Nobody can accuse Irish history of being simple. While it's full of dramatic rebellions, bitter oppression, artistic triumphs, and stunning endurance, one could be forgiven for getting hopelessly lost among the ancient grudges and internecine conflicts.
In cases like these, Irish history movies can be invaluable resources. Want a deeper understanding of the 1981 hunger strike? Check out the award-winning Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen. Curious about how Ireland's military conflicts affected the average citizen? Ken Loach's Palme d'Or-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley may be useful. In the mood for a touching story about Irish immigrants coming to New York? Brooklyn is the Oscar-nominated story of a young Irish immigrant.
The best movies about Irish history are not simply educational aids, however. The movies on this list are also world-recognized works of art that use historical circumstances to craft intimate portraits of characters struggling within their historical circumstances. While it's not difficult to mine drama from events like the Troubles or the Irish Potato Famine, these movies balance high-stakes drama with deep attention to historical accuracy.
- Photo: Paramount Classics
What It Gets Right: The historical Bloody Sunday was, on the surface, a simple event: British soldiers took the lives of 13 unarmed civilians who were protesting the internment of Irish political prisoners. The circumstances surrounding the event, however, are complex and mired in the specifics of Irish history. Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday focuses not on the dizzying politics of the situation, but on the emotional impact of the shocking event and the real people involved. When the film was released, the son of one of the victims said:
What happened was total unjustified murder, and that is what you see on screen. They try to be fair to the paratroopers, but it is clear the blame lies with them and the British government who ordered them in.
Where It Falls Short: While Greengrass's 2002 film depicts British soldiers gunning down two citizens before an Irishman returns fire, the truth may have been even worse. An official government inquiry declassified in 2010 called the soldiers' actions both " unjustified and unjustifiable." The inquiry paints an even more damning portrait than Bloody Sunday does.
- Actors: James Nesbitt, Gerard McSorley, Tim Pigott-Smith, Nicholas Farrell, Christopher Villiers
- Released: 2002
- Directed by: Paul Greengrass
- Photo: Palace Pictures
What It Gets Right: This film, set in the present day at the time (1992), concerns the twisting web of deceit into which an IRA member is plunged. Although it does not purport to portray a historical period, it is nevertheless accurate about some key elements, such as the structure of the IRA and their training. Actress Miranda Richardson recalled:
We had an armorer on set to help me with the technicalities... And I got flak from IRA sympathizers for giving such an unflattering portrayal of a terrorist. Isn’t that wonderful?
Where It Falls Short: Because of this film's thrilling noirish complexity, it takes some liberties. The core story with its infamous twist (that will remain unspoiled here) pushes the limits of credibility just as Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo or Roman Polanski's Chinatown do.
- Actors: Forest Whitaker, Jim Broadbent, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Rea, Ralph Brown
- Released: 1992
- Directed by: Neil Jordan
- Photo: Icon Film Distribution
What It Gets Right: Steve McQueen's Hunger has the benefit of not being a straight-up narrative, as some of these other films are. For long stretches, the film offers a slow, patient examination of conditions in the prison that housed Bobby Sands and other IRA political prisoners during their hunger strike. Although the film focuses on quiet moments, it builds to a harrowing and historically accurate climax: the demise of Sands 66 days into the hunger strike.
Where It Falls Short: The 2008 film is scrupulously accurate and can perhaps only be faulted for minor deviations. The character of Father Moran, for example, conflates two different priests Sands interacted with. This change was made, however, to condense a complicated narrative, so it isn't necessarily dishonest or untrue.
- Actors: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Liam McMahon, Brian Milligan
- Released: 2008
- Directed by: Steve McQueen
- Photo: Universal Pictures
What It Gets Right: Few people defend the imprisonment of the Guildford Four, the four men framed by British authorities for a series of destructive acts in Ireland. In the Name of the Father (1993) makes a passionate case not only for the injustice of the treatment of Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four, but also for the injustice of British policy toward Ireland in the 1970s. It is correct not only in such details as the police withholding evidence that would have exonerated Conlon, but also in its commitment to fully articulating the powerless rage that many Irish people felt at his imprisonment.
Where It Falls Short: Although the film is correct in its larger strokes, it sacrifices historical accuracy for dramatic effect in several key moments. In particular, the final scenes - where Emma Thompson's character argues passionately in court and a series of dramatic confrontations take place - are largely unsubstantiated. Thompson's character was not empowered to cross-examine witnesses or address the judge. There is no record of dramatic confrontations or triumphant moments. The Washington Post's film critic called it "as good a compromise of fact and fiction as you could hope for - and still call it a movie."
- Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis, Emma Thompson, Tom Wilkinson, Saffron Burrows, Pete Postlethwaite
- Released: 1993
- Directed by: Jim Sheridan