Top 5 Films Set In Ireland

Ireland films_2

With Ireland’s rich history and magnificent landscapes, it is no surprise this scenic country has been the inspiration and backdrop for numerous films and television series.

Often referred to as the Emerald Isle, Ireland has been shaped into the beautiful and unique country we know today by its rich culture and heritage.

Referring primarily to the gem and colour, both associated with Ireland’s geography and literary legacies, the land is often forgotten as one rich in cinematic history, with her lands becoming a gorgeous backdrop for blockbuster titles like HBO’s Game of Thrones, and Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

In celebration of the final series of the cult Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls, we want to highlight our five favourite examples of how triumphant Ireland is, and has been at creating exceptional media across the years.

5. Once

Written and directed by John Carney, this romantic musical drama had a turbulent time getting to the big screen. First rejected by several European film festivals, it was not until the film’s completion that it was picked up by the Sundance Film Festival in 2007.

The irony of this is that despite the film having received countless rejections, it has since developed into both a West End and Broadway show where it received 11 Tony nominations in its debut year, including Best Musical.

Taking a unique approach, Carney does not give names to either lead role played by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová opting only to refer to them as Guy and Girl respectively.

To omit the characters’ names encourages viewers to identify more with the character, and the characters become stand-ins for anybody.

Set in Ireland’s capital, Dublin, Guy is a guitarist and singer, making a living busking and repairing vacuum cleaners with his Dad. Guy meets Girl when she inquires about her broken vacuum, and the two share their passion for music. 

The pair grow close, revealing their budding love through their collective musical interest as Guy works to record a demo disc, in the hopes of signing a record contract with the Girl’s vocal and piano skills.

It is later revealed the Girl is married, and despite their connection to each other, the two eventually part ways with the Girl’s husband moving to Dublin, and Guy returning to London, but not before purchasing the Girl a new piano. 

It is a beautiful love story in the heart of Ireland, that focuses on the raw humanity of love and the emotional connection between two souls. The Irish backdrop adds gravitas to the poignant love story harmonising between Hansard and Irglová who fell in love as a result of this film, making all their emotions truly accurate and raw. 

Carney opted for cinematic realism through the use of pragmatic cinematography and opting to not manipulate the scene, as to mirror documentary fly-on-the-wall storytelling, showing us the depth of truth of the characters. 

Reaching critical acclaim, the independently released film won both Hansard and Irglová the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2008 with the song Falling Slowly taken from the soundtrack cementing Ireland on the map for filmmakers at the turn of the decade.

4. Calvary 

This Irish drama written and directed by John Michael McDonagh released in 2014 sees Priest Father James (Brendan Gleeson) performing his Sunday confessionals when Jack, played by Chris O’Dowd tells Gleeson he is going to kill him after he was abused by a priest in his youth. 

Conflicted with how to respond, Gleeson attempts to continue his weekly duties while facing challenges in his family and work life. Through the course of the week, Gleeson’s life begins to fall apart as he is confronted by what he wants out of life and his values. 

Released with positive reviews, highlighting McDonagh’s tackling of weighty thematic elements, the story shines a light on the sexual abuse scandal surrounding the Catholic Church, a topic that is still considered tumultuous in Ireland, whilst also fighting for the necessity of institutional priesthood. A sensitive tightrope to walk but McDonagh achieves this feat with honesty, sincerity, and a little humour. 

Gleeson’s performance as the pure natured priest was praised for being akin to that of one with Shepherd’s heart. His involvement and commitment to the role provided the balance with this dark religious comedy-drama needed to not stray too far into comedy, by allowing the realism of the events to inform and provoke audiences.

When a film has a plot or theme that revolves around a sensitive topic such as molestation within the Catholic Church, it is well worth the praise that Calvary deserves. As such, it subsequently won three awards at the Irish Film and Television Awards: Best Film, Best Lead Actor, and Best Film Screenplay.

Brendan Gleeson as Father James in Calvary. Photo by Twentieth Century Fox.

3. Circle of Friends

Directed by Irish filmmaker Pat O’Connor, Circle of Friends is a 1995 romance drama set in Dublin in 1957, based on the book by Maeve Binchy of the same name.

Following Benny Hogan (Minnie Driver), and her best friend Eve Malone (Geraldine O’Rawe) they attend Dublin University College, where they reunite with an old friend Nan played by Saffron Burrows. The film follows the girls as they navigate student life, and the increasing pressure put on them by society and their studies. Therefore it isn’t a surprise when Driver falls for schoolboy Jack Foley(Chris O’Donnell) 

What unfolds is an oversaturated convention fueled romance popular for the time, where writer Andrew Davies enlists the trusted recipe used in numerous romance films before it.

Its natural charm and realism take the place of rose-tinted glasses and beauty, partnered with the beauty of Ireland, with Driver delivering a performance of perfectly matched intensity and tenderness.

