I grew up an Irish Catholic kid in an Irish Catholic Bronx neighborhood, the northern half of which was so heavily populated with off-the-boat immigrants, in fact, brogues were commonplace. I spent half my childhood in the bars along Broadway while Dad and I were ostensibly out “running errands,” and it was only upon the unforeseen revelation of his alcohol addiction when I was eleven that all those afternoons spent in the company of middle-aged men with apparently nowhere else to be but some dim, smoky watering hole under the intermittent rattling of the el tracks took on new, illuminating context.
While in college, I worked at an Irish deli on Mosholu Avenue for a married couple, a former cop and housewife with grown children, who eventually sold the business and retired to—you guessed it—Ireland. (Wish I knew whatever became of them.) Scenes from the Harrison Ford/Brad Pitt IRA thriller The Devil’s Own were filmed at a nearby neighborhood bar (a friend of mine even took video footage from his apartment window of Pitt exiting the establishment), presumably for the kind of authenticity no amount of Hollywood set dressing can properly replicate.
Most people I know genuinely hate the sound of bagpipes—was it Frank McCourt who said they sound like dying cats?—but, for me, they are a reminder of my own heritage and upbringing; I recall the muffled wail of them every Saint Patrick’s Day from behind the door of 2C, the apartment in our building occupied by my dad’s best friend, when we’d come home through the second-floor service entrance adjacent to the garage.
I live in L.A. now, and this city doesn’t seem to know what to do with Saint Patrick’s Day, save dye the beer green (something I never remember happening back home), so I’ve learned to celebrate the day out here the way I observe most special occasions—with the movies. Here is a small selection of personal recommendations—by no means definitive or all-encompassing, just a handful of Irish-themed films I happen to enjoy—if you’re looking for an excuse to pour another Guinness this Thursday before calling it a night:
The Quiet Man (1952)
What a tribute to the late Maureen O’Hara’s talent and taste that her oeuvre includes not only one of the most beloved Christmas fables of all time, Miracle on 34th Street, but this must-see Saint Patrick’s Day staple, about a retired boxer from Pittsburgh (John Wayne) who returns to the rural Irish village of his birth and soon falls for a certain red-headed beauty. If that doesn’t sound particularly high-concept, that’s because it isn’t: The Quiet Man is simply a lovely, old-fashioned Buddy Love tale filled with colorful characters and fueled by the cultural and customary differences between the reticent Wayne (who left his cowboy persona back in Monument Valley for this one) and hot-tempered locals, which culminates in one of the longest fistfight sequences ever put to film. Part of the movie’s timelessness is owed to the fact that director John Ford shot much of it way the hell out in the Irish countryside—which couldn’t have been convenient in 1951—and not on some claustrophobic Hollywood soundstage adorned with one of those phony, painted backdrops so common at that time. Fun fact: My mother loved this movie so much as a child, she named me after its titular quiet man, Sean Thornton, the irony of which is not lost me, given that I’ve been told throughout my life I speak both at great length and with great volume (accompanied by lively arm gesticulations that have been known to inadvertently pummel passing servers in crowded restaurants) when discussing subjects of personal interest.
State of Grace (1990)
Like The Quiet Man, this movie also kicks off with a homecoming of sorts: Sean Penn returns to his native Hell’s Kitchen after a decade-long absence, and soon finds himself embroiled in the criminal underworld of the Westies. Unlike Quiet Man, however, this is an unflinching mob story in the vein of GoodFellas (it opened only one week earlier, in fact). It’s mostly been forgotten, even by me: Though I loved this movie in high school—I used to have a poster of it up in my bedroom—it’s hard to come by now on home video or streaming services; I myself haven’t watched it since the nineties (though I tried, unsuccessfully, to find a copy as I was writing this post). The movie was my first exposure to Gary Oldman—he delivers a doozie of a performance—and made me a fan for life; I later wrote a paper on Oldman in college, and a Dracula one-sheet eventually replaced the State of Grace poster in the very same spot on my bedroom wall. As a kid growing up in New York, I loved stories about unknown facets of the city’s history (unknown at least to me), and this movie was my introduction to the Irish mob after having been well-acquainted with their Italian counterparts from The Godfather, et al. The Westies figure prominently in my forthcoming novel, Escape from Rikers Island, albeit as backstory.
