In a normal year, St. Patrick’s Day would be a great time to don the green, wander down to the local pub, order a pint of Guinness and dial up the Clancy Brothers on the jukebox. But, of course, this isn’t a normal year. And thanks to the COVID pandemic, big, festive group gatherings are out of the question. So let us suggest another way to celebrate all things Ireland on March 17. Why not kick back with one of the dozen Irish-themed movies we’ve hand-selected for you to stream and watch at home? As for the pub (and the pint), we’ll see you there next year…
Music expresses what words cannot in writer-director John Carney’s charming, Dublin-set romance about two striving songwriters who meet, connect and discover that one plus one makes more than two — it makes musical magic. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are note-perfect as, respectively, a street busker with big dreams and a pianist hamstrung by her family. But all of the couple’s incandescent meet-cute sparks take a back seat to the tunes they come up with together, including the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly.” Once is full of passion, inspiration and dreams of wanting more out of life. It’s also about the power of music as salvation — not to mention flat-out heartwarming. For further viewing, also check out Charney’s Sing Street.
In the Name of the Father (1993)
You could program a St. Patrick’s Day mini-marathon with just Daniel Day-Lewis films. There’s My Left Foot, Gangs of New York and this searing true story directed by Jim Sheridan. Hands down the greatest actor of his generation, Day-Lewis (who holds British-Irish dual citizenship) stars as Gerry Conlon — a small-time thief falsely accused of engineering an IRA bombing of a London pub. The film chronicles Conlon’s 15 years behind bars as he desperately tries to prove his innocence with the help of a British attorney. If that sounds like you should get ready for a depressing sit, think again, because Day-Lewis is at the peak of his formidable powers in this one. Which is really saying something.
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The Quiet Man (1952)
No list of St. Patrick’s Day movies would be complete without this John Ford classic that brings John Wayne to the Emerald Isle. Wayne, who was the De Niro to Ford’s Scorsese, is surprisingly affecting here as an American boxer named Sean Thornton, who decides to retire to the rural Irish village where he was born. Not all of the locals are sold on the Yank. But one important one is: Maureen O’Hara’s fiery Mary Kate, who falls in love with Sean over the blustery, bare-knuckle protests of her overprotective brother (Victor McLaglen). In the film’s action-packed — and quite funny — climax, the two settle things with a good old-fashioned donnybrook, which has become a cinema classic.
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Saoirse Ronan was nominated for a best actress statuette for her performance in this beautiful, melancholy and hopeful immigrant’s tale. And, after watching it, you’ll probably agree that it’s a crime that she didn’t win. Ronan, who grew up in Ireland, plays a young Irishwoman with a head full of dreams who leaves her parochial small-town behind and ventures across the Atlantic to start a new, exciting life in 1950s New York City. Of course, the big city hardly embraces her with smiles and open arms as she chases after the American Dream. But her homesickness soon starts to fade when she meets a blue-collar Italian immigrant (Emory Cohen channeling Stanley Kowalski). Life in her adopted homeland is looking up … until she has to return to Ireland due to a family tragedy and is forced to decide which country is truly her home. Thanks to Ronan, Brooklyn belongs right next to Avalon and The Godfather: Part II in the pantheon of movies about the immigrant experience.
The Commitments (1991)
Arguably the most rousing crowd-pleaser of the ‘90s, Alan Parker’s underdog musical about a scrappy, working-class Dublin garage band whose members eat, drink and breathe American soul music can’t help but put a huge smile on your face. As with the story of any band on the rise, the film also explores the ego clashes that can lead to a fall. But the cast of complete unknowns (who actually recorded their own songs on the soundtrack) and the film’s wall-to-wall barrage of sweaty, tail-feather-shaking R&B classics make The Commitments absolutely irresistible. As the end credits roll, you’ll find yourself rummaging through your old Motown and Stax vinyl to keep the party going.
