St. Patrick’s Day is upon us. That glorious day when everyone celebrates — some a little too much — this great saint and the greatness of Irish culture. In Ireland the celebration is more around the saint, and here in America it’s more a celebration of Irish culture and heritage. But the Irish have brought so much to America, so is it fitting that we celebrate them.
I was asked by The Christian Review to list my top ten Irish movies, but who can choose what is better than the others? So I chose ten Irish movies that are all great movies to watch, placing them in no specific order.
The Quiet Man (1952) with Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne
The Quiet Man is a story about an ex-boxer, Sean Thornton (Wayne), who originally immigrated to Pittsburgh with his mother when he was very young but decides to move back to Inishfree where he was born. The movie opens with his arrival and follows his journey through small-town Irish. He meets Mary Kate Danaher (O’Hara) and immediately falls in love with her. Unfortunately, he has to deal with her stubborn older brother, courting laws, and eventually his own past as he faces the problem of how to win back a dowry he cares nothing about. It’s a classic that marries some of John Wayne’s Western macho with the Maureen O’Hara’s romantic beauty with the old traditions of Ireland. One the whole family will love!
The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) with Jeni Collins, Mick Lally, and Eileen Colgan
10-year-old Fiona is sent away from her family in an industrial center in Ireland to live with her grandparents in a small fishing village in Donegal, Ireland. Here she is thrown into her family history and a mystery that has shrouded her family’s move from the island of Roan Inish years previous. She learns through a cousin in the village that an ancestor of hers married a Selkie — a seal who can turn into a human–and that is why their family has such strong ties to the sea. Years earlier, her baby brother Jamey was washed out to see in a ship-shaped cradle while the family was moving from the island to the mainland. Rumor has it that he has been seen on Roan Inish with the seals, and if one looks closely at night you can see the light from the fire that he builds on the island in the old cottages. So Fiona sets out to uncover the mystery and find her lost brother. This movie weaves Irish lore and stories to the background of its gorgeous soundtrack. Another for parents to watch with their children.
Michael Collins (1996) with Liam Neeson, Aiden Quinn, and Julia Roberts
Michael Collins was a key leader in the fight for Irish freedom. He was one of the main leaders in the 1916 uprising, helped lead the rebellion following the uprising, and was sent on behalf of the Irish leadership to negotiate the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty with Winston Churchill. This movie provides an excellent view of the fight for Irish freedom, the politics in Ireland at the time, the necessity of force to bring an end to the British occupation, and the beginning of the Irish Civil War following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. It is a wonderful movie for those who are interested in Irish history and, in particular, Irish nationalism. There’s too much violence for younger children.
Waking Ned Devine (1998) with Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flanagan, and Jimmy Keogh.
What to say about this movie? The Waking of Ned Devine is a hilarious comedy surrounding the Irish lottery. When a winning lottery ticket is announced and no one comes to claim it, the lottery office tracks down the purchase to a small village where Jackie O’Shea (Bannen) and Michael O’Sullivan (Kelly) live. They come up with a scheme with Jackie’s wife, Annie (Flanagan), to track down the winner to try to swindle them out the ticket or to acquire some of the proceeds from the win. After obtaining a list of people who bought lottery tickets, they realize that the reclusive Ned Devine (Keogh) was the only one they couldn’t locate. When they go to his house, they discover that he is still holding his lottery ticket, with a smile on his face, dead from shock. Jackie, Michael, and Annie devise a plan for Michael to pose as Ned and try to convince the national lottery representative and collect the money. Along the way they pull in the rest of the village, promising to distribute the winnings, and pull off a scheme that only the Irish can. A fun, light comedy, rated PG, but with occasional crude humor.
War of the Buttons (1994) with Gregg Fitzgerald, Gerard Kearney, and Darragh Naughton
The War of the Buttons is a charming movie about the children of two Irish towns, Ballydowse and Carrickdowse, who are involved in a great war — The War of the Buttons. They engage in battles where their captives must lose their buttons, shoelaces, belts, and braces before returning home, much to the chagrin of their parents. Along the way, they learn more about each other, and the leaders of the two factions learn to respect each other, even though they are still leading warring parties. Definitely high on my list of suggested movies that the whole family will love.
