Essays · Movies

The Great Big Irish Actors Appreciation Post

For an island home to less than 6.6 million people, Ireland has produced an incredible number of acting talents.
In Bruges
By  · Published on March 16th, 2018

Between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the so-called Emerald Isle is home to less than 6.6 million people. Considering the worldwide population is inching its way towards 7.5 billion people, that would make it seem like the Irish only represent about 0.09% of the world’s population. With that in mind, it seems like the island produces a disproportionately large percentage of the biggest working names in film and television. Who knows, maybe it’s something in the water—or perhaps more accurately, all that rain.

In honor of March 17 being St. Patrick’s Day, here are 17 Irish actors we’re especially grateful for — and yes, we’re going for the whole Emerald Isle here, including the six northern counties still part of the UK — listed alphabetically by first name because we’re doing this thing elementary school line-up style.

Please note that this is by no means an exhaustive list, merely a sampling of some of the many acting talents working today the island has produced.

Aidan Gillen

From: Dublin

Where You’ve Seen Him: Game of Thrones, Peaky Blinders, The Dark Knight Rises, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials and Maze Runner: The Death Cure, The Wire

Where You’ve Heard Him: This audiobook version of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (because of course).

Where You’ll See Him Next: In Bohemian Rhapsody as music producer John Reid (December 25).

Though his acting range far exceeds slimy bastards, when he does play smirking weasels no one does it better. As Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson states in the opening line of her profile on Gillen, “Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, chances are that if you’re a TV lover, you’ve watched Irish actor Aidan Gillen manipulate someone.”

Though he’s been in film and television since the 1980s, Gillen’s breakout role was in the Russel T. Davies limited series Queer as Folk as Stuart, a character once described as an “alpha-gay filthy charmer.” Since then, Gillen’s other best-known roles have continued to be in television, specifically ambitious Baltimore politician Tommy Carcetti in The Wire and equally ambitious Westerosi politician Petyr Baelish. Though he has dabbled some in Hollywood film (The Dark Knight Rises, the Maze Runner trilogy), most of Gillen’s silver screen work has been in Irish and British independent fare.

Fun fact: I literally was in Dublin city proper for all of about an hour before walking by Gillen on the street. My aunt claims she’s seen him around four times at this point, and she only visits Dublin a couple times a year. It’s now just widely accepted within my family that Gillen, when not actively performing, just wanders the streets of Dublin. This is, of course, almost certainly false, but it amuses me greatly nonetheless.

Aidan Turner Poldark

Aidan Turner

From: Dublin

Where You’ve Seen Him: Poldark, The Hobbit trilogy, Being Human

Where You’ll See Him Next: Season 4 of Poldark (TBA 2018)

Turner has the distinction of having played both a vampire and a werewolf (and a dwarf). In fact, few viewers have actually ever seen him play a human being living in the present day, because the last time he did so on screen was in the RTÉ medical drama TV series The Clinic, which ended in 2009.

Granted, he is very good at playing supernatural creatures, and he can really pull off a tricorn hat.

Barry Keoghan

From: Dublin

Where You’ve Seen Him: The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk

Where You’ll See Him Next: American Animals, which premiered back in January at Sundance, was picked up for distribution and is set for release on June 1.

Though Keoghan made his screen debut in 2011, 2017 proved to be his big screen breakout year between his starring turn as the terrifying Martin in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and scene-stealing supporting role as well-intentioned schoolboy George in Dunkirk. It would be difficult to find two more different characters if you actively tried.

Earlier this month Keoghan took home the “Wilde Card” rising star award — presented to him with a heartwarming tribute from Sacred Deer costar Colin Farrell — at the annual Oscar Wilde awards, which honor Irish film and filmmakers with a connection to Ireland.

Outlander Claire

Caitriona Balfe

From: Dublin

Where You’ve Seen Her: Outlander

Where You’ll See Her Next: More Outlander (TBD, but likely Fall 2018)

Spotted by an agent while collecting money for charity at a local shopping mall, Balfe began an extremely successful modeling career at the age of nineteen, going on to be considered one of the “top 20 models in the world” at the peak of her career.

