So far, I’ve only visited Ireland’s capital city of Dublin but I’d absolutely love to road trip around the whole Emerald Isle. I want to kiss the Blarney Stone, drive around the Ring of Kerry and look out over the Cliffs of Moher and visit Galway… But for now, I suppose I’ll have to settle for watching these amazing films set in Ireland to satiate my wanderlust.
I’ve attempted to craft a list of the best Irish or Ireland-based films that will cover Ireland’s colourful (often not-so-great) history, it’s luscious green landscapes, untouched coastline and friendly residents with their trademark sense of humour and good craic. I’m sure you’ll end up watching only one or two films on this list that intrigues you. But if you do that, I feel like I’ll have done a good job.
Some of these movies aren’t exactly travel-inspiring but they’re included to provide context on Ireland’s relationship to Catholicism, the Irish travelling community and there’s even some Celtic mythology thrown in, too. So let’s check out some fantastic films set in Ireland that will inspire you to visit this wonderful country!
Top Films set in Ireland
1. The Quiet Man (1952) dir. John Ford
Languages: English, Irish Run time: 129m 90% Rotten Tomatoes
I can’t really imagine John Wayne as a romantic lead, I’ve only ever watched him in Westerns. But legendary Hollywood director John Ford won an Oscar for The Quiet Man and it’s a highly-rated classic film, so I guess his performance must have been satisfactory!
Wayne is the titular ‘quiet man’, an American boxer who returns to the Irish village he was born in and falls for a pretty ginger lass played by Maureen O’Hara. Of course, she’s ginger. This is Ireland for goodness sake, everyone is ginger over there. This is definitely the best movie set in Ireland to watch if you love classic Hollywood films. The sweeping, cinematic shots of the Irish countryside are incredible. The Quiet Man shot on location in County Mayo and County Galway at Ashford Castle, Lettergesh Beach and Clifden.
2. Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) dir. Robert Stevenson
Languages: English, Irish Run time: 93m 100% Rotten Tomatoes
I had no idea this film existed before crafting my list of the best films set in Ireland to make you want to visit. And I cannot tell you just how much joy I felt learning that someone at Disney pitched an idea for a film that became Darby O’Gill and the Little People and that it would be certified 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. This is giving me all the warm fuzzies, you guys. What an utterly wholesome, joyous film.
Darby lives with his daughter in Rathcullen, County Cork (which I don’t think exists, I can only find info on a ‘Rathcullen’ in County Kerry). While chasing his master’s horse (which is actually a mythical Celtic pooka), Darby is captured by the King of the Leprechauns, Brian Connors, and they begin a battle of wits. Each attempt to outsmart the other which leads to Brian offering Darby three wishes.
It seems like this film is massively underrated. It’s a jolly, family-friendly adventure film with Irish folklore, music and a fun story. The only downside I can find is that, unsurprisingly, Darby O’Gill and the Little People wasn’t shot in Ireland! Yup, it was filmed at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. No wonder the weather is so good in the movie.
3. Ryan’s Daughter (1970) dir. David Lean
Language: English Run time: 195m 47% Rotten Tomatoes
Ryan’s Daughter is one of David Lean’s lesser films, but I think if you’re the dude that also directed cinematic masterpieces like Brief Encounter (1945), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), then you’re allowed one or two duds.
Set in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, Tom Ryan is a secret British informant living in Kirrary on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry with his daughter, Rosy. Bored with small-town married life, Rosy begins an illicit affair with a wounded British veteran and becomes ostracised by the local Nationalist villagers.
To be honest, you don’t watch Ryan’s Daughter for the plot. You watch it for Irish filming locations! This movie is like a slideshow of all the most beautiful places to visit in Ireland. Specifically, places in County Kerry and County Clare. You’ve got the Cliffs of Moher, Minard Castle and breathtaking beaches like Inch Strand, Banna Strand and Coumeenoole Beach all featured in Ryan’s Daughter.
4. The Field (1990) dir. Jim Sheridan
Language: English Run time: 107m 43% Rotten Tomatoes
Jim Sheridan is possibly the best thing to have happened to Irish cinema. And even though The Field isn’t one of his better films, I thought it was a great addition to this list because of the subject matter.
The Field is set in the 1930s and follows Bull McCabe, a farmer who works on the same rented field his family has farmed on for generations. When an American with “Irish ancestors” arrives wanting to buy the land to build a Hydro-Electric plant and stone quarry, Bull will do anything to stop that from happening. It’s a classic David and Goliath tale which asks important questions about cultural identity and the respect (or lack of) to local people. Which I think is super important to keep in mind when we travel!
