20 Best Movies about
Irish Americans

Ann Sheridan, Pat O'Brien, and James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces.

Joseph McBride, Contibutor
October / November 2005

Joseph McBride writes about his favorite movies on Irish-American subject matter (listed in no particular preference). 

Riley the Cop (1928)

This little-known silent gem (with musical accompaniment) from the master Irish-American director John Ford surfaced a few years ago on the American Movie Classics cable channel when it presented a Ford retrospective. Ford regular J. Farrell MacDonald, already old and bald by 1928, is delightful as an unorthodox Irish cop who has never made an arrest in his twenty years on the New York City police force. The opening title gives Riley’s philosophy: “YOU CAN TELL A GOOD COP BY THE ARRESTS HE DOESN’T MAKE.” After seeing MacDonald in innumerable colorful bit parts for Ford, it’s a treat to see him as the warmhearted father figure at the center of this film, which brims over with amusing human touches about life in a multiethnic neighborhood. Riley’s romantic interlude in Germany with a spirited fräulein (comedienne Louise Fazenda) is Fordian comedy at its most endearing. This tribute to the familiar Irish-American archetype of the gruff but lovable cop shows the director’s ability to turn what could be a clichéd figure into a three-dimensional character, one who expresses Ford’s anarchically Irish view of law enforcement.


Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

James Cagney’s Irish hoodlum Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces is such an engaging and memorable character that he has a famous Irish bar named after him in New York City (and an earlier one in San Francisco), and there’s also a singer who adopted the name when he recorded “Angels Dirty Faces.” What makes Cagney’s Rocky such a role model? It’s partly his pants-hitching, neck-twitching shtick and “Whaddya hear? Whaddya say?” patter, which Cagney borrowed from a pimp he watched as a boy on a street corner in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. That routine is the source of every Cagney impression. But in this movie, the tough Irish-American punk accedes to the plea of his boyhood friend Jerry Connelly, who escaped the law to become a priest (Pat O’Brien) and asks him to act “yellow” when he goes to the chair. The idea is to turn the Dead End Kids against his memory. In a movie directed by Michael Curtiz that bristles with street energy and cred, there’s a powerful sense of social determinism showing how Rocky has little control over his fate until his final moment. Father Connelly has one of the most haunting ending lines in movies, telling the disillusioned kids, “All right, fellas — let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”


Regeneration (1915)

The New York City slums in which so many Irish immigrants had to live is the setting for this remarkable early silent film. Director Raoul Walsh — who would go on to make such gangster classics as The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, and White Heat — makes evocative use in Regeneration of actual locations and neighborhood people on the Lower East Side to convey the harsh conditions that led some impoverished Irish immigrants to turn to a life of crime. Considered the first full-length gangster feature, Regeneration is based on an autobiographical novel by Owen Kildare, My Mamie Rose. Walsh’s emphasis is on character and atmosphere in this ruggedly believable drama of the moral choices faced by a gangster (Rockliffe Fellowes), who draws inspiration from a society woman (Anna Q. Nilsson) running a settlement house.


Shane (1953)

My candidate for the greatest Western ever made (yes, even greater than John Ford’s The Searchers) is Shane, the George Stevens classic about an enigmatic gunfighter who tries to settle down with a Wyoming family but has to resort to violence to preserve their precarious way of life. The Irish name of the title character played by Alan Ladd means “gracious gift of God,” and Shane is just that, a guardian angel for the pioneer community who literally vanishes into the clouds at the end of the film. Shane is a sublimely handsome yet profoundly lonely man who longs for a family life he cannot have. Based on the novel by Jack Schaefer, this elegantly crafted Stevens masterpiece, with its spectacular visual style and intimately detailed human drama, is at once mythic and realistic. The Irishness of Shane is not overtly stressed, but his outsider status and tragic dimensions, along with his otherworldly, celibate nature, mark him as a character who can stand muster with the most representative figures from heroic Celtic folklore.