When Balfe transitioned to acting—her dream profession from childhood—she scored a few small roles in a few major films (Super 8 and Now You See Me) before landing the starring role of Claire Randall in Outlander, for which she has received Golden Globe nominations the past three years running.

O'Dowd This Is 40

Chris O’Dowd

From: Roscommon

Where You’ve Seen Him: The Cloverfield Paradox, Molly’s Game, Bridesmaids, The IT Crowd

Where You’ll Hear Him Next: Providing the voice of Tigger in the upcoming live-action Winnie the Pooh film Christopher Robin (August 3).

O’Dowd was born and raised in Boyle, Co. Roscommon, and played Gaelic football throughout his school career. Though perhaps still best known for his breakthrough role in the Channel 4 comedy series The IT Crowd, he has had roles in several Hollywood films including This Is 40 and Bridesmaids, and also found considerable success on stage, receiving a Tony nomination in 2014 for his Broadway debut role as Lennie Small in a play adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Also known for nearly swallowing a fly on The Graham Norton Show.

Cillian Murphy

From: Cork

Where You’ve Seen Him: Peaky Blinders, Dunkirk, The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, 28 Days Later, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Breakfast on Pluto

Where You’ll See Him Next: Peaky Blinders season 5 (TBA 2019), Luc Besson’s mysterious upcoming film Anna (TBD).

Murphy’s career started with a bang, with his debut role (yes, as in first ever) being his career-making performance originating the role of Pig in Enda Walsh’s two-hander Disco Pigs . The play was originally intended to run for three weeks in Cork and instead ended up touring the world over the course of two years. Murphy also played Pig in the 2001 film adaptation of the show, and the year after broke into the mainstream with his starring role in 28 Days Later. Ever since then, Murphy has maintained a steady presence on both stage and screen, taking on projects ranging from huge-budget Hollywood fare — especially with frequent collaborator Christopher Nolan — to independent Irish films.

I had the opportunity to interview Murphy for FSR back in January. (And now my extended family finally takes me seriously, it’s great.)

Colin Farrell

From: Dublin

Where You’ve Seen Him: The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Beguiled, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Lobster, Saving Mr. Banks, In Bruges, The New World

Where You’ll See Him Next: In Steve McQueen’s upcoming film Widows (November 26), co-written by Gillian Flynn and adapted from the ITV series of the same name broadcast in 1983 and 1985, and starring in Tim Burton’s live-action Dumbo adaptation (March 29, 2019).

 Farrell a rocky start to his mainstream stardom, which included some career lows (Alexander) and him developing something of a reputation as a wild child/human disaster. However, Farrell went through rehab in the mid-2000s and has since rebooted his image as a well-respected (and somewhat more reserved) actor, leaning more towards smaller-budget independent fare, like his two acclaimed collaborations with filmmaker Yorgos Lanthiamos, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In 2008 he took home a Golden Globe for the role of Ray in In Bruges. 

Like Michael Fassbender, has been called the “Irish [Marlon] Brando” in at least one media profile. Once referred to yoga as “a bit of craic.”


Jamie Dornan

From: Down

Where You’ve Seen Him: Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, The Fall, The Siege of Jadotville, Marie Antoinette, Once Upon a Time

Where You’ll See Him Next: Opposite Peter Dinklage in the HBO film My Dinner with Hervé (TBA 2018) and playing the role of Will Scarlet in the latest take on Robin Hood (November 21).

Like Caitriona Balfe, Dornan had a successful career as a model prior to taking up acting, being featured in campaigns for designers including Calvin Klein and Armani. The New York Times once referred to him as “the Golden Torso.”

He is best known for playing Paul Spector, a serial killer terrorizing Belfast, in The Fall and non-vampiric Edward Cullen stand-in Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades trilogy.