5. Hear My Song (1991) dir. Peter Chelsom
Language: English Run time: 104m 90% Rotten Tomatoes
Hear My Song may be a difficult film set in Ireland to track down, but I wanted to include it anyway. It has quite an odd premise but luckily it works: Irishman Micky O’Neill runs a failing nightclub in Liverpool and attempts to book a popular Irish singer named Jo Locke to revive it. When he discovers the man he hired was a fraud, Micky O’Neill decides to return to Ireland to find the mysterious Jo Locke and discover what happened to him.
It’s a nice little British/Irish indie and features a young James Nesbitt with a smashing moustache. Hear My Song filmed in County Clare and County Dublin including O’Brien’s Tower, the Cliffs of Moher and Howth Head.
6. Into the West (1992) dir. Mike Newell
Language: English Run time: 97m 77% Rotten Tomatoes
There are so many things about Into the West that I absolutely adore. It focuses on a family of Irish Travellers where the grandfather tells his two young grandsons stories about Irish folklore and legendary adventures. When the family settle in a depressing flat in Dublin, they notice a white horse followed them and the two boys become excited with the notion of being cowboys and seek to get the horse back when it is stolen from them.
Into the West combines magic realism with Celtic legends as a way for these young boys to escape their poverty. But I also love that it’s a heartwarming, family fantasy film that doesn’t vilify Irish Travellers. I just really, really love that this film exists and it offers an insight into a community that never receives any positive press.
Into the West shot all around Ireland, particularly County Laois, County Galway, County Mayo, Ballymun in County Dublin and County Wicklow. Phew! That’s a lot of counties. One of my favourite filming locations used is Brittas Bay.
7. The Magdalene Sisters (2003) dir. Peter Mullan
Language: English Run time: 119m 91% Rotten Tomatoes
All the movies on my list of films set in Ireland to watch before you visit have been, so far, relatively wanderlust-inspiring. Even if the plots aren’t particularly happy, the cinematic Irish landscapes make up the shortfall. However, The Magdalene Sisters isn’t travel inspiring, nor was it shot in Ireland, though the film is set there.
I’m still including it because I think it’s a well-made, fascinating (though disturbing) film and it’s important to know what happened in those horrendous Magdalene Laundries.
The film is set in 1964 and is a fictional retelling of real-life events. The Magdalene Sisters follows four “fallen” women, mostly unmarried mothers, who were sent by their families to live in a corrupt, inhumane Magdalene Asylum to repent for their sins. Again, it’s definitely good to learn more about the history of the countries we visit and hopefully, watching The Magdalene Sisters will give you some insight into this horrific part of Ireland’s recent past.
8. Laws of Attraction (2004) dir. Peter Howitt
Language: English Run time: 90m 18% Rotten Tomatoes
C’mon, I had to throw in at least one crappy, wanderlust-inspiring rom-com, right? On every single one of my list of film recommendations there needs to be at least one God-awful romantic comedy! It’s the main rule around here.
On my list of films set in Dublin, it was Love, Rosie (2014) and on this list of films set in Ireland, it’s Laws of Attraction starring Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan. They play New York City divorce lawyers each representing one half of a famous soon-to-be-divorced couple. Most of the action takes place in New York. But the settlement grinds to a halt when the couple can’t agree on who gets to keep their gorgeous castle in Ireland. So naturally, both lawyers travel across the pond to stay in the castle to sort it out and develop mutual feelings… In case you didn’t know where this was going.
The castle scenes were filmed in Humewood Castle – a grand estate you can actually stay in! Laws of Attraction shot other Irish scenes in the Wicklow Mountains and a village called Roundwood, all in County Wicklow.
9. The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) dir. Ken Loach
Languages: English, Irish, Latin Run time: 126m 90% Rotten Tomatoes
If you want to watch more films about the Irish War for Independence in the 1920s and the Irish Civil War that followed in the 1930s, you couldn’t find a more essential film to watch than The Wind that Shakes the Barley. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and became the highest-grossing Irish film at the time of the movie’s release. It might be a fictional story, but I think Ken Loach’s film perfectly captures the mood and the state of affairs for Irish people at the time.
Two brothers from County Cork join the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to fight the British in order to gain independence for Ireland. After the war, the brothers develop differing views on the new Anglo-Irish Treaty which forces them onto different sides of the Irish Civil War.
Most of The Wind that Shakes the Barley shot in County Cork, except Kilmainham Jail in Dublin was utilised for the prison scenes. Ballyvourney, Bandon, Timoleague and Coolea are all villages and towns in County Cork featured in the film.