The Secret of Kells (2009) with Mick Lally, Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, and Brendan Gleeson
The Secret of Kells, a genuine work of art, is an animated tale about Brandon, a young boy who lives in the monastery of Kells. His uncle is the Abbott and feels the best way to secure Kells against the barbarian Vikings is to fortify it with a strong wall. Brandon, on the other hand, is more interested in the illuminators who are keeping the culture and history of Christianity and Ireland alive in the Scriptorium. When Brother Aiden of Iona arrives, everyone is so excited, since he is a master illuminator. He has been working on the famous Book of Iona (The Books of Kells), which the movie constantly references as the book that turns darkness into light. He engages Brandon’s help in getting what he needs from the forest to assist him in his work on the Bible. While in the forest, Brandon meets a fairy who helps him find what he needs and even helps him face the evil Chrom Crauch–a supernatural snake who destroyed many of the fairies in the forest and has the crystal eye that Brandon needs to finish the book.
The art in the animation is amazing. All the images are drawn just like the Books of Kells, and the detail for each scene is incredible. It truly makes the art come alive. The soundtrack is also very beautiful. Highly recommended for all ages!
Riverdance (1994) with Jean Butler and Michael Flatley (or any version you can get find.)
The Riverdance phenomenon came after the show won the Eurovision awards in 1994. In the 20 years following, they have toured the world, putting Irish dance on the international stage. It helped spark a renewed love of Irish culture, Irish music, and most of all Irish dance. Riverdance is where one should start if you have any interest in following Irish dancing shows. Jean Butler is grace itself as she dances on stage, and Michael Flatley is molten energy, pre-Lord of the Dance. Riverdance was one of the first shows to celebrate the fullness of Irish culture with the lineup highlighting dance, song, and Irish music, which Michael Flatley would replicate moving forward.
Over the years the show has changed, but the quality of dance has not. I went to go see the show when it came through northern Virginia in 2013, and as a former Irish dancer I was skeptical that it would live up to its promise but I was happily proved wrong. The dancing was precise and as beautiful as the original 1994 show I grew up watching!
Lord of the Dance/Feet of Flames (1996/1998)
Lord of the Dance was formed just after Riverdance began. Michael Flatley broke from the show to start his own and in time became known as the “Lord of the Dance,” based on the contemporary hymn. Later on, the show expanded to add more dances and shifted the storyline slightly to become Feet of Flames. The storyline follows the character of the “Lord of the Dance” and his fight against the dark lord to prevent him from taking over Ireland. With the help of a fairy, he is able to conquer the opposition. There’s also a second theme running of love versus lust. Will the Lord of the Dance choose the “good” princess Caitlin or the wicked temptress? This is another fun show to watch, though it’s in a Las Vegas show style.
Celtic Tiger (2004)
Following Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames success, Michael Flatley created a new show called Celtic Tiger. The show only lasted a short time and is even more like a Las Vegas show than Lord of the Dance and Riverdance. The only reason I put it on the list is because the dancing in a few scenes is so gorgeous. One of my favorites–though I hate to admit it –is the Redcoats Hornpipe. The clean and precise dance is such an excellent representation of traditional Irish Dance that one cannot help but fall in love. You can either order the video or find clips of it on YouTube. Here’s the clip of the Redcoats!
Going My Way (1944) with Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, and Frank McHugh.
Okay, so this isn’t exactly an Irish movie, but the character of the old Irish priest (Barry Fitzgerald) is charming and Bing Crosby himself, very Irish, plays Fr. Chuck O’Malley. Fr. O’Malley led a life of music, fun, sports, and romance before following his calling to become a priest. He is transferred to St. Dominic’s Parish where he is to help the elderly Fr. Fitzgibbon (Fitzgerald) get the parish out of debt and back in order.
One of the best things about the movie is the appreciation and respect for the priesthood. Even though Fr. O’Malley sees his old girlfriend at the Opera and works with her on other projects while she is in town, he never questions his vocation. Definitely another one for the whole family!