Drawing up a list of the best Irish film actors, the criteria are unavoidably slippery. Can one great performance get you to the top? Can someone in their 20s really complete fairly against an actor who worked steadily for 60 years? Who gets to be Irish? That last question is particularly worrisome here, as two of the top seeds spent their early lives across the Irish Sea.
Most biographers make uncommitted humming noises when asked if Peter O’Toole was born in Leeds or, as he often suggested, in “Connemara”. We know that Daniel Day-Lewis, son of Anglo-Irish poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, was born and raised in leafy bits of London. But both took Irish passports. So we must conclude they can fairly compete both in this race and in any assessment of English film actors. Good luck keeping them out of the top five in either.
Sadly, the great Greer Garson – once erroneously credited as having been born in Castlewellan, Co Down – doesn’t quite meet the regulations (though her grandfather would be eligible for the national football squad).
A more complex question arises over whether we are assessing actors purely on their performance in films. We lean towards a qualified “yes”. It is hard, in all good conscience, to include, say, Micheál MacLiammóir, the dominant figure in Dublin theatre for five decades. We must also regretfully decline the applications of theatre and TV specialists such as Niall Tóibín, Tom Hickey and James Nesbitt.
That uncertain quality we call “stardom” is certainly a factor in our gradings. Our top-rating actor is the most incandescent Irish star to trouble the Hollywood heavens during their busiest years. The patriarchal nature of the business does mean that we have more male actors than female. That is, alas, an honest reflection of how it once worked (and still does, to an extent).
We are also obliged to skew towards more recent decades. Ireland gave the golden age many fewer actors than it gave the millennial years. The whys and wherefores of that must wait for another day.
50. Seána Kerslake (b 1990)
Kerslake’s turn in A Date for Mad Mary announced an actor who could interweave emotional fragility with sharp comic timing. She has since confirmed her potential in The Hole in the Ground. Next up: My Salinger Year.
Star turn: The career-making A Date for Mad Mary.
49. Hugh O’Conor (b 1975)
The Dublin actor was nine when he landed his first big role, opposite Liam Neeson in the 1985 movie Lamb. He played the young Christy Brown in My Left Foot and the titular killer in The Young Poisoner’s Handbook.
Star turn: Br Cathal in Pilgrimage.
48. Martin McCann (b 1983)
The fresh-faced Belfast man, who was flung into the big time by Richard Attenborough in Closing the Ring, graduated to strong roles in Shadow Dancer and Maze. Generally the most charming presence in any scene.
Star turn: Coping with the apocalypse in The Survivalist.
47. Nora-Jane Noone (b 1984)
Galway actor made her screen debut in The Magdalene Sisters. Has subsequently starred in Ella Enchanted and Brooklyn.
Star turn: As Holly in Neil Marshall’s terrifying The Descent.
46. Maria Doyle Kennedy (b 1964)
Kennedy, as much a singer as an actor, was one of those who made the most of early exposure on The Commitments. Barely a year has gone by when she hasn’t caught a decent movie role by the throat.
Star turn: The sober centre of The Commitments.
45. Donal McCann (1943-1999)
Abbey star who went on to make films with Bob Quinn, John Huston, Neil Jordan and Bernardo Bertolucci.
Star turn: In December Bride’s love triangle with Saskia Reeves and Ciarán Hinds.
44. Jonathan Rhys Meyers (b 1977)
Enormously good-looking matinee idol who cut a swathe through the new century after doing away with the lead in Michael Collins. Great in Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil.
Star turn: Almost makes sense of Woody Allen’s Match Point.
43. Orla Brady (b 1961)
Dublin-born actor has collaborated three times with director Mary McGuckian, on Words Upon the Window Pane, The Price of Desire, and A Girl from Mogadishu. She has worked with Jackie Chan (The Foreigner), Aidan Gillen (Rose Plays Julie) and John Turturro (The Luzhin Defence).
Star turn: As a republican prisoner in Silent Grace.
42. Susan Lynch (b 1971)
Never fully getting her due, Lynch has been quietly outshining more celebrated actors in film roles for a quarter of a century. Her steady intelligence is put to good use in Waking Ned and Beautiful Creatures.
