St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday to celebrate all things Irish, from the food, to the drinks, to one of the country’s best exports: storytelling. Whether it’s a look at Ireland’s struggle for independence, the people’s journeys to new lands, or a fun romp through the enchanting folklore, there’s a film to fit anyone’s mood on this festive holiday. So grab a pint, gather your friends and family, and kick back with some tales of the Emerald Isle.
A heartbreaking look at the sacrifice and toll of the fight for Irish independence, The Wind That Shakes The Barley is frequently hailed as an Irish masterpiece. The story of two brothers who are ultimately torn apart by their different approaches to the country’s political struggles is anchored by Cillian Murphy, as he goes from idealistic young man to a leader in the fight for freedom. Director Ken Loach doesn’t glamorize any part of the fight, focusing instead on the human cost of a country and a people looking to break from colonial rule.
Music is an integral part of Irish culture, and The Commitments highlights that with an unexpected approach. Jimmy (Robert Arkins) decides to put together a soul band made up of his fellow working class Dubliners, celebrating their skills and the Black musicians who inspired them. Full of memorable performances of beloved Motown hits (and an early appearance from future Oscar winner Glen Hansard), the movie is a crowd-pleaser. These underdogs don’t quite break through, yet they still manage to find joy in the thing that brought them together in the first place: music.
Another ode to Ireland’s love of music, Once tells the story of Guy (Glen Hansard) and Girl (Markéta Irglová) finding a deep connection through music despite a language barrier and other issues threatening their friendly, borderline romantic relationship. It is by turns charming, romantic, and a bit melancholy, like many of the best Irish tales. The film’s breakout song, the longing-filled “Falling Slowly,” earned Hansard and Irglová an Oscar for Best Original Song.
John Wayne plays a retired American boxer who returns to the small Irish town of his birth, where he falls in love with a woman, and runs afoul of her brother. The woman is Mary Kate, played with passion by Irish native Maureen O’Hara, who has her own battle’s with Wayne’s manly man looking to start a new life in a country he feels connected to, but doesn’t fully understand. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, and won two, one for director John Ford, and the other for Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout’s cinematography, whose use of technicolor to capture the vibrant green Ireland is famous for, along with O’Hara’s signature red hair, contributes to the film’s timeless allure.
A hidden gem of a movie, Into The West tells the story of two brothers who end up on an adventure after a mysterious (and potentially mystical) white horse named for an Irish legend enters their lives. Though somewhat fantastical, the story doesn’t shy away from some of the harsher realities facing the boys, who are members of the Irish Traveller community. The cast also boasts a who’s who of Irish talent including Gabriel Byrne, David Kelly, Colm Meaney, and an early role for Brendan Gleeson.
Sing Street is yet another example of the impact of music within Irish culture, while being a universal coming-of-age story at the same time. Young Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) starts a band to escape his harsh life at home and school and impress the girl of his dreams. Who among us hasn’t thought that that would work? The film also boasts a killer soundtrack of real 80s hits (like Duran Duran’s “Rio”) along with the on-screen band’s originals, like the absolute bop “Drive It Like You Stole It.”
Inspired by the actual Book of Kells, a 9th century illuminated manuscript of four Gospels of the New Testament currently located at Trinity College in Dublin, and blended with Celtic mythology, The Secret of Kells is a beautifully animated masterpiece. The film follows Brendan, a young boy at a monastery under siege who works to help complete a mysterious book, facing his fears and adventuring through an enchanted forest. Filled with striking images and engaging story, it’s worth a watch. The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film.
Michael Fassbender stars as Irish icon Bobby Sands, who died after a 66 day prison hunger strike in 1981, protesting the treatment of Irish republican prisoners. To portray Sands during the final six weeks of his life, Fassbender, in a harrowing portrayal of Sands’ dedication to the cause, went on a special diet and shed over 40 pounds. The film, directed by Steve McQueen, does not shy away from the devastation to the human body the hunger strike takes.
The word “shenanigans” has never been more applicable. This fun tale of wily old Darby, his beautiful daughter Katie, a handsome young lad (a young Sean Connery), and King Brian of the Leprechauns, is perfect for anyone who loves a good story. Impressive special effects for the time add to the magical elements of leprechauns, pookas, and one spooky banshee. Darby O’Gill and the Little People is a Disney classic dripping with whimsy and charm.
Ireland has a population of around seven million, but it’s estimated that there are 50-80 million people around the world of Irish descent, making emigration an important element in many stories of Irish families. The subject matter is handled beautifully in director Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical In America. Told through the eyes of the family’s eldest daughter, the film follows the Sullivans as they arrive in New York, grieving not only leaving home, but also the tragic loss of their young son. The family’s love must keep them together as they struggle to build new lives and find hope in a new world.
Daniel Day-Lewis won his first of three Best Actor Oscars for his portrayal of Christy Brown, an Irish writer and painter who had cerebral palsy and, as a result, only had control of his left foot. Christy truly does not let his condition stop him, using his will, intelligence and humor to carve a life for himself. He’s aided by his dedicated mother, played by Irish acting legend Brenda Fricker, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Day-Lewis famously committed himself to the role, staying in character and reportedly breaking two ribs in the process. Through his moving performance, he captures Christy’s indomitable spirit, never making him a person to be pitied or one to be put on a pedestal; rather, presenting a fully rounded character with both charms and flaws.