The pandemic might be slowing down (or maybe not), but if you don’t feel like celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in a crowded, maskless bar downing pints of green beer, we wouldn’t blame you. Here at The Watercooler, we’d rather keep up our new tradition of honoring Irish culture by watching a transporting series or movie from the comfort of our own homes. Back by popular demand, here’s our list of great Irish-themed titles to get you started, with a focus on fresh, entertaining, and offbeat fare you might have otherwise missed. Editor’s tip: You might want to add the subtitle function to help with some native Irish tongue and accents poured thick as the foam on a pint of Guinness.
Inspire Me: Belfast
Set in the titular Northern Ireland city during the late 1960s, amidst the political upheaval of “The Troubles,” Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film is told from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy named Buddy (really a stand-in for young Branagh himself). Buddy’s middle-class Protestant parents struggle over the decision to stay in their familiar but increasingly dangerous neighborhood or move the family away to a safer place. It stars Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds, Caitriona Balfe, and Jamie Dornan. The critically acclaimed film will be one to watch out for at the upcoming Academy Awards ceremonies, with Oscar nominations in six categories, including Best Picture and Best Director for Branagh.
Watch it with: Your kids or your parents or both at the same time. This is a great multi-generational story for all audiences.
Where to find it: Various platforms (iTunes, Vudu, Prime Video, etc.) are carrying Belfast on demand, but an official streaming date has not yet been announced. As it’s a Universal Pictures release it will likely eventually land on Peacock.
Make Me Laugh: Derry Girls
Sometimes a show comes along and transports you to a certain time and place with such thorough specificity it gives you a whole new understanding of what it was like to be there. Derry Girls is that kind of show. The place is the city of Derry in Northern Ireland, the time is the late ’90s, the waning years of the violent political conflict quaintly referred to as “The Troubles.” But in this series history and headlines are merely a backdrop to the wacky hijinks of a group of teenage girls (plus one boy) facing normal teenage problems with school, dating, friendships, and family. Of course, it’s all heightened to great comic effect.
While truly an ensemble show, it’s built around aspiring writer Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) and frequently features side storylines involving her immediate family and neighbors. The tight-knit group of friends that make up the show’s core include Erin’s oddball cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), overly cautious Clare (Nicola Coughlan, most recently seen as Penelope in Bridgerton), troublemaker Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), and James (Dylan Llewellyn), Michelle’s English-raised cousin who has to attend their all-girls Catholic school to avoid potentially dangerous anti-English sentiments at the boy’s school. The situation is played for laughs but, like many of the humorous elements in the show, there’s a dark truth at the heart of it. The show’s creator Lisa McGee, a native of Northern Ireland herself, weaves in her own personal experiences growing up during that time—so it’s no wonder the show’s depiction of ordinary life carrying on under extraordinary circumstances feels so authentic.
There are currently two six-episode seasons available on Netflix. A third and final season has already been filmed and is due to air later this year.
Watch it with: Your best school mates, past or present. The comedy ranges from sarcastic wit to broad physical gags, so there’s sure to be something here to make anyone laugh.
Where to find it: Netflix
Grip Me: Love/Hate
Ireland’s award-winning drama about Dublin’s post-boom criminal underworld debuted over a decade ago, but the series has recently gained traction around the world, thanks to the growth in streaming and the rising careers of the many actors who got their start on the show.
Part of its appeal is its realistic portrayal of criminal life in modern day Ireland, credited by Irish journalists and even members of the gardaí (the police force). With gang and drug-related activity surging across the country, the series has increased relevance today. But it’s also a taut and well-made production that packs action, family drama, cliffhangers and even comedy into quick-season arcs.
The story: After spending time in Spain to avoid a gun possession charge, Darren Treacy (Robert Sheehan) returns to Dublin—just as his brother Robbie ends up shot in a drive-by, immediately after his release from prison. Tensions escalate between once-friendly gangs, and Darren finds himself sucked back into a world he’d managed to escape. The series sheds light on the repercussions—to their families, to different Dublin communities. Yet unlike in The Sopranos, the women in the family play their own part in organized crime.
The Guardian described it as a “powerful show, a huge hit in Ireland, [with] a strong sense of place and some killer characters.” (Read more)
Watch it with: Fans of The Sopranos or The Irishman will get into it. You might want to keep IMDb at the ready to figure out where you’ve seen the actors, who include Ruth Negga, Killian Scott, John Connors, Charlie Murphy, Barry Koeghan.