True Confessions (1981)

Echoing Angels with Dirty Faces but taking its moral conflicts into a deeper dimension, True Confessions follows two Irish-American brothers with seemingly disparate occupations — a cop (Robert Duvall) and a priest (Robert De Niro) — and then shows both of them tainted by intertwined moral compromises. Based on the novel by John Gregory Dunne and adapted for the screen by Dunne with his wife, Joan Didion, and Gary S. Hall, True Confessions is a brutally candid exposé of church and municipal corruption in 1948 Los Angeles, involving a case similar to the infamous “Black Dahlia” murder. Directed with quiet intensity by Ulu Grosbard, True Confessions is a tragic portrayal of how the temptation to worldly power destroys idealism. But professional disgrace ironically leads to the gradual recovery of spiritual grace by De Niro’s Monsignor Des Spellacy. His exchanges with his brother Tom, a homicide detective investigating a prostitute’s murder, are masterfully shaded. Charles Durning plays a contractor who is both “Catholic Layman of the Year” and the chief suspect in the case.


JFK (1991)

Films about the Kennedy family, including biopics and docudramas and documentaries as well as numerous fictionalized takeoffs on the clan, have become a virtual subgenre in American films and television. Ironically, this preeminent Irish-American family has become our equivalent of England’s Royal Family, and with some similarly dysfunctional elements. The better films about the Kennedys are concerned more with political than romantic affairs. The most important is Oliver Stone’s JFK, which caused a firestorm of controversy in the American mainstream media for reopening the debate about whether John F. Kennedy’s assassination resulted from a conspiracy. It’s worth noting that people in Europe, including the Irish, have a much easier time understanding the reality that conspiracies exist in politics, as seen, for instance, in Neil Jordan’s 1996 Irish film Michael Collins, which portrays Eamon de Valera as among those involved in Collins’s assassination. JFK also had the salutary effect of prompting the creation of the Assassination Records Review Board, which declassified about four million pages of previously secret government documents. Among the many notable documentaries on John F. Kennedy are Robert Drew’s Primary (1960), a cinema-verite classic about the Wisconsin presidential primary campaign, and Darragh Byrne’s John F. Kennedy and the Island of Dreams (aka JFK in Ireland), a moving and shrewdly analytical 1993 look for Radio Telefis Eireann at Kennedy’s triumphant trip to his ancestral land in June 1963.


On the Waterfront (1954)

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront

In his 1988 autobiography A Life, director Elia Kazan admitted that On the Waterfront was made to justify his and screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s decisions to inform on their colleagues to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. That agenda shadows the otherwise considerable achievement of this movie, whose exposé of labor corruption now seems less involving than the behavioral insights offered by Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint. Brando’s incandescent performance as Terry Malloy changed American movie acting forever. On the Waterfront centers around the fraternal conflict between Irish-American brothers, the gangster Charlie Malloy (Rod Steiger) and his morally conflicted younger sibling, as well as on Terry’s troubled courtship of his WASP girl-friend. And as my brother Dennis McBride notes in his upcoming book A Spirit Moved Our Feet: What You Need to Know About Being Irish-American, the Malloys belong to “the Irish-dominated International Longshoremen’s Union in New Jersey. The Irish-American angles are muted. By the time On the Waterfront came out, it probably wasn’t necessary to spell out the Irish angle for American audiences. American audiences had been conditioned to understand that the Irish had almost completed their assimilation into the (white) American power structure. What was not subdued on screen was the influence of Father Pete Barry (Karl Maiden), the corruption-fighting character who was based on a real-life Irish-American priest named John M. `Pete’ Corridan (1911-84).”


The Molly Maguires (1970)

Sean Connery as Jack Kehoe

The story of the Molly Maguires exemplifies what Tim Pat Coogan (in his biography of Michael Collins) calls “the bedeviling effect of history and nomenclature whereby one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” This eloquent and neglected film about the nineteenth-century militant organization formed by Pennsylvania Irish immigrant coalminers does justice to their complex role in American labor history. A formerly blacklisted screenwriter (Walter Bernstein, adapting Arthur H. Lewis’s 1964 book Lament for the Molly Maguires) and blacklisted director (Martin Ritt) bring highly sophisticated political understanding to the tragic conflict between a fierce leader of the Mollies (Sean Connery) and a two-faced Irish informer working for the Pinkertons and the mine owners (Richard Harris). The master cinematographer James Wong Howe, best known for his black-and-white films, did perhaps his finest work in color with his bleakly beautiful imagery of dusty mining towns and rich but coal-scarred landscapes.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