Star turn: As James Joyce’s muse in Nora.
41. Robert Sheehan (b 1988)
The Cork actor has flitted between hit TV (The Misfits, Umbrella Academy), indies (Cherrybomb, Mute), and big-budget franchise pictures (Mortal Instruments, Mortal Engines).
Star turn: With Nicolas Cage in Black Death thriller Season of the Witch.
40. Kathleen Ryan (1922-1985)
Ryan, a notable figure from a prominent republican family – and the subject of a famous portrait by Louis le Brocquy – was a striking star in American and British films during the postwar years.
Star turn: The woman who loves James Mason in Odd Man Out.
39. Chris O’Dowd (b 1979)
The comedian and author is the only star to have played football with Roscommon at intercounty level (as a minor) who went on to star alongside Steve Carell, Jack Black and Melissa McCarthy.
Star turn: As Officer Rhodes in Bridesmaids.
38. Jessie Buckley (b 1989)
Count on Buckley being way up the chart if we repeat the exercise in a few years’ time. Since her stunning film debut in Beast, the Kerry woman has, with just a handful of roles, demonstrated an uncanny grasp of the screen-acting art.
Star turn: Incandescent as a country singer in Wild Rose.
37. Bríd Brennan (b 1955)
The Northern Irish actor, winner of the 1992 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a play for work on Dancing at Lughnasa and a three-time Olivier Award nominee, has appeared in Topsy-Turvy, Shadow Dancer, Brooklyn and Florence Foster Jenkins.
Star turn: As Anne Devlin in Pat Murphy’s film of the same name.
36. Liam Cunningham (b 1961)
Hugely popular Dublin actor who has graced such varied projects as The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Jude and The Childhood of a Leader. Always radiates salty integrity. Often very funny.
Star turn: Voice of reason as the priest in Hunger.
35. Moyna Macgill (1895-1975)
Belfast-born mother of Angela Lansbury and producers Edgar and Bruce Lansbury. After making a splash on the West End, she became a character actor in such early Hollywood hits as Frenchman’s Creek and The Picture of Dorian Gray (which co-starred Angela).
Star turn: Alongside Lon Chaney Jr in Bride of the Gorilla.
34. Ray McAnally (1926-1989)
The Americans didn’t do enough with one of our greatest ever actors, but he balanced technique with rationed emotion in Cal and The Mission. A master who kept control of his mighty presence.
Star turn: The proud Da in My Left Foot.
33. Bronagh Gallagher (b 1972)
She’s in Pulp Fiction, you know. Gallagher’s eccentric delivery has been in great demand since she broke through in The Commitments.
Star turn: A charmer in the recent A Bump Along the Way.
32. Jamie Dornan (b 1982)
The suave Northern Irish man was already a rising star when he found himself propelled into the maelstrom of the Fifty Shades franchise. Now he’s an unstoppable phenomenon. First cousin twice removed of Greer Garson.
Star turn: Holding the fort in The Siege of Jadotville.
31. Ciaran Hinds (b 1953)
The Belfast-born actor is so versatile you have to remind yourself that he has worked with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach and Paul Thomas Anderson. Not to mention in Harry Potter, Justice League, both Frozen films and Game of Thrones. Phew.
Star turn: As “Soldier” in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
30. Geraldine Fitzgerald (1913-2005)
Fitzgerald, raised in Greystones, was a legend of the American stage. Her many films include Dark Victory, Harry and Tonto and Wuthering Heights – for which she was Oscar nominated.
Star turn: Holding her own against Rod Steiger in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker.
29. Fiona Shaw (b 1958)
The Cork-born star recently won a Bafta for her work on Killing Eve. Between a lengthy career at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, she has appeared in four Harry Potter films as Aunt Petunia, Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and, well, Pixels and Three Men and a Little Lady.
Star turn: As Lizzie Borden’s unfortunate stepmother in Lizzie.
28. Michael Gambon (b 1940)
Would be higher if he weren’t more of a TV and theatre specialist. Gambon was born in Cabra and made his film debut in the film version of Olivier’s Othello. He has returned intermittently to supporting roles. Our second Dumbledore.