Sweep Me Away: Normal People
Debuting in the US shortly after its UK premiere in 2020, Normal People received heaps of critical acclaim and multiple award nominations for its elegant and emotionally affecting screen translation of Irish author Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel.
It centers on the decade-spanning off-and-on romance between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), two bright and complex Irish students with abysmal communication skills. When they meet in high school, Marianne is unpopular, outspoken and from an affluent family. Connell is popular, but not well to do (his mom works for Marianne’s family as a house cleaner). They start a secret romance, which falls apart as they approach graduation. They connect again at Trinity College, where Marianne is the one with an active social life, while Connell struggles to fit in. Through a series of missteps and misguided relationships, they continue to be drawn to each other, despite neither of them being quite ready to accept the deep and epic significance of their love story.
Like its characters, Normal People is quiet on the outside, but hints at a cacophony of emotions beneath the surface. Edgar-Jones and Mescal both give mesmerizing performances, transforming believably from awkward teens into slightly less awkward college graduates over the course of 12 episodes. They’ll stay with you long after the final credits roll.
Watch it with: Cuddle up with your significant other and share in the frustration of seeing two people so clearly in love avoid the obvious conclusion that they are truly meant to be.
Where to find it: Hulu
Find Me Fun: Finding Joy
It’s billed as Fleabag meets Catastrophe, yet Finding Joy is a relatively light and upbeat comedy that follows a suddenly dumped 30-something who finds herself suddenly famous after filling in for Ireland’s favorite vlogger, Flora the Happy Hunter. A sharp departure from her previously quiet and orderly life, it’s now up to her to try out various unusual activities that are supposed to lead to happiness, from wrestling to double dating to hot yoga.
Of course, she has no idea what she’s doing, and veers off into (off-camera) one-night stands and minor league diva-hood. But her amateur attempts at lifestyle reporting win over audiences and break her out of her rut. Created by and starring Amy Huberman, a two-time Irish Film and Television Academy Awards winner, it also stars hotties Bea Aisling (The Fall, This Way Up) and Lochlann O’Mearain (Outlander, Love & Friendship).
Watch it with: Your roommate or past roommates from single days—and post break-up days. Note: It’s TV-14, so not as risqué as Catastrophe or Fleabag.
Where to find it: Acorn
Ignite My Imagination: Moone Boy
Whether you know Chris O’Dowd from his small roles in big Hollywood films like Bridesmaids and Thor: The Dark World, or as sardonic IT worker Roy in the hit British sitcom The IT Crowd (notable for originating the phrase, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”), or even if you’ve never heard of him before, his performance as a 12-year-old boy’s imaginary friend in this surreal and creative comedy series will convert you into a permanent fan.
Set in the late-’80s-early ’90s in the small town of Boyle in County Roscommon (O’Dowd’s real-life hometown), Moone Boy is Irish through and through, but welcoming to all. David Rawle is endearing as young Martin Moone, an outcast at home among his sisters as well as at school, who works out his problems with the help of his ever-present mental counterpart, Sean Murphy. Besides being sharply funny, it’s also visually interesting, from clever sight gags (despite their obvious size difference, O’Dowd and Rawle are frequently dressed in similar clothing) to the animated drawings that illustrate Martin’s inner thoughts. Hulu has all three seasons (18 episodes), so if you missed it the first time around, now’s the perfect time to correct that grave error.
Watch it with: If you happen to find yourself alone on St. Patrick’s Day, you can always put this series on and pretend you’ve got your own imaginary friend to watch it with.
Where to find it: Hulu
Thrill Me: Bloodlands
Set in modern day Northern Ireland, this 2021 four-episode crime drama doubles as a dark and twisty political thriller. It begins with the kidnapping of an ex-IRA leader, which opens a cold case dating back to the end of The Troubles, when a peace agreement was brokered between Irish nationalists and British unionists. Detective Tom Brannick (James Nesbitt from The Killing) connects a car found in the ocean to a series of disappearances — including his own wife’s, 20 years earlier. He suspects a connection to a 1998 assassin named “Goliath,” someone who worked within the police force itself, but executed members on both sides of the conflict who were a risk to the peace talks.
You’ll find yourself googling your way down rabbit holes to determine if any of this might be “inspired by actual events,” and there’s a history lesson layered into the taut arc.