Ted Donaldson, Dorothy McGuire, and Peggy Ann Garner in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Director Elia Kazan’s first feature, adapted by Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger from the novel by Betty Smith, is an affecting slice of life in a Brooklyn Irish family, circa 1900. Johnny Nolan, memorably played by James Dunn, is an improvident alcoholic struggling vainly to support the family, and the mother, Katie, an uncharacteristically acerbic Dorothy McGuire, does not bother disguising her bitterness over their lot in life. But the focus is on the sensitive young Francie, portrayed with searing honesty by the adolescent Peggy Ann Garner. Francie’s emotional reactions to her family’s dilemma are among the screen’s most authentic renderings of adolescent angst. The film suffers from being studiobound rather than shot on location, but Kazan’s brilliance with actors and his own immigrant’s understanding of the struggle to succeed in America help give A Tree Grows in Brooklyn its enduring sense of truth. A 1974 television remake has not supplanted the original in the public’s affection.


Miller’s Crossing (1990)

With its mournful Irish music and green-tinged art direction, Miller’s Crossing announces its cultural context and separates itself from The Godfather, after spoofing that classic in its opening scene. The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, are masters at creating darkly parodistic versions of familiar genres, and their take on the gangster genre pushes its conventions to the grotesque limit. Albert Finney is a Prohibition-era New York political boss, this film’s more honeytongued Irish-American equivalent of Don Corleone, but the central character is Irish actor Gabriel Byrne’s brooding Tom Reagan, the conflicted second-in-command who’s sleeping with his boss’s “sick twist” of a girlfriend (Marcia Gay Harden). Tom’s masochistic submission to ritualized beatings may stem from unacknowledged Catholic guilt, but the redemption (or regeneration) characteristic of the genre never really comes in this flamboyant black comedy. The battles between rival gangs are shown as absurd, civic corruption in New York is total, and the old moral choices available in Cagney films are virtually nonexistent. Tom is left emotionally bereft as the coldness at the heart of the genre engulfs him.

Gangs of New York (2002)

Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill "The Butcher" in Gangs of New York

Though excessively violent and grueling in its length, this Martin Scorsese film about turf battles among Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century New York City has a hypnotic intensity and creates a dreamlike picture of a strange, vanished world. The film is most distinguished for its great performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, based on the gang leader Bill “The Butcher” Poole; they share the same last words, “I die a true American.” Day-Lewis’s performance is Shakespearean in its grandeur and scope, an American equivalent of Richard III or Macbeth. Along the way in this mordant look at the struggles immigrants undergo to become Americans, Scorsese provides unforgettable images from tragic moments in Irish-American history, including a reconstruction of the Draft Riots of 1863 and a long crane shot linking coffins arriving on a boat from Ireland with Irish immigrants marching off to fight in the American Civil War.

The Field (1990)

Richard Harris and Brenda Fricker

Richard Harris’s career-crowning, towering performance as the Lear-like old Irish farmer “Bull” McCabe is the centerpiece of this Irish film written and directed by Jim Sheridan from the play by John B. Keane. Set in the 1930s, The Field offers a darker take on some of the same themes as The Quiet Man. American Tom Berenger plays “The Yank,” a developer who arrives in his fancy car and clothes determined to buy a piece of land owned by the Bull and cover it with concrete. Although the Yank is gracious in his manner, not obviously an “Ugly American,” the Bull resents the colonialist assumption that money is worth more than land, particularly if it is land a man and his family have worked for generations. The intractable moral conflict ends in tragedy, and the Bull, as obstinate as his nickname, is portrayed as simultaneously admirable and deranged. The splendid cast also includes Brenda Pricker, John Hurt, Sean Bean, Sean McGinley, and Malachy McCourt. (Sheridan also made an excellent film about Irish immigrants trying to survive in contemporary New York, the 2002 In America.)