Star turn: Unquestionably the Thief in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.
27. Barry Keoghan (b 1992)
More than a “heartless cat killer”, Summerhill’s Keoghan will soon feature in Marvel’s Eternals and David Lowery’s The Green Knight. Has previously worked with Christopher Nolan on Dunkirk and Yorgos Lanthimos.
Star turn: As Colin Farrell’s creepy stalker in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
26. Brenda Fricker (b 1945)
The first Irish actress to win an Oscar, earning the Academy Award for best supporting actress for My Left Foot. Subsequently appeared in Veronica Guerin, Omagh and Albert Nobbs before her retirement in 2014.
Star turn: As Mike Myers’s paranoid mother in So I Married an Axe Murderer.
25. Sinéad Cusack (b 1948)
Despite decades-long associations with the Abbey and Royal Shakespeare Company, Cusack has chalked up a sizeable number of film credits including A Room with a View, V for Vendetta and I Capture the Castle.
Star turn: Opposite husband Jeremy Irons in Waterland.
24. Colm Meaney (b 1953)
It may still be the law that no Irish film can be made without Glasnevin’s finest being at least given the option. He’s in everything from Con Air to The Damned United.
Star turn: Serving fried stuff in The Van.
23. Fionnula Flanagan (b 1941)
Flanagan, winner of a Saturn Award for The Others and two Iftas (for Transamerica and The Guard), is also the only actor to appear in three Star Trek spin-off series. As adroit in comedy – having worked alongside Ricky Gervais and Jim Carrey – as she is in James Joyce’s Women.
Star turn: The matriarch in Four Brothers.
22. Olwen Fouéré (b 1955)
Though best known as a theatre performer, Fouéré has recently become a singular presence in films such as The Survivalist, Beast and Sea Fever.
Star turn: Brilliantly cast as circling weirdo in the psychedelic horror Mandy.
21. Domhnall Gleeson (b 1983)
With significant roles in Harry Potter and the most recent Star Wars trilogy, Gleeson is one of the largest-grossing Irish actors of all time, while continuing to make a splash on the awards circuit with The Revenant, Frank and Unbroken.
Star turn: As a temporal-jumping romantic in About Time.
20. Kenneth Branagh (b 1960)
He has somehow managed to live down that early curse of being dubbed “the new Olivier”. The Belfast man, known for his Shakespeare, has also dabbled in Tom Clancy and Harry Potter.
Star turn: Inspiring in his own muddy Henry V.
19. Una O’Connor (1880-1959)
O’Connor was born Agnes Teresa McGlade in Belfast. She was often cast as maids and housekeepers, most memorably in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. She worked with Alfred Hitchcock in Murder! and John Ford in The Informer and The Plough and the Stars.
Star turn: As the publican’s wife in The Invisible Man.
18. Brendan Gleeson (b 1955)
You know the story. Began as a teacher. Moved towards the theatre. Became an indispensable movie player in middle age: Gangs of New York, In Bruges, so much else.
Star turn: His first lead, in John Boorman’s The General.
17. Gabriel Byrne (b 1950)
Excalibur, Miller’s Crossing, The Usual Suspects, Hereditary. The Dublin-born actor also co-wrote The Last of the High Kings and produced In the Name of the Father.
Star turn: As a callous amateur fisherman in Jindabyne.
16. Peggy Cummins (1925-2017)
Cummins, raised in Killiney, was brought to Hollywood by 20th Century Fox, but is now best remembered for brilliant cult pleasures such as Hell Drivers, Night of the Demon and one of the great noirs…
Star turn: Untamed in Joseph H Lewis’s peerless Gun Crazy.
15. Pierce Brosnan (b 1953)
He was famous as Remington Steele before he became the fifth James Bond. The Drogheda-born, Navan-raised actor has proved a versatile post-007 character actor, too, crooning in Mamma Mia!, surviving tough in Seraphim Falls, killing in The Matador and channelling Gerry Adams in The Foreigner.
Star turn: As Trine Dyrholm’s suitor in Love Is All You Need.