The characters are archetypical personifications, that both Driver and O’Donnell do well to navigate and provide gravity to. The film, unfortunately, falls victim to convenient dialogue and a strong sense of scripted conversations which disillusions audiences from the deus ex machina.

The film enlists several romantic tropes to ensure the target audience’s success, doing well to tell an interesting story, even if not wholly unique, becoming a tender and beautiful coming-of-age one. With Driver being praised for her tenderness and soulful performance in her debut role, and O’Donnell being as charming as ever. 

While there is nothing outwardly original about the story, Pat O’Connor gives it a sweet retelling in this love letter to friends everywhere.

2. Belfast 

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, this 2021 coming-of-age drama follows young boy Buddy’s played by Jude Hill childhood in Belfast at the start of The Troubles in 1969. 

Hill is confronted with the harsh reality of a sectarian conflict that threatens his once-peaceful working-class neighbourhood in Ireland city. He struggles to understand The Troubles and the repercussions his family will suffer should they choose to stay in Belfast. 

With supporting performances from Dame Judi Dench who won Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, and Jamie Dornan, the film at its core is an emotional self-portrait of Branagh’s relationship with the Irish city, telling his story of what home means to him. 

The film’s humour and sincerity encapsulate the idyllic nostalgia many of us have for our childhood, remembering the once important struggles of finishing our homework and discovering love.

The Troubles are used as a backdrop for the focal theme of the film, though this is intentional as we witness the heartwarming moments of family unity and childhood conflict through the endearing and innocent eyes of Hill who’s the curious and sweet portrayal of Branagh’s younger self can be credited to the younger actor’s already scene-stealing talent, and also to director Branagh’s sneaky habit of recording the young stars rehearsals to capture moments of spontaneity, giving the film authenticity. 

In terms of the accompanying performances, Caitríona Balfe as Ma delivers the stand out performance of her career, whilst Jamie Dornan as Pa encapsulates what it means to be both a father and a husband providing safety and support to his family. Additionally, Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds are heartwarming scene stealers in their portrayal of everything good about how kind and loving grandparents can be.

Having earned Branagh an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2022, Branagh said during his speech that, “ ‘this story is a search for joy and hope in the face of violence and loss” Which is exactly what Belfast managed to do as it takes you into its warm embrace.

Jude Hill as Buddy in Belfast. Picture by Univeral Pictures.

1. Sing Street

Making another appearance on this list, John Carney penned and directed this 2016 coming-of-age musical set in 1980s Ireland’s capital Dublin.

Following teenager Conor played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo walking to the beat of his drum, the pubescent character struggles to adjust to public school after his family falls apart, and works up the courage to ask out a local troublemaker Raphina played by Lucy Boynton.

Achieving each goal in true Carney fashion, Conor attempts to resolve these conflicts most reasonably, by starting a band.

A faithful retelling of growing up and finding yourself amidst the struggles of puberty and public school, Carney encapsulates the ever-evolving style and relationships we face in our adolescence.

Authentically creating a 1980s atmosphere for Ireland is hard to replicate in contemporary media, yet Sing Street overcomes this challenge by using music from the likes of The Clash, Duran Duran, and The Jam, as well as a quintessential 80s wardrobe complete with denim jackets and voluminous hair to execute the timepiece flawlessly.

Similarly, the film gives reference to several classic films released in the 1980s, with one particular moment during the band’s performance at the school dance, where Carney pays homage to the Under the Sea dance from Back to the Future directed by Robert Zemeckis. 

With a stand out performance by Jack Reynor as Walsh-Peelo’s older brother Brendan, praised for his heartwarming portrayal of an older sibling, educating Walsh-Peelo on band history and lyric creation, encouraging him to pursue his dream of leaving Ireland.

Reynor’s role, full of heartwarming endearment subsequently earned him the Best Actor in a Supporting Role at the previously mentioned Irish Film and Television Awards.

The film’s original soundtrack elevates the picture, a perfect mix between a garage band and teen rock n’ roll that pays respect to the iconic bands of the 1980s. 

Carney refuses to focus on the typical school conventions, like the hierarchy of popularity, and as such allows for a refreshing and emboldening story about a group of talented teenagers trying to find themselves at the crossroads of adolescence, and forming a band all to impress a girl. 

Without a doubt, a common theme in each film is the use of Ireland’s diverse and distinctive landscapes, whether it’s a troubled socio-economic or political past, or in providing a beautiful setting to partner with the all-encompassing sensation of love.

And it is the director’s passion for Ireland, allowing their personal experiences on the island to shape their stories with an air of nostalgic romanticisation of the island, that despite its troubled history, still has much to offer in the way of storytelling and inspiration for all.

Subsequently, Ireland is, as much as it is represented by this list, and by others, we failed to mention, a land of love, culture, history, and a sanctuary of utter beauty.

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