Ten Great Irish Films for St Patrick’s Day (That Don’t Feature Leprechauns or John Wayne)

Rachael Kelly presents a series of alternatives to The Quiet Man.

So, you may have noticed that today is a Big Deal in certain parts of the world. And we’re not even necessarily talking specifically about this part of the world – as in Northern Ireland, the place that CinePunked calls home – since it turns out that other places also like an excuse to get dressed up in silly costumes and start drinking at 10am. You’re welcome, other parts of the world that celebrate St Patrick’s Day. We’re like your fun uncle that buys you cigarettes as long as you promise not to tell your mum.

For a little tiny island on the edge of a murderously angry big ocean, we do seem to have occupied more than our fair share of the Anglophone cultural imagination. By which we mean that the notion of “Irishness” is big business on the big screen, and not always in a way that’s… well… completely flattering or accurate. So, sure, you could spend today watching Darby O’Gill and the Little People or (shudder) Far and Away and feel like you’ve paid your dues to Mother Erin. But you know we’re not going to let you do that. We’re taking the idea of Irish cinema to mean films specifically made on this rainy, beautiful island, and we’ve got 10 of them for you that we pretty much guarantee you haven’t seen before. And you really should.

1 Good Vibrations (dir. Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, 2013)

Not to play into a stereotype (and yes, we here at CinePunked have indeed – genuinely – been asked if we know Daniel O’Donnell when on holiday in other countries) but there are probably few enough Belfast natives of a certain age who don’t have some kind of a Terri Hooley story, and for good reason. The man is a legend in his own time. Good Vibrations is the story of how that legend came to be, and it really ought not to be possible for a film set against a backdrop of the messy sectarian violence of 1970s Northern Ireland to make you feel so good about life. Northern Irish actor Richard Dormer plays Hooley, which means that viewers from this part of the world are spared the agonising cringe of hearing our terrible accent mangled once again on the big screen.

2 Puckoon (dir. Terrence Ryan, 2002)

Do not ask Rachael about her Richard Attenborough stories, because she has several – starting from when she had a minor role behind the scenes on the making of this movie – and she will tell you and you will have no choice but to be told. An adaptation of Spike Milligan’s gloriously bonkers – but politically astute – 1963 novel about the chaos caused to a sleepy Irish village by the partition of the country, the film was shot in and around Belfast only a couple of years after the Good Friday Agreement famously put an (uneasy) end to the Troubles. Sean Hughes stars, alongside a veritable who’s-who of the film world – including Elliot Gould, Griff Rhys Jones, Milo O’Shea, and, yes, Lord Attenborough himself – assembled by the late, great Jo Gilbert.

3 The Devil’s Doorway (dir. Aislinn Clarke, 2018)

A found footage horror story with a beating, angry heart, The Devil’s Doorway is director Aislinn Clarke’s scream of rage against the Magdalene Laundries, brutal homes for unmarried mothers run by the Catholic church which triggered a national scandal when the unmarked graves of 133 inmates were discovered in 1993. Clarke’s feature debut tells the story of two priests investigating reports of a miracle at a Magdalene asylum in 1960s Ireland, who discover something unholy and terrifying instead, and was widely praised for its handling of the real-life nightmare behind its fictional scares.

4 Elephant (dir. Alan Clarke, 1989)

No, not the Gus van Sant interrogation of gun violence in US schools, though it’s a clear influence on that later work: this (pre-Trainspotting) Danny Boyle-produced short film is something altogether more challenging and hard-hitting, and that’s saying something. The title comes from writer Bernard MacLaverty’s observation that the Northern Irish conflict is “the elephant in the room” and the film absolutely defies you to look away as eighteen murders are committed, one by one, for 40 unrelenting minutes. Attracting praise and controversy in almost equal measure on its release, the film is a bleak but powerful testament to the brutality of the Troubles.

You can listen to our discussion with the film’s location manager (and later Assistant Head of Drama for BBC Northern Ireland) Kevin Jackson here.