Waking Ned Devine (1998)
Speaking of crowd-pleasers, here’s another one — albeit a little lighter. In the tiny rural village of Tullymore, some lucky soul has won the Irish National Lottery. But who? Well, it turns out the winner is none other than Ned Devine, an old codger with a bum ticker who is so shocked by the news of his windfall, that he keels over and dies. With no relatives to leave his new fortune to, the townspeople band together and hatch a giant ruse to pretend Ned is still alive so they can collect and share his loot. Thin as a wafer but just as delicious, Waking Ned Devine is like Cocoon meets Weekend at Bernie’s … but much more easygoing and delightful than that probably sounds.
Michael Collins (1996)
Born in Northern Ireland, Liam Neeson turned out to be ideally cast as the famous (and infamous) Irish Republican hero of the 1920s. Directed by Neil Jordan, whose film The Crying Game could just as easily be on this list, Michael Collins is epic in the best sense of the word, showing the complex trajectory of its protagonist’s methods and goals as his belief in violent civil war matures into a desire for peace. Full of passion, tragedy and, yes, even romance, Jordan’s film feels much more alive than any dry history lesson thanks to an excellent supporting cast that includes Alan Rickman, Stephen Rea, Aidan Quinn and Julia Roberts.
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In Bruges (2008)
Okay, as the title reveals, this one is actually set in Belgium. But its main characters are Irish (in the film as well as in real life). It’s also one of the best and funniest crime films of the 2000s, not to mention my favorite film on this list. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play a pair of squabbling hit men who are ordered to lay low in the medieval town of Bruges while they await instructions from their very unhappy and very foul-mouthed boss (Ralph Fiennes). Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, In Bruges is a movie for those who don’t mind their language being a little spicy and their heroes a little villainous. Farrell and Gleeson’s chemistry is electric, the setting is gorgeous, and the laughs are wickedly dark. A true gem.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
Today, animation has become synonymous with the computer-generated confections from Pixar. And while those films are terrific, their look can get a little samey after a while. If you’re looking for a throwback to the wonders of old-school hand-drawn animation, check out this enchanting treasure about a young boy who ventures into an enchanted forest, an ancient book that holds the mystery of secret powers, and a mystical Irish world that feels like a waking dream. The Secret of Kells is a beautiful reminder of the transporting power of animation created without ones and zeroes. It’s pure magic.
Think of this gentle fairy tale as Splash set on the rocky Irish coastline. A tender, low-key Colin Farrell stars as a recovering alcoholic who lives with his daughter in a fishing village. Then, one day, a beautiful and mysterious young woman gets caught in his usually empty nets as he’s pulling them in. Is she a mermaid, an accident, a fantasy? Whatever the case, Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) brings him luck—her presence (and cooing voice) seems to make the fish leap right onto his trawler. This is a children’s story that was made for grown-ups, full of heart, whimsy and surprising emotional depth.
In America (2002)
Based on writer-director Jim Sheridan’s personal experiences as a struggling immigrant actor in the 1980s, In America stars the always welcome Paddy Considine as the patriarch of a family that moves to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and finds America to be less welcoming than advertised. Samantha Morton costars as his wife who puts up with more than should be thrown at any one person. Like the best — or at least the most honest — immigrant stories, Sheridan’s film toggles between moments of triumph and tragedy, humor and hardship, lightness and darkness.
Here’s one for the scary-movie fans out there. After all, they celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, too, right? This kickoff installment in what would become one of the most unlikely cult franchises in Hollywood history is a daffy blast of jump scares and pure silliness as a bloodthirsty, pint-sized leprechaun (Warwick Davis) who once followed a stolen pot of gold from Ireland to the U.S. before getting locked in a basement finally escapes and seeks violent payback. Seriously, it’s a toss-up whether Leprechaun should be classified as a horror flick or a comedy. And the performance of a young, pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston won’t exactly clear up that question. But this is certainly a giddy guilty pleasure no matter what time of year you throw it on.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.