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The Greatest Irish Filmmakers

March 17, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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Happy St. Patrick’s Day! If we’re going by the past few years worth of Oscar nominations, it would seem that the Irish film industry is going through a renaissance period. The dark humor and rough political history of the land lend well to complex films, most recently seen in The Banshees of Inisherin and Belfast.

Along with celebrating those films, I want to take a look at some of the top filmmakers to hail from the “Old Country.” Because of the close geographical proximity and political intertwining, it can sometimes be a bit difficult to distinguish someone as either Irish or English. Of course, there’s no law against being both, but I’d like my list to be narrowed down to only filmmakers who identify as Irish and mostly create Irish films. This excludes people such as Kenneth Branagh and John Boorman, as they tend to be more British with their identity and work.

Fear not though, as there are still several venerable names that will be featured here, with all of them building up a distinct filmography ripe for discovery.

Neil Jordan

Jordan has long been fascinated by unconventional sexual relationships, which makes sense when you consider that The Crying Game was his big breakout, netting him an Oscar for his screenplay. Jordan has split his time between his homeland and Hollywood over the decades, with Interview with a Vampire, Michael Collins, The End of the Affair, and Breakfast on Pluto being some of his more popular works. He’s also helped launch the careers of several famous Irish actors such as Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Colin Farrell, and Saoirse Ronan.

Martin McDonagh

McDonagh has become the central representative for Irish cinema through his absurdist black comedies, with almost all of them containing acts of savage violence. Yet there’s always a little bit of humanity that gleams through the bloodshed. Colin Farrell has been his most loyal compatriot, appearing in In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and The Banshees of Inisherin. McDonagh has also successfully transferred his style to America, directing Oscar-winning performances from Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell (also in Seven Psychopaths) in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Although he does technically have an Oscar for his 2006 short film Six Shooter, the world still awaits McDonagh to climb the Dolby Theatre steps for one of his feature films.

Jim Sheridan

Only a select few directors have had the pleasure of working with Daniel Day-Lewis on multiple occasions, with Sheridan being the only one to work with him on three films. Their first collaboration was for Sheridan’s directorial debut My Left Foot, which netted both of them Oscar nominations, with Day-Lewis winning for his lead performance. After a brief intermission with The Field, which got Richard Harris an Oscar nomination, the pair would reunite for In the Name of the Father and The Boxer. Sheridan would amass another surprise Oscar hit a few years later, with his warm immigrant tale within In America receiving double acting nominations along with a nod for his screenplay.

Lenny Abrahamson

Abrahamson was originally going to have a career in philosophy, but he abandoned his doctorate studies to pursue a career in filmmaking. While his parents may have been initially disappointed in him, the decision proved to be the right one, as he was the recipient of the award for Best Director at the Irish Film and Television Awards for his debut feature, Adam and Paul. He’s won the award another four times since, most recently for Room, for which he also received a surprise Oscar nomination. His work on the small screen has been just as fruitful, with 2020’s Normal People containing two breakout performances in Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones.

Terry George

George started out as the writing partner with Jim Sheridan, sharing credit on the screenplays for In the Name of the Father and The Boxer. Sheridan would even co-write the screenplay for George’s directorial debut, Some Mother’s Son, starring Helen Mirren. He would make a splash on his first solo endeavor, 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, chronicling the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo would be nominated for their performances, along with George’s script. George would also lend his talents to HBO, working on prestige dramas such as In Treatment and Luck.

John Carney

Nobody loves folk music more than John Carney. He entered the scene with Once in 2007, a love story about two struggling musicians in Dublin. While a tiny production, the film was able to win the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Falling Slowly.” 2013’s Begin Again shifted that story to American, with Keira Knightly playing a singer and Mark Ruffalo as a down-on-his-luck record executive. Another Oscar nomination would be earned for the song “Lost Stars.” He moved back to Dublin for Sing Street in 2016, which rode the indie circuit to enthuse reviews for its youthful exuberance. Now the two lands have come together for his latest film, where American Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars alongside Eve Hewson in a Dublin-set story about a mother and musician coming together through song. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it received strong reviews. Apple is set to release it sometime this year.

John Crowley

Crowley assembled an all-star cast consisting of Cillian Murphy, Kelly Macdonald, and Colin Farrell, for his debut feature film Intermission. The grungy aesthetics of that Dublin-set story would be translated into his next feature Boy A, which announced the talents of Andrew Garfield to the world. Saoirse Ronan would be the next young actor to work with Crowley, with Brooklyn netting her an Oscar nomination along with one for Best Picture. Unfortunately, Crowley wouldn’t reach the next level with The Goldfinch, but I’m hoping it’ll only be a brief stumble followed by a confident rebound.

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