McGrath Supergirl

Katie McGrath

From: Wicklow

Where You’ve Seen Her: Supergirl, Jurassic World, Merlin

Where You’ll See Her Next: Supergirl (Monday nights on the CW)

When she’s not being woefully underutilized by mediocre blockbusters (Jurassic World, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), McGrath has made a name for herself in television, with her supporting role as Lena Luthor in Supergirl demonstrating that her breakout performance as Merlin’s friend-turned-archenemy Morgana was far from a fluke.

In talking about Brenda Strong, who plays her mother on Supergirl, for TVLine interview, McGrath commented on the lack of any “familial” resemblance by referring to herself as an “Irish potato.”

Kerry Condon The Last Station

Kerry Condon

From: Tipperary

Where You’ve Seen Her: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Better Caul Saul, The Walking DeadThe Last Station, Intermission

Where You’ve Heard Her: As the voice of F.R.I.D.A.Y. in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and Spider-Man: Homecoming

Where You’ll See Her Next: Starring opposite David Tennant in the upcoming film Bad Samaritan (May 4).

Where You’ll Hear Her Next: Reprising the role of F.R.I.D.A.Y. in Avengers: Infinity War (April 27)

Born in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, Condon made her screen debut in 1999, with a 2-episode guest starring role in the television series Ballykissangel and a small role in the film adaptation of Angela’s Ashes. She’s also had a very successful stage acting career, originating the role of Mairead in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmore and holding the record for being the youngest actress to ever play Ophelia in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet. In a 2013 interview with the Irish Independent she expressed a concern that if she ever won an Oscar she would end up getting in trouble for swearing in her acceptance speech — specifically, saying “feck,” which is just about the most Irish thing ever. (Note: the Irish generally don’t consider it foul language. To quote a relative of mine, “feck isn’t a swear, priests say ‘feck’”).

Liam Cunningham

From: Dublin

Where You’ve Seen Him: Game of Thrones, Hunger, The Guard, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, A Little Princess 

Where You’ll See Him Next: The final season of Game of Thrones (2019)

Especially considering he’ll be the Grand Marshal of this year’s St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin, this list of Irish talent would be woefully incomplete without everyone’s favorite Onion Knight. On his selection as Grand Marshal, Cunningham told the Irish Independent, ““I have always been a proud Irishman and Dubliner and do my best to represent my country and city when I am abroad working. It’s a huge honor to be invited back to lead the parade on our national holiday. I’m really looking forward to being a part of it.”

Cunningham, who dropped out of school and pursued a career as an electrician that ended up taking him to Zimbabwe before returning to Ireland and enrolling in an acting class “out of sheer boredom.” Apparently, once he got started he was hooked.

After stealing scenes in everything from Alfonso Cuarón’s A Little Princess to Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley—purportedly the highest-grossing Irish-made independent film until surpassed by John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, which Cunningham also features in—Cunningham slowly and quietly worked his way into the hearts of Game of Thrones viewers everywhere. Through the seasons, Cunningham’s Davos Seaworth has gone from being a a bit player on Stannis Baratheon’s team to Jon Snow’s most important advisor. In a world full of dragons and ice zombies and harebrained schemes, Cunningham’s grounding presence has become invaluable to the show.

And on the subject of Game of Thrones, it is worth mentioning that Varys, the most level-headed advisor to Westeros’s other most hot-headed hopeful savior, is played by Northern Irish actor Conleth Hill. So really, where would Westeros be without the Irish? But then again, Littlefinger was played by Aidan Gillen. And Joffrey was played by Corkonian Jack Gleeson. You know what, forget I said anything.

Liam Neeson

From: Antrim

Where You’ve Seen Him: Silence, Taken and sequels, Batman Begins, Breakfast on Pluto, Michael Collins, Schindler’s List

Where You’ll See Him Next: In Widows alongside Colin Farrell (November 26)

Hollywood’s go-to action dad — that is, his characters are usually fathers or father-like figures and they tend to have a “very particular set of skills” — was born and raised in Northern Ireland. He apparently dropped out of university to work for Guinness (as a forklift operator), and did a number of other casual jobs as he started to pursue an acting career. His IMDb page now lists over 100 acting credits. He has been nominated for an Oscar, three Golden Globes, and a BAFTA.