Gangs of New York (2002)
On the subject of New York esoterica, I’d never seen a story like this when it was released—a Western set in my own hometown! And like a good Western, Gangs is part American history and part American mythology, spinning a fictionalized account of an Irish immigrant (Leonardo DiCaprio) out for revenge against the nativist gang leader (a flamboyantly malicious Daniel Day-Lewis) who killed his father (Liam Neeson) in a street brawl. A long-gestating passion project for director Martin Scorsese (who knows a thing or two about gangster culture and the mean streets of Manhattan), the movie shed light on a theretofore little-known, little-understood era in the city’s history (Tammany Hall, the draft riots), filling in gaps in the historical record with mythic flourishes that endow the story with an epic scope deserving of the First American Gangland Saga. Its breathtaking, full-scale recreation of the crime-ridden cauldron known as the Five Points, a New York neighborhood now lost to history, is the stuff of “old Hollywood” production design in its scenic detail and grandeur (the movie was shot in Rome, incidentally). Gangs can be viewed, in some respects, as a “spiritual prequel” to State of Grace. Several of the NYPD Gang Squad detectives in Escape from Rikers Island are named for actual historical figures from the era, as detailed in Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, the nonfiction book that served as inspiration for this movie.
One of this year’s Best Picture nominees, Saoirse Ronan (absolutely radiant here) leaves her native Ireland for New York in 1952, only to find that the real journey begins, not ends, upon arrival, as she endures the emotionally agonizing transition from the homeland of her past to that of her future. As someone who’s known the hardship of leaving home (on September 11, 2001, no less), who’s struggled to find—and keep—his footing in a city thousands of miles away, and who’s wrestled with the desire to return—along with the question as to whether that’s even possible—Brooklyn, ostensibly a story about a young girl from a bygone era falling in love for the first time, resonated in ways I couldn’t have expected when I entered the theater.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
One of my wife’s favorites—she insisted I include it here (and I wouldn’t have left it out, regardless)—this is something of a “lost Disney classic,” starring a very young, pre-Bond Sean Connery, about a feisty old estate caretaker matching wits with a crafty leprechaun who owes him three wishes. The special effects, state-of-the-art upon Darby’s release (and emulated by Peter Jackson forty years later to scale down the Hobbits), are equally impressive today for a different reason: You’ll wonder how they were achieved so effectively without the benefit of CGI. Either way, the magic they conjure—including a still-frightening spectral banshee and headless coachman—makes this an unforgettable Irish folktale. Like State of Grace, Darby O’Gill is harder to find these days than a pot o’ gold; here’s hoping Disney gives it the deluxe-reissue treatment sooner than later.
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: “Ireland, April 1916” (1993)
One of the better installments of George Lucas’ other prequel series, “Ireland, April 1916” recounts Indy’s ill-timed stopover in Dublin, on his way to the front lines of the Great War, during the Easter Rising, and features his encounters with such historical figures as playwright Seán O’Casey and politician Seán Lemass, per the show’s “edutainment” format. (Would it be too pretentious of me at this point to include the accent mark in my own name?) Though the uprising itself is depicted in an extended—and harrowing—battle sequence, Young Indiana Jones, unlike the feature films upon which it was based, was less concerned with slam-bang derring-do than with the geopolitical turbulence and machinations that ultimately determined the course of the twentieth century. (Or as Entertainment Weekly once put it: “No temples here. Plenty of doom.”) Shot on location at, among other places, the General Post Office on O’Connell Street and Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, “Ireland, April 1916”—a perfectly self-contained story, by the way, as were basically all episodes of this show—benefits from a verisimilitude that couldn’t have been faked on a Hollywood backlot. (You’ve got to hand it to Lucas, who didn’t skimp on production, shooting the series in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States.) On home video, this episode was paired with “London, May 1916” and retitled Love’s Sweet Song.
Father Ted (1995–1998)
A British television series about three Irish Catholic priests consigned to a desolate island parish off the west coast of Ireland for “past indiscretions,” Father Ted reminds me, with respect to its stylistics, in some ways of Married… with Children: It’s a flagrantly crass, somewhat surreal, on-the-cheap multi-camera sitcom populated by (intentional) caricatures that consistently succeeds in being sidesplittingly funny. Like many British shows—even the successful ones—it isn’t a big commitment at only 25 episodes total (a half hour apiece), and is right up there, laugh for laugh, with Fawlty Towers.
The Fugitive (1993)
Okay, technically there’s nothing much Irish about The Fugitive, save a pretty great set piece that takes place during Chicago’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, but, it’s always a good time to revisit this classic thriller. Tommy Lee Jones got all the accolades—and his own spin-off film—for his scenery-chewing turn as dogged U.S. marshal Sam Gerard, but Harrison Ford offers one of the most vulnerable, believable, and, really, underappreciated performances of his career here: There’s no trace of the cocky-yet-lovable adventurers he’s played so reliably for George Lucas over the past forty years, just a desperate man trying like hell to stay one step ahead of those that would imprison or kill him for a crime he did not commit. (Note the subtle tremble of his hands during the interrogation scene as he comes to realize the police consider him their prime suspect.) In our current climate of superhero-saturated cinema, The Fugitive is a reminder of how much fun it can be to watch ordinary people get resourceful when their backs are against the wall—and if that ain’t what being Irish is all about, I don’t know what is.