5 Wake Wood (dir. David Keating, 2009)

Hammer Films does Northern Ireland. Bet you weren’t expecting those five words to appear in a sentence together. The first theatrical release in thirty years from the legendary studio, Wake Wood was filmed in Donegal (and also Sweden, but ssh, we won’t mention that if you don’t) and stars Aiden Gillen and Eva Birthistle as grieving parents offered the chance to see their late daughter one last time. In typical horror fashion, that goes about as well as you might expect, and the results are satisfyingly gruesome. Though it received largely positive reviews, a very limited release (it opened in only four cinemas) meant that it did very little box office and promptly disappeared from sight. Definitely worth a watch, though, if you like your horror Hammer-y.

6 Odd Man Out (dir. Carol Reed, 1947)

Northern Irish sectarian conflict meets film noir in this WW2-era tale of a heist-gone-wrong and its tragic aftermath. James Mason stars as Johnny, an Irish nationalist on the run in Belfast after he leads a robbery in which a guard is killed. Directed by, starring, and based on a novel by Englishmen, the film is nevertheless a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of the conflict in Northern Ireland – though, to be fair, FL Green, on whose novel the film is based, was married to a Belfast woman and had lived in the city for over a decade when the book was written. Though our protagonist is clearly a member of the IRA (even if the film doesn’t directly say as much), he’s presented as flawed and politically entrenched, but never one-dimensional. Belfast’s iconic Crown Bar is referenced in the film – though the actual location was reconstructed on a sound stage in England – and much of the outdoor scenes were shot in the west of the city, making this an unusual tribute to a troubled city.

7 Puffball (dir. Nicolas Roeg, 2007)

The final film from the legend that was Nicolas Roeg, and adapted from a 1980 novel by Fay Weldon, Puffball moves the setting from the novel’s English countryside to isolated, rural Ireland in order to evoke, per the director, the island’s “mysticism.” Kelly Reilly stars as Liffey, an English architect who moves to Ireland to build a new house on the site of a ruined cottage and becomes embroiled in what one reviewer calls “a gynecological guerilla war” when she finds herself pregnant with what may be the longed-for son of her neighbour’s (Miranda Richardson) husband. Released to mixed reviews, Don’t Look Now it ain’t, but the film is still filled with Roeg’s signature visual style and black magic shenanigans aplenty.

8 Man of Aran (dir. Robert J Flaherty, 1934)

From the director of Nanook of the North, this 1934 fictional documentary may have taken a few liberties with the facts (famously, the method of shark hunting depicted had not been used by Aran islanders for over fifty years when the film was made), but all in the service of finding a deeper truth about the brutal reality of life on the isolated islands. In common with other documentaries of the era, the film is silent, and was the result of two years of filming on Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands. Its reputation has come under fire in recent years as the extent of Flaherty’s truth-bending has become more widely known, but the cinematography is breathtaking and the film remains, if not an insight into the lives it purports to portray, at the very least an insight into the world as Flaherty saw it.

9 I Am Belfast (dir. Mark Cousins, 2015)

A love letter to a city with a less-than-adorable reputation, Belfast filmmaker Mark Cousins’ I Am Belfast is, as one critic describes it, “a deeply personal visual essay” that looks for the heart of a place that’s often seen in one dimension on the international stage. Without shying away from the city’s bloody past, Cousins manages to find the beauty in the mundane, the ordinary, and the quintessentially Belfast in a way that probably no other filmmaker could. See it for a chance to experience the face of this city that you won’t see on the news.

10. The Snapper (dir. Stephen Frears, 1993)

Okay, so you’ve definitely seen The Commitments, but have you seen the second film adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s bestselling Rabbitte saga? You really should. The family’s surname had to be changed to Curley for the screen adaptation (20th Century Fox, who adapted The Commitments, own the rights to Rabbitte now) and, being a television movie this time around, it doesn’t have quite the same name recognition as its more famous big brother, but we’d argue the laughs are bigger for the shift to the small screen. Tina Kellegher plays Sharon Curley, the 20-year-old daughter of Colm Meaney’s Des, who finds herself pregnant after a drunken one night stand and is far too embarrassed to reveal the name of the father. Hilarity ensues, woven through, as always, with Doyle’s effervescent wit and affection for his native Dublin.

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh, poppets, and whatever you’re doing today to celebrate, have fun. Just please – for the love of God – do not watch Far and Away. Or if you do, don’t tell us. Or if you do tell us, come at us fighting. It’s what the leprechauns would want, after all.

Published: 17 March 2022

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