14. Cyril Cusack (1919-1993)
Rarely the lead, but one of cinema’s greatest character actors: subtle, insidious, surprising. In dozens of films, including Harold and Maude, My Left Foot and Fahrenheit 451.
Star turn: Maybe the gunsmith in The Day of the Jackal. But, as usual, he wasn’t actually the star.
13. Stephen Rea (b 1946)
An established veteran of the West End before a series of collaborations with director Neil Jordan – The Crying Game, Company of Wolves, Interview with the Vampire – made him an international name.
Star turn: As a murder witness turned vigilante in Angel.
12. Cillian Murphy (b 1976)
Amazingly, it is nearly 20 years since The Cheekbones of Cork made his film debut in Disco Pigs. Went on to grace hits such as 28 Days Later and Inception.
Star turn: Principled and bellicose in Palme d’Or winner The Wind that Shakes the Barley.
11. Barry Fitzgerald (1888-1961)
A golden age veteran with credits in Bringing Up Baby, How Green Was my Valley and The Quiet Man, and winner of the Academy Award for best supporting actor for Going My Way (1944). (He was simultaneously nominated for best actor for the same role.)
Star turn: As a homicide detective in Jules Dassin’s The Naked City.
10. Ruth Negga (b 1982)
Negga, out of Addis Ababa and Limerick, starred in the TV series Preacher, and had roles in Breakfast on Pluto and World War Z, before knocking off socks at Cannes and at the Academy with…
Star turn: Stirring and Oscar-nominated in Jeff Nichols’s Loving.
9. Michael Fassbender (b 1977)
An auteur’s favourite, having collaborated with Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott (twice). Lenny Abrahamson and Steve McQueen (also twice), and recurring as X-Men supervillain Magneto since 2011.
Star turn: As Bobby Sands in McQueen’s impactful Hunger (2008).
8. Maureen O’Sullivan (1911-1998)
The Roscommon woman, a star of the golden age, appeared as Kitty in the Garbo Anna Karenina and as romantic interest in The Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races. But let’s face it …
Star turn: The Jane to Weissmuller’s Tarzan.
7. Liam Neeson (b 1952)
Came to prominence with the title role in Schindler’s List. By far the highest-grossing actor to emerge from Ballymena, having starred in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Taken, Batman Begins and The Chronicles of Narnia.
Star turn: Surviving wolves and Alaskan tundra in The Grey.
6. Saoirse Ronan (b 1994)
Still only 26, she may eventually end up at the top of this list. Arrived spectacularly as the child star of Atonement and then built carefully towards an eclectic senior career.
Star turn: Spirit of her generation in Lady Bird. “I wish i could live through something.”
5. Colin Farrell (b 1976)
He has worked with Oliver Stone, Terrence Mallick, Michael Mann, Yorgos Lanthimos, Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg. And found time in between to win a Golden Globe for In Bruges.
Star turn: As a cardiothoracic surgeon in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
4. Peter O’Toole (1932-2013)
The charismatic, sinewy actor holds the record for the most acting nominations at the Oscars – seven – for films including Becket and My Favourite Year, without scoring a single win.
Star turn: His lead debut in Lawrence of Arabia. Noël Coward: “If you had been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia.”
3. Richard Harris (1930-2002)
Was named best actor at Cannes for his work on This Sporting Life, kick-starting a decade (or two) of hellraising. Known to younger audiences as Dumbledore in the early Harry Potter films.
Star turn: Lots to choose from. But watch how he elevates English Bob the gunslinger in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
2. Daniel Day-Lewis (b 1957)
Yes, he has the passport. The only man to have won three best actor Oscars. First scored in films by Stephen Frears and Jim Sheridan, before becoming Paul Thomas Anderson’s signature star.
Star turn: Drinking your milkshake in There Will Be Blood.
1. Maureen O’Hara (1920-2015)
Ranelagh’s most famous redhead was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford before she became the “Queen of Technicolor” in various swashbuckling adventures. Never even nominated for a competitive Oscar, but deservedly received an honorary award in 2014.
Star turn: As Mary Kate Danaher in The Quiet Man. Obviously.