The Portrayal of the Irish in Movies

When I first visited the U.S., 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)." He mentions The New York Times piece by Maureen O'Dowd, Beautifying Abbey Road, January 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.

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.

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

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 lense of a camera is really the eye of the director, and that's whose perspective we are seeing.

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 you 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.

Join our Irish film group, "The Wild Geese Cinema"

Views: 3508

Tags: Entertainment, Film, Movies, Television

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 30, 2015 at 7:00am

There is enough Irish actors out there how ; to employ them; and to not have that dreadful fake Irish  taht is so beloved of Hollywood ; Awful ; awful ; awful ; 

Comment by Lonnie on January 30, 2015 at 7:34am

Agreed Mary. I think we need to see more Irish actresses though.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 30, 2015 at 8:33am

Absolutely Lonnie 

Comment by Paul Thomas Meagher on February 1, 2015 at 12:46pm

A very thoughtful and comprehensive analysis, thank you, Lonnie. Of the entire set, the two films that most resonated with me were "The Field" and "The Guard" for realism although "The Guard" was far lighter. I didn't see a mention of the '50s classic "The Informer" or the more recent "Five Minutes to Heaven" with Liam Neeson or the intermediate "Bloody Sunday", all of which in my opinion were accurate portrayals of Ireland and its men (women were scarce). No better picture of rural Ireland exists for me than "The Field" which any boy in 1940s or '50s Ireland would recognise as likely a local story dramatised but not exaggerated. Fair play to you, Lonnie.

Comment by Lonnie on February 1, 2015 at 2:37pm
Thanks for the comment and for reading Paul. I did like Five Minutes in Heaven, both Neeson and Nesbitt are great actors and were brilliant in that movie. The Informer with Victor McLagen, did I spell his name right?, is a movie I have not seen, but I really should. Not a fan of Victor's acting to be very honest, but I should watch the movie first and then judge.
Comment by Paul Thomas Meagher on February 1, 2015 at 3:33pm

Lonnie, McLaglen or MacLaglen, Scots actor. I'm pretty sure the first. He was hopeless in "The Quiet Man", a film I'm reluctant to even admit I watched."The Informer" is an old monochrome film that I haven't seen since the '50s. From a story by Liam O'Flaherty, I seem to recall. Given its subject matter, a tough watch. Now, as soon as this snowstorm is over and I can get home, I intend to watch again those movies in your list that I own!


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