Shamrocks vs. Shams: Good—and Bad—Movies About the Irish Experience

For St. Patrick's Day, sorting out cinematic sincerity from schmaltz, phony brogues.

March 12, 2019 5:00 am
From left to right, actors John Wayne (1907 - 1979) as Sean Thornton, Victor McLaglen (1886 - 1959) as Squire 'Red' Will Danaher and Maureen O'Hara (1920 - 2015) as Mary Kate Danaher in a publicity still for the film 'The Quiet Man', 1952.  (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
From left to right, actors John Wayne (1907 - 1979) as Sean Thornton, Victor McLaglen (1886 - 1959) as Squire 'Red' Will Danaher and Maureen O'Hara (1920 - 2015) as Mary Kate Danaher in a publicity still for the film 'The Quiet Man', 1952. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Ah, ’tis once again the week of green-dyed bagels and red-faced drunks, of disposable derbies and throwaway culture, of “Erin go bragh!” and the real Eire gone to hell.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day? Not for me.

My Celtic roots go deep. I grew up on stories about O’Casey and Cromwell and the Abbey Theatre. A “rubber bullet”—a rock-hard, five-and-a-half-inch projectile fired at protestors during “the Troubles”—sat on my bookshelf. I knew the real history.

And it was a long way from Lucky Charms and leprechaun movies and Bing Crosby singing “McNamara’s Band.”

But then, every March, it would be time for St. Pat’s (and for feck’s sake, don’t call it St. Patty’s unless you’re wanting a fight). And suddenly you couldn’t get away from the polyester fisherman’s sweaters and “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” buttons and parochial school kids vomiting in the street.

It was forced and fake and eventually it was infuriating.

Which is why I started staying home and celebrating my own, alternative St. Patrick’s Day—playing some Chieftains, making some soda bread, and then settling in for the night, usually with a few depressing movies and a bottle of Tullamore Dew.

You don’ t have to go quite as bleak—believe me, Hunger, with Michael Fassbender as a slowly starving Bobby Sands, is not the kind of movie you’ll want to see more than once. (And if you can make it through Angela’s Ashes without weeping you’re made of sterner stuff than I.)

But if you really want a feel for the Irish spirit, there’s a more authentic approach than the one a commercialized St. Pat’s presents. So cut the blarney. Save your trip to the pub for a day when it’s not crowded with bleedin’ amateurs. Ditch the trite “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” for some rough-hewn Pogues.

And when it comes to choosing a movie to watch, seek out the alternative.

For example, if you’re like most Americans—or, at least, most American cable-channel programmers—your go-to film for St. Pat’s is probably The Quiet Man. Fine. It’s a little too exaggerated and ah-to-be-sure Hollywood for me—Barry Fitzgerald’s performance alone has more ham than an Irish breakfast—but I’ll admit, you could do worse than look at Maureen O’Hara for a whole movie.

Still, if it’s a light-hearted look at rural Ireland you’re hankering for—a place of vast rolling hills and small-town eccentrics—why not watch the delightful The Playboys instead, about a group of travelling players coming to a tiny village? Or the lottery-ticket comedy Waking Ned Devine?

Of course, also sure to be showing up on cable this month is at least one of those awful Hollywood action pictures about an Irish-American cop pursuing an IRA fugitive. The worst offenders are definitely Blown Away and The Devil’s Own, with their respective stars, Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Pitt, in a race to the bottom for Worst Brogue Ever (and the winner – ah, ’tis Mister Jones, by a hair).

But if you want a good dose of real Irish politics—full of fratricide, fury and fearsome dilemmas—try the classic The Informer or the haunting Odd Man Out. With the first built around a poor befuddled traitor, and the second about a handsome hunted extremist, neither plays into the usual clichés about the conflict, instead focusing on the complicated people caught in the middle—and the ugly fact that sometimes the only choices we have are bad ones.

And while the stodgy Michael Collins does its best to turn the story of Ireland’s fractious fight for freedom into a state-approved history lesson, other films illuminate their stories with flashes of lightning. Like Ken Loach’s radical The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which examines the ugly civil war that followed independence. Or the recent, astonishing period piece Black ’47, with a lone vigilante come back to avenge his entire, famine-ridden country.

Other, lighter genres offer fresher choices, too.

A young Sean Connery definitely adds charms to Darby O’Gill and the Little People, a guilty pleasure for many—but instead of those clichéd wee folk, why not escape into a different Irish fantasy with the haunting The Secret of Roan Inish?

“Sing Street”

And if it’s humor and music you’re looking for, yes, of course you could watch The Commitments for the fifteenth time. But give yourself a treat and discover Sing Street instead, a 2016 Irish charmer with a bunch of 1980s New Wave teens.

If you can’t remember any of these titles, just remember the name Jim Sheridan. As a writer and director, he’s helped create years of the best in Irish filmmaking—Into the West, The Field, In the Name of the Father, Some Mother’s Son. My Left Foot is my favorite, but worth rediscovering is The Boxer, with Daniel Day-Lewis as a parolee trying to get by in bloody Belfast.

Sheridan also did the bittersweet immigrant story In America—fitting because the Irish experience has long been one of immigration and exile, and the backbone of epics like Gangs of New York and The Molly Maguires. But for your own St. Patrick’s Day festival, why not close out with the gentler double-feature of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Brooklyn, with the same borough playing host to the same sort of Irish strivers.

Of course, the two tales are set roughly half-a-century apart. But the heartbreaks and the hopes, the homesickness and the hilarity—that all remains the same…and a hell of a lot more authentic than a plastic mug of green beer.

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