The ones that make us proud: Irish storytelling on the big and small screens

Emma Kiely looks back on the Irish stories and storytellers that have made us proud in film and on the TV.


From animation to drama, Emma Kiely looks back on the films, shows and people that make us proud to be Irish.

It is no secret or lie that Ireland is a nation of storytellers. Our famed writers have brought copious amounts of pride and recognition; from Joyce to Yeats, we have been acknowledged as a country that breaths great stories. As the world evolved and we started to turn our heads towards films and television, Ireland’s longstanding status of high quality productions and pioneer artists has remained.

“When it comes to Irish film, there is one name that stands above the rest; Lenny Abrahamson.”
“Whether they make us laugh, cry, scared or just simply entertained, on the small and big screen, Irish stories have etched themselves into the history of television and film.”

Quality Irish television has ranged from a sit-com about priests to drug gangs controlling the streets from Dublin. Whether it is RTÉ One or Two, there is a programme that people of all ages and tastes can appreciate. What could be argued to be one of the most innovative and new programs that RTÉ broadcast was also the one with one of the lowest production budgets. Back in 2007, Dan and Becs was the first Irish programme to be shot in the blogger webcam style that we are all now so accustomed to. It starred David Coffey (who also created the show) and Holly White, who played a Dublin couple in their 20s navigating work, fame, art and love in the big smoke. Its charming characters, perfectly-timed editing and hilarious dialogue makes it a legendary timestamp of Irish comedy. With its scathing critiques and accurate observations of what it is like to be a young person in Dublin, twelve years later it still has its effortless and eternal charm and all it took was two actors and a webcam.

The sit-coms that are globally recognised are predominantly from America. No one can honestly say that they have never heard of Friends or Seinfeld. However, Ireland has produced some stellar sit-coms that are just as well-written, well-acted and hilarious. In the mid 1990s, the Catholic church and religion in general was still a serious subject that was rarely scathed or discussed in any tone other than reverent. Father Ted was the first programme to satirise priests and the Catholic church with writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews taking the risk of satirising the Catholic church at a time when speaking openly about religion was still quite taboo, let alone making fun of it. However, the BBC picked it up and the show gained an extensive following including celebrities such as Jim Carrey, Stephen Spielberg and Madonna. The programme established Dermot Morgan as an unforgettable pioneer of Irish comedy and is still a laugh-out-loud hilarious viewing experience, two decades later.

“Whether they make us laugh, cry, scared or just simply entertained, on the small and big screen, Irish stories have etched themselves into the history of television and film.”

Other stand-out Irish comedies include Pat Shortt and Jon Kenny’s D’unbelievables that provided us with one of the most iconic Irish comedy sketches where a young schoolboy (Shortt) pesters shop owner (Kenny) over how many sweets he can buy and ends up leaving with two cigarettes. From that sketch alone the catchphrase “How much are dem?” is recognised widely across the country. In recent years, comedies such as Moone Boy starring Chris O’Dowd as the imaginary friend to Boyle schoolboy Martin (David Rawle) is a refreshing spin on the Irish family comedy.

This year, Channel 4’s Derry Girls was a source of great praise for its hilarious performances by both new and established actors, including comedian Tommy Tiernan, and for its insight into life as a teenager against the backdrop of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Its stand out character is the loud-mouthed Michelle played by Jamie-Lee O’Donnell who has some lines that could leave you in laughter for days.

When it comes to Irish film, there is one name that stands above the rest: Lenny Abrahamson. Abrahamson has directed some of the finest Irish films in recent years. His ability to take what we see as commonplace or ‘everyday’ and marry it with his direction and style to produce a film results in not only an aesthetically pleasing, but also extremely impactful work and is what makes him a truly unique director. A prime example of this skill can be seen in his 2007 film Garage starring Pat Shortt as Josie, a garage worker with a learning disability in a small town in the midlands of Ireland. The film is extremely harrowing due to its truthful portrayal of Irish rural life and sad ending; but it really is a masterclass in Irish film. It showed that Abrahamson was not afraid to make films about the commonplace and proved that sometimes the things that we mostly see as ordinary can sometimes be the most extraordinary.

When we think of Saoirse Ronan, we think of a horrific accent that we all love to make fun of. Yes, she can sometimes overkill her whole “I’m just your average Irish girl” act in interviews, however, there is no interview too cringeworthy that can take away from the fact that she is an exceptional actress. Her range has spanned from English period dramas to neurotic American black comedy, to good old fashioned Irish films. No matter what genre she finds herself in, she performs every role with fervent intensity and a deep exploration of her character. It is still shocking to think that she was only thirteen when she made Atonement, as she delivers her performance with such maturity and an understanding and awareness of her character in such a thematic complex film. Like her personality or not, Saoirse Ronan is one of the most talented and established young actresses in the world and is most definitely an Irish national treasure.

Animation is not a genre that receives as much attention and acclaim as it deserves and when it eventually does, it’s usually a Disney or Pixar production. Irish animation production company Cartoon Saloon has raised the bar for both Irish film and animation as a whole. Based in Kilkenny, Cartoon Saloon bring together animation with old Irish mythology and detailed folk drawings to produce an animated film that is utterly enchanting and also informative on old Irish culture. Both their films, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, have charming and thematically relevant plotlines that engage with old Irish folks stories and myths to offer a viewing experience that is most visually captivating and emotionally enthralling. Both films were nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars but lost to films either from Pixar or Disney. It is a shame that none of their films won as they are perhaps the most innovative and detailed animation films of recent years. However, award winning or not, Cartoon Saloon are another name on the endless repertoire of exceptional Irish storytellers.

Whether they make us laugh, cry, scared or just simply entertained, on the small and big screen, Irish stories have etched themselves into the history of television and film. Since time immemorial, despite being one of the more conservative countries, when it comes to writing stories, producing films and running television shows, we are not afraid to take risks and tell the truth. We have bred some of the greatest writers, comedians, actors and directors that have made all of us here at home, immensely proud.