Movies in or About Ireland and the Irish

I've come up with a list of ten movies about the Irish that I've enjoyed. I think all of these films are worth seeing and all increase our understanding of what it means to be Irish.

Here's my list:

Angela's Ashes (1999)
"Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." So says the voice-over narration in this film adaptation of Frank McCourt’s bestselling memoir about growing up poor in Limerick in the 1930s and ’40s. The film traces Frank's first communion, first job, and first sexual experience and ends with 19-year-old Frank arriving at the Statue of Liberty. What I like best about this movie is its feeling of melancholy suffused with optimism.

Circle of Friends (1995)
Minnie Driver is captivating as Benny, a spirited, but rather plain, young woman who doesn't want to stay in her Irish village for the rest of her life. She manages to go away to college in Dublin, where she falls in love with the handsome Jack (Chris O'Donnell). This is a bittersweet film that I believe captures how it must have felt to come of age in the 1950s.

The Commitments (1991)
A group of working-class young men from the poorest district of North Dublin form a band that plays soul music. The film follows the ups and downs of the band as they go from gig to gig, performing their own version of numbers like "Mustang Sally" and "Try a Little Tenderness." There's not much plot here, but I found the dialogue, the characters, the energy, and the music irresistible.

The Crying Game (1992)
While guarding a British soldier named Jody who has been taken hostage, IRA volunteer Fergus befriends him. When Jody is killed, Fergus tracks down the soldier’s lover Dil, and the pair soon discover that they are sexually attracted to each other. Jaye Davidson creates an unforgettable character as the vulnerable Dil ("I’m loud, darling, but never cheap."), and I really enjoyed the unexpected twists and turns of this highly original movie, which was nominated for six Academy Awards.

Hear My Song (1991)
The huckster manager of a run-down Liverpool nightclub has been reduced to misleadingly advertising acts like "Franc Cinatra" to stay afloat financially. Realizing that he must book a box-office draw to rescue his failing business, he travels to Ireland on a quest to recruit a legendary Irish tenor who fled the U.K. years earlier to avoid British tax collectors. This is a small film to be sure, but to my way of thinking its charm and wit make it unusually amusing.

In the Name of the Father (1993)
This movie is based on a true story that began in 1974 when an IRA bomb exploded in England, killing several people. Soon Gerry Conlon, a petty thief from Belfast, was convicted of the bombing. Several of Conlon’s friends and relatives, including his father, were also jailed. But after languishing behind bars for 14 years, Conlon and his father were completely exonerated and released. The tale of the miscarriage of justice is well-told in this movie, but I think the best thing about the film is the nuanced way the relationship between son and father is developed during their years in prison.

Michael Collins (1996)
Liam Neeson stars as the title character in this biopic about the Irish folk hero who led the fight against British rule some 80 years ago. Initially Collins' role in the IRA was as "minister for Gun Running, Daylight Robbery, and Bloody Mayhem," but he eventually wearied of the bloodshed and negotiated a settlement. The compromise resulted in the establishment of the Irish Free State, but left Northern Ireland under the British. The film's interpretation of Irish history is intriguing, and I was impressed that the movie doesn't shy away from presenting controversies that still resonate today.

My Left Foot (1989)
Daniel Day-Lewis won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal in this biopic of Christy Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy into a poor but loving Irish family. Although the only movement Brown could control was in his left foot, he nevertheless developed into an acclaimed painter and writer. However, Brown apparently wasn’t a likable man, and the movie depicts him as an ill-tempered, manipulative, foul-mouthed boozer. But the film contains just the right touches of warmth and humor, and for me these transform watching this rather painful story into a very moving experience.

The Quiet Man (1952)
John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara star in this delightful romantic comedy that was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Wayne portrays a retired American boxer who comes to Ireland, where he sees a beautiful young woman barefoot, tending sheep in a pasture. Thus begins a tempestuous courtship--a sort of an Irish Taming of the Shrew. My favorite scene is where a local resident enters the cottage where the couple have just spent their wedding night. He walks through the smashed bedroom door and finds the bed broken, whereupon he exclaims, "Impetuous! Homeric!"

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)
Fiona is a ten-year-old girl who has been sent to live with her grandparents on the west coast of Ireland. There she hears the curious legend that one of her ancestors married a selkie, a creature that is part woman, part seal. Then Fiona thinks she sees what might be her younger brother, who disappeared years earlier, in a cradle being carried through the water by seals. The story unfolds from there as the girl grapples with these mysteries. This is a magical fable that is photographed with stunning beauty, and it’s one of the few films I know of that really can be enjoyed by the whole family.