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Fittingly enough in this nation of immigrants, the ultimate American flagwaving extravaganza, Yankee Doodle Dandy, was directed by a Hungarian émigré, Michael Curtiz (whose credits also include The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Casablanca). Curtiz’s graceful, kinetic visual style finds its perfect human instrument in James Cagney, whose dancer’s training and ethnic heritage help make him ideal to play the legendary Irish-American song-and-dance man George M. Cohan (“born on the Fourth of July”). Cagney in 1940 had been grilled by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for his progressive, pro-union activities during the Depression era, and with the country about to enter World War II, the actor was anxious to demonstrate his patriotic bona fides with this full-throated musical celebration of the American way of life. Is there a more joyous, infectious scene in movies than the one near the end of Cohan tap-dancing down the stairs of the White House after meeting President Franklin D. Roosevelt? If only life in America was really like this gloriously idealized movie, we’d all want to run straight out of the theater to wave that “Grand Old Flag.” But the severely wounded Vietnam War veteran and protester Ron Kovic bitterly echoed Cohan in the title of his 1976 memoir Born on the Fourth of July, filmed in 1989 by Oliver Stone with Tom Cruise as Kovic.

Gone With the Wind (1939)

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O Hara

Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), the indomitable Irish-American heroine devoted to the land above all costs, is the vibrant centerpiece of perhaps the most popular of all American films. The Irish-American Georgia novelist Margaret Mitchell created Scarlett and her father, Gerald O’Hara (Thomas Mitchell), out of the Irish-American ethnic heritage of the Old South, where displaced immigrants could rise quickly to become owners of what Gerald calls “the only thing that matters” — land. The O’Hara plantation, Tara, is named after the traditional seat of the High Kings of Ireland. That Irish heritage is also reflected in the tragic legacy of slavery these characters help foster and in the surname of the actress who so memorably plays the house slave Mammy, the great Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel, whose wise and witty personality enabled her to transcend the stereotypical limitations of her roles, became the first African-American to win an Academy Award. She received the Oscar for best supporting actress but was not allowed to attend the film’s gala premiere in Jim Crow Atlanta.

The Quiet Man (1952)

The quintessential Irish-American romantic fantasy of returning to the native soil and being welcomed back with open arms is both embodied and mocked in John Ford’s classic The Quiet Man, adapted by Frank S. Nugent from a story by Irish author Maurice Walsh. Arguments still rage on both sides of the Atlantic over whether The Quiet Man is or isn’t just a big steamin’ pile of blarney, but those who love the movie recognize that its romanticism and humor are deliberately larger than life, an expressionistic rendering of the intense psychological needs of Sean Thornton (John Wayne). An Irish immigrant who turns his back on America after greed causes him to kill a man in the ring, Sean is seeking what he thinks is a peaceful paradise (including a romance with a spirited woman played by Maureen O’Hara) but is forced to confront comical versions of some of the harsher realities of rural Irish life. The movie’s darker overtones are so artfully balanced with the comedy that they often escape notice, but they help account for its persistent emotional appeal. Seldom has Ireland been so gorgeously photographed than in this Technicolor reverie, which won Oscars for Ford and cinematographers Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout.

Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962)

The hands-down consensus choice for the greatest American play is Eugene O’Neill’s overwhelmingly powerful saga of a disintegrating Irish-American family, Long Day’s Journey into Night. First produced in 1956, three years after O’Neill’s death, the play was authoritatively and sensitively transferred to the screen by director Sidney Lumet in 1962. The premier O’Neill interpreter on stage, Jason Robards, recreates his role from the first New York production as Jamie Tyrone, the tormented alcoholic son; also in the film’s magnificent cast are Katharine Hepburn as the drug-addicted mother, Mary; Ralph Richardson as the miserly actor father, James Sr.; and Dean Stockwell as the tubercular younger son, Edmund. Lumet’s decision to keep the long play virtually intact, resisting the usual temptation to “open it up,” helps account for the 174-minute film’s extraordinary intimacy and intensity, as well as its fidelity to O’Neill’s dark but compassionate vision of the Irish family as the ultimate source of human ruination. There have since been three TV productions of the play.