Watch it with: Fans of Bodyguard or Line of Duty, as it was created by the same man: Jed Mercurio.
Where to find it: Acorn
Make Me Sing: Sing Street
This 2016 coming-of-age musical set in 1980s Dublin is guaranteed to lift your spirits. It tells the story of Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a young man whose parents are struggling financially and emotionally. Unable to afford the tuition at his current school, they transfer him to Synge Street CBS, an all-boy’s school where he’s bullied and harassed by teachers and students alike.
He overcomes his frustrations after starting a band with some fellow students, and together, they discover that music can be an outlet, or an escape. He also finds time to pursue the beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who shares his dreams of leaving home, but has problems of her own. All of this is punctuated by original musical numbers and choice pop hits by artists like The Cure, Duran Duran, Hall & Oates, and A-ha. If you’re into that era of popular music, consider this a dual recommendation for the soundtrack too. A Broadway adaptation is also set to hit the stage sometime in 2022.
Watch it with: The music lovers in your life. Turn it up and dance your cares away.
Where to find it: Available for purchase digitally on Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, and more
Take Me Back: The Quiet Man
A celebrated John Ford classic starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, The Quiet Man may sound like an old school American Western, but it’s actually an Ireland-set romantic comedy and love letter to “the old country.”
The film was a big deal when it premiered in 1952, as multiple generations of Irish Americans – including my then 11-year-old father and his grandparents – dressed up to go to movie theaters to see the big-screen version of a homeland as no one really remembered it: idyllic, sunny, romantic, and as colorized as a Norman Rockwell painting.
The story: After accidentally killing an opponent in the ring, boxer Sean Thornton (Wayne) leaves the States and returns to his native Ireland, hoping to buy his family’s home and be left alone. He comes up against a bitter rival: Will Danaher, a man who has been coveting the property. When Will’s sister, Mary Kate (O’Hara), begins a romance with Sean, Will refuses to hand over her dowry. His sister refuses to consummate the marriage until Sean gets the money. When she consults a priest about the matter, as you do in 1952 Movie Ireland, he tells her how terrible it is she is withholding sex from her husband! (This is the part my Dad remembers, along with a bruising bar crawl between the two fighting men that ends in them stumbling back to the same house drunk…to a dinner cooked by O’Hara.)
Yes, it’s a throwback, but Quiet Man captures a time and place, and it elevated Ireland in the eyes of many around the world. It also earned John Ford an Oscar for directing, and in a scene in 1982’s E.T., a TV plays the classic moment when Wayne and O’Hara lock lips, a nod to Ford, who was one of Steven Spielberg’s biggest inspirations.
Watch it with: Your parents and grandparents, as it will get them remembering. Even if they’re not Irish, they’ll remember the impact these iconic stars had on their era, and the ones that followed.
Where to find it: Pluto (free)
Charm Me: Darby O’Gill and the Little People
Okay, it’s got to be said that this classic 1959 Disney film is not exactly free of stereotypes. In fact, it’s as cliché as your neighbor’s overdone yard display with leprechauns, shamrocks, rainbows, and pots of gold. Darby O’Gill and the Little People is as cheesy as they come, but not without its vintage charms (if you’re thinking lucky charms, you’re on the right track).
The plot, such as it is, centers around Darby (Albert Sharpe), the caretaker of a large estate and a true believer in the mythical leprechaun clan said to inhabit the ruins atop a local hill. Before you know it, Darby gets himself mixed up with Brian, the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea) and each tries to outsmart the other. There’s a confrontation with the town bully (a stubborn non-believer, naturally); a love story between Darby’s daughter and the man brought on to replace him as caretaker (a young Sean Connery!); and some other magical business, but don’t expect a coherent narrative here.
The film has become a cult classic over the years thanks to its visual trickery (it uses forced perspective to make the leprechauns look small compared to the oversized sets) and old-school special effects that somehow still hold up. Oh, and it also features some audacious musical numbers with lots of fiddle playing. So, you know, Erin go Braugh and all that old blarney.
Bonus fun fact: If you happen to visit Disneyland at some point in the future, look for the tree in Adventureland with a tiny door at its base, a hidden reference to this film.
Watch it with: It’s classic Disney, so it’s suitable for the whole family. Older kids might find it corny, but that’s just part of the whole St. Patrick’s Day experience.
Where to find it: Disney+