.
5. Fr Dougal
From Father Ted
TV comedy, 1995
The guileless Roman Catholic curate in the red tank top, as confused by religion as by perspective (“These are small cows, Dougal, the others are far away”), was played by Ardal O’Hanlon. As sidekick to the brilliant Dermot Morgan’s Father Ted, Dougal’s gentle madness lit up Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews’s peerless comedy.
4. Molly Bloom
Yes, she may have been born in Gibraltar, and, yes, she corresponds to Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, but Molly – modelled on James Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle – is both Irish and universal. Her frank, uninhibited sensuality shocked many when Ulysses was published, and it is still striking a century later. Her final soliloquy is one of literature’s finest.
3. Pegeen Mike
From The Playboy of the Western World
In The Playboy of the Western World, we see a character created right in front of us. But it’s Pegeen Mike, a trapped young woman surrounded by eejits, who both makes and unmakes him. Recent productions of JM Synge’s play have stressed how socially confined Pegeen is, but also the deep well of her rage. “Well, it’s a terror to be aged a score,” says Widow Quinn. More than a century later, she’s no less tragic, or fearsome.
2. Leopold Bloom
Drawn in such loving detail that readers come to know him intimately, despite their acquaintance lasting but a single day, Bloom is flawed but shines for his tolerant compassion. For the literary critic and biographer Richard Ellmann, “The divine part of Bloom is simply his humanity – his assumption of a bond between himself and other created beings.”
From Waiting for Godot
Homeless, restless and famously placeless (“A country road. A tree. Evening.”), Vladimir is from a place that nobody can confidently name. Is this terse intellect who passes the time in Waiting for Godot as Irish as his creator? Is he as French as the language he was conceived in? Or, safer to say, is he none of the above?
It’s a question Samuel Beckett would have dismissed, stripping his tragicomic masterpiece of colloquialisms and clues. But, in interpretation or performance, you can’t take Ireland out of the characters. “Excuse me, Mister, the bones, you won’t be wanting the bones?” could be a line from Synge. “Calm... calm... The truth is Vladimir would sound familiar in any language or accent. In his needs, frustration, joy, tenderness and persistence he’s all humanity.
Thankfully, he has good company. Next to Estragon, the gentle heart to Vladimir’s irascible head, he leads us through a tragicomedy of vaudeville and philosophy that still gnaws at the concerns of our lives: sustaining and deadening routines, the dance between despair and happiness, warm companionship and the cold promise of oblivion.
Wherever they sprang from, this eternal, profound double act made Ireland universal. It isn’t going anywhere in a hurry.
Book characters chosen by Rosita Boland and Martin Doyle, film characters chosen by Donald Clarke, theatre characters chosen by Peter Crawley, and television characters chosen by Hilary Fannin