Anyone who has ever flown the Irish airline Aer Lingus will also know him as the narrator/star of the UNICEF “Change For Good” donation video they play just before landing (and have for as long as I can remember).

Fassbender Alien Covenant

Michael Fassbender

From: Kerry (Born in Heidelberg)

Where You’ve Seen Him: Alien: Covenant, X-Men: First Class and sequels, Steve Jobs, Slow West, Twelve Years a Slave, Prometheus, Shame, Jane Eyre, Inglorious Basterds, Hunger

Where You’ll See Him Next: Reprising the role of Magneto in X-Men: Dark Phoenix (November 2)

Yes, he was born in Germany, but when Fassbender opens his mouth in an interview you can tell he’s from Kerry. While he and wife Alicia Vikander’s home is in Lisbon, Portugal, Fassbender has said in interviews that he goes back to Kerry regularly — “Christmas, of course” — and whenever his busy schedule allows.

Also, his first big acting break was a Guinness commercial.

The Gleeson Family

From: Dublin

Where You’ve Seen Them:

Where You’ll See Them Next:

Like father, like sons. This family is getting lumped together because I couldn’t pick just one but if I listed them all separately they would make up 17.6% of this article, and having nearly one fifth of my examples sourced from one family would kind of undermine my point about the huge amount of acting talent Ireland has exported.

Brosnan Tomorrow Never Dies

Pierce Brosnan

From: Meath

Where You’ve Seen Him: Mamma Mia!, The World Is Not Enough, Tomorrow Never Dies, GoldenEye, Mars Attacks!

Where You’ll See Him Next: Reprising his role as Sam in Mama Mia! Here We Go Again (July 20)

Raised in the Northern Irish town of Navan, Co. Meath, Brosnan moved to England while still in school, where purportedly the other boys nicknamed him “Irish.” Brosnan first established himself as a stage actor, selected by Tennessee Williams to play the role of McCabe in the English premiere of The Red Devil Battery Sign. He transitioned to screen roles starting in 1980, with his role as Robert Gould Shaw II in the 9-part miniseries Nancy Astor earning him a Golden Globe nomination in 1985. Rumors of Brosnan taking on the role of James Bond started stirring in the late 1980s, but went unconfirmed until his casting was officially announced in 1994, with GoldenEye released the following year.

Ruth Negga

From: Limerick (Born in Addis Ababa)

Where You’ve Seen Her: Preacher, Loving, Warcraft, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Where You’ll See Her Next: Season 3 of Preacher (air date TBD), with Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones in the upcoming sci-fi film Ad Astra (January 11, 2019).

Born in Ethiopia to an Irish mother and an Ethiopian father, Negga moved to Ireland at the age of four. Much like with Barry Keoghan, it’s hard to imagine two characters more different than Negga’s two most celebrated roles thus far — Tulip O’Hare in Preacher and Mildred Loving in Loving.

For Vanity Fair’s Secret Talent Theater she taught us how to make an Irish coffee.

Saoirse Ronan Lady Bird Best Actress

Saoirse Ronan

From: Dublin (Born in New York)

Where You’ve Seen Her: Lady Bird, Brooklyn, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Hanna, The Lovely Bones, Atonement

Where You’ll See Her Next: Starring in Michael Mayer’s new adaptation of Anton Chekov’s The Seagull (May 11) and opposite Margot Robbie’s Queen Elizabeth I as the titular role in Josie Rourke’s Mary, Queen of Scots (November 2).

At twenty-three, Ronan has already been nominated for three Oscars and shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. Though born in The Bronx, Ronan’s family moved back to Ireland when she was three years old. On the rare occasion she is not working, she still lives in Ireland, in the costal town of Greystones, Co. Wicklow. She was spotted touring County Derry literally last week, and has apparently referred to Derry as being one of her favorite places.

Ironically, though Ronan is one of the highest profile Irish actresses working today, she didn’t get around to making a film in Ireland until Brooklyn.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.