Gentleman Jim (1942)

Errol Flynn as "Gentleman Jim" Corbett

One of the most popular Irish-American types in movies is the prizefighter. Such films as Champion, Cinderella Man, and The Greatest (the life of part-Irish champ Muhammad Ali, starring Ali himself) depict the boxer as a symbol of the struggle of minorities to rise from the underclass to socioeconomic parity in American life. Perhaps the most winning and charismatic of all movie boxers is Errol Flynn’s Irish-American pugilist “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, whose bumptious exploits are celebrated in this raucous and lovingly crafted movie by the masterful he-man director Raoul Walsh. Flynn’s legendary charm and masculine beauty were never so ideally portrayed than in Gentleman Jim, and Ward Bond’s magisterial portrait of the older champion John L. Sullivan is Hollywood character acting at its most unforgettable. French director François Truffaut offers an homage to Gentleman Jim in the boxing scene of his classic Jules et Jim.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald

It’s astonishing that so somber and morally serious a film as Million Dollar Baby could be made in Hollywood in a time when most studio movies are cartoon fantasies for adolescents. Only Clint Eastwood’s stature and clout enabled him to direct this unorthodox boxing film adapted by Paul Haggis from F. X. Toole’s Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner. The boxer is a young woman, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), and the central issue is euthanasia. Irish cultural and religious motifs abound. Maggie wears Irish colors and a shamrock in the ring and is dubbed “Mo Chuisle” (“My Darling”; literally “My Pulse,” from “A chuisle mo chroi” or “pulse of my heart”) by her grizzled trainer and father figure, Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). Frankie gets his inspiration from William Butler Yeats’s poems and spars with a priest (Brian O’Byrne) over doctrine, including the church’s teachings about death. The feature Eastwood made before this, Mystic River (2003), also deals with Irish-American themes in its relationship between Boston boyhood friends who become a cop (Kevin Bacon) and a gangster (Sean Penn). An acknowledged filmmaking master, Eastwood is grappling now with some of the most intractable moral issues and most powerful human dilemmas.

Going My Way (1944)

Bing Crosby as Father O Malley

There are few more surefire tear-jerking moments in movies than the scene in Going My Way of Barry Fitzgerald’s elderly Father Fitzgibbon being reunited with his ancient mother from Ireland (Adeline De Walt Reynolds), to the soft accompaniment of “An Irish Lullaby.” Touches like that are so winning in this seriocomic yarn directed by Leo McCarey that its ragged, episodic structure almost seems incidental. Going My Way won seven Oscars, including awards for best picture and director and for Bing Crosby as best actor and Fitzgerald as best supporting actor in his quintessential portrayal of the crotchety but adorable old priest. Crosby’s more worldly, even jaunty young Father Chuck O’Malley proved such a popular figure that he returned in McCarey’s sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), a more rigorously constructed, less sentimental movie that does not contain such a riot of unrestrained Irish shtick as Going My Way, a longtime favorite on television during the Christmas season. An ironic footnote: In real life, Barry Fitzgerald was Protestant.

The Last Hurrah (1958)

Edward Brophy, Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Ricardo Cortez, and Pat O Brien in The Last Hurrah

Perhaps the finest novel about Irish-Americans is Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, a rich and multifaceted look at the way Irish immigrants clawed their way to power in the American political system. O’Connor’s wry and wise 1956 account of a roguish Boston mayor modeled on James M. Curley is sentimentalized in this film version by director John Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, but there are so many fine and colorful performances that its limitations can almost be overlooked. Irish-American Spencer Tracy heads the cast as Mayor Frank Skeffington, in a magisterial performance that reminds us of Tracy’s preeminence among Hollywood actors. Though the film is biased toward the old school of machine politics and glibly mocks the modern brand of young politicians (and this only two years before the Irish-American John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States), the Kennedy-like Jeffrey Hunter is a sympathetic counterbalance as Skeffington’s reporter nephew, and the film also boasts a dazzling array of great character actors, including James Gleason, Basil Rathbone, Pat O’Brien, Ricardo Cortez, Donald Crisp, Edward Brophy, and John Carradine. Carroll O’Connor plays Skeffington in the 1977 TV movie remake ♦

2 Responses to “20 Best Movies about
Irish Americans”

  1. brendan says:

    Lovely synopsis of classics

  2. Larry Simmers says:

    Add “The Fighting 69th”

Leave a Reply


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