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How Irish film shaped and conquered modern cinema

BY Jamie Flook

8th Mar 2023 Film & TV

How Irish film shaped and conquered modern cinema

With Irish film dominating Oscar nominations this year, Ireland's influence on modern cinema feels stronger than ever. We look back on Ireland's rise on-screen

The luck of the Irish may prove useful at the Academy Awards, as the number of Irish Oscar nominees this year is in double figures—including a quarter of all the acting nominations. Five days after this is St Patrick’s Day, so the world could really be going green.

Ireland and Northern Ireland have influenced cinema in more ways than one might imagine for an island that has dealt with its fair share of upheavals in the time that film has been around.

Bram Stoker and early Irish influence on film

One of the earliest examples of Ireland's contribution to film comes in the form of the 1897 novel Dracula written by Bram Stoker, one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers.

It has been adapted for film many times from the silent era onwards, with a prominent early example being the German film Nosferatu directed by F W Murnau and released in 1922, ten years after Stoker’s death.

The blood-sucking, bone-chilling spectre of Count Dracula has provided a source material for film that has remained as popular with filmmakers across the decades as other literary titans, such as Cinderella or James Bond.

"One of the earliest examples of Ireland's contribution to film comes in the form of the 1897 novel Dracula"

Comparisons with the historical Romanian ruler Vlad the Impaler are inevitable, as the novel is partially set in Transylvania, although it is worth noting that at the time Dracula was published, Transylvania was actually part of Hungary.

Stoker’s wife Florence took legal action over Nosferatu adapting Dracula without permission (albeit with a different title and some changes to the story). The case result ruled that all copies of the film should be destroyed.

Yet the film somehow survived and inspired another German filmmaker, Werner Herzog, to direct the 1979 release Nosferatu The Vampyre, in which Klaus Kinski plays a disturbingly calm Dracula deploying a creepy, measured approach to fulfil his dastardly intentions.

Maureen O’Hara and Irish influence on 1950s Hollywood

From Transylvania to Tinseltown, Irish film talent has a long tradition of making enormous contributions to film.

Irish actress Maureen O’Hara was a big star of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age and close friends with John Wayne. They starred together in the 1952 film The Quiet Man, the story of a boxer returning from America to an idyllic Irish village where he was born.

The film is in some ways a love letter to Ireland, and the external scenes shot in Ireland showcase the country’s natural beauty.

Liam Neeson and important stories

Inevitably, many of the films set on the island of Ireland have been influenced by the history of armed conflict.

Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson as the revolutionary fighting for Irish independence from Britain, arguably serves as a jumping-off point for people looking to find out more about the history.

The controversial Anglo-Irish treaty was actually signed at Heatherden Hall, which is now known as Pinewood Studios.

"The controversial Anglo-Irish treaty was signed at Heatherden Hall, now known as Pinewood Studios"

A native of Ballymena in Northern Ireland, Neeson has enjoyed a career to rival the best, but surely his most significant performance was his portrayal of Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List.

Before becoming an actor, Neeson worked as a forklift truck driver for Guinness, although those trucks were a lot smaller than the trucks he drove in his 2021 film The Ice Road.

Saoirse Ronan and the younger generation

Saoirse Ronan leaning against a wall while starring in film Ladybird c. Universal PicturesCourtesy of Universal Pictures. Saoirse Ronan has received several Oscar nominations, including for her leading role in Lady Bird

If we really think about it, for many years now we have been enjoying a golden generation of Irish film talent. In terms of critical recognition, Ireland and Northern Ireland’s time has come.

From the younger generation, Saoirse Ronan is only 28 years old, and at 25 had already received four Oscar nominations. From the elder bracket, Kenneth Branagh is now the only person in history to have Oscar nominations in seven different categories, which is a staggering achievement.

Kerry Condon and TV performances

Awards are not the be-all and end-all, and arguably actors are better remembered for their performances than they are for any awards. Kerry Condon’s performances in Better Call Saul will likely be celebrated longer than any Oscar she might win this year for The Banshees of Inisherin.

Kenneth Branagh and the older generation

Kenneth Branagh directing Irish film Belfast c. Universal PicturesCourtesy of Universal Pictures. Kenneth Branagh documented his childhood in Belfast in his semi-autobiographical film

As for Branagh, if you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to check out his magnum opus Belfast, which is a roller-coaster ride through the experiences of a young boy growing up in mid-20th-century Belfast.

It was actually mostly filmed in England, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the film is delightful.

Irish locations in film

Ireland and Northern Ireland have become location hot spots for films that are set elsewhere too.

"Skellig Michael was the location of a memorable closing scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

A recent example is the dramatic scenery of a crag called Skellig Michael off the coast of County Kerry in Ireland, which was the location of a memorable closing scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Star Wars: The Last Jedi was filmed there too.

Irish film talent is shining, and we are all the richer for it.

Banner credit: Courtesy of Universal Pictures. Still from Belfast

You can find sereral great Irish films on Prime Video via Amazon.

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