10. P.S. I Love You (2007) dir. Richard LaGravenese
Language: English Run time: 125m 25% Rotten Tomatoes
You knew this film would appear on my list of top films set in Ireland eventually, didn’t you? Yep, for better or worst, P.S. I Love You is one of the most popular films that travellers like to watch before visiting Ireland.
After her Irish husband Gerry dies of a brain tumour, Holly begins receiving letters from beyond the grave helping her through her grief with instructions and words of encouragement to carve out a new life after his death. One of those missions takes her back to Ireland where the couple first met.
We all love a good travel romance story, I know I do. So it makes complete sense that P.S. I Love You still has a big following despite being complete trash. Most of the scenes in Ireland take place around County Wicklow, specifically in the Wicklow Mountains.
You can read an entire blog post I wrote dedicated to all the Irish P.S. I Love You filming locations, including a map!
11. The Secret of Kells (2009) dir. Tomm Moore
Language: English Run time: 75m 91% Rotten Tomatoes
I struggled to choose between The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea (2014) for which animated film I should put on this list of films set in Ireland. They’re both beautifully hand-drawn animations by the same company, Cartoon Saloon, based in Kilkenny in Ireland. But The Secret of Kells won out because it was their first feature-length animation and I already have a couple of other films from 2014 in mind for this list… So here we are. You should watch them both, anyway!
The Secret of Kells is about a young boy named Brendan living in 9th-century medieval Ireland. He lives in constant fear of Viking attacks until a wise old ‘Illuminator’ tells him about an ancient book, the unfinished book of Kells, that is said to turn darkness into light and it turns Brendan’s world upside down.
Sometimes, I think animated films do a better job at sparking our excitement about a new place than a lot of live-action films. They’re usually better art evoking the feeling of a place rather than simply reflecting life on screen. The Secret of Kells is a brilliant film, and a great choice if you have children.
12. Ondine (2009) dir. Neil Jordan
Languages: English, French, Romanian Run time: 111m 68% Rotten Tomatoes
Sticking with Celtic folklore, Ondine didn’t make many waves in cinemas despite starring famous Irish actor, Colin Farrell. He plays a trawler/fisherman nicknamed Circus who captures a naked young woman in his fishing net who says her name is Ondine. She’s a slightly peculiar woman and Circus’ daughter Annie suggests she may be a selkie.
Selkies are more common in Scottish mythology I believe, but I’m sure there are similar creatures in Irish mythology too. Selkies mean ‘seal folk’ and they have the ability to shed their seal skin to resemble humans. So, they’re basically mermaids and are usually women. I just love that there are so many Irish films set in the present day with some mythological elements thrown in, it’s awesome! Plus, Ondine was shot entirely on location in the Beara peninsula of County Cork.
13. Leap Year (2010) dir. Anand Tucker
Language: English Run time: 100m 23% Rotten Tomatoes
My apologies, Laws of Attraction is not the only disastrous rom-com set in Ireland on this list. Leap Year made the cut, too, I’m afraid and I don’t love the storyline but it’s an easy-breezy watch.
Amy Adams plays Anna, a woman with a successful real estate business but is growing increasingly frustrated that her boyfriend hasn’t proposed yet. She learns of an Irish tradition where men must accept a proposal of marriage made on a Leap Day, February 29th. And since he just happens to be in Dublin for a conference on the date in question, she follows him to Ireland! Nothing at all unhinged about that! But the course of true love (and travel during a storm) never did run smooth and things don’t quite work out for Anna as she expected.
What this film lacks in good plot it makes up for in filming locations tenfold. The vast majority of Leap Year is set and shot all over Ireland in County Wicklow, County Galway, County Kildare and Dublin. Through the medium of film, you can visit the Aran Islands, Temple Bar in Dublin, the Wicklow Mountains and picturesque towns like Enniskerry and Connemara.
14. The Guard (2011) dir. John Michael McDonagh
Languages: English, Irish Run time: 92m 94% Rotten Tomatoes
I’m so excited for you right now because we’ve reached the John Michael McDonagh Double Feature section of the list! If you love dark comedies and the deadpan delivery of a certain Brendan Gleeson then this film, The Guard, and the film directly below, Calvary, will make for a cracking Friday night in. Especially if you’re visiting Ireland soon or hope to in the future. Grab a couple of Guinnesses and get comfy.
The Guard stars Gleeson as your unfriendly neighbourhood police officer-with-attitude (or ‘Garda’) and Don Cheadle as a by-the-book FBI agent in Ireland investigating a drug-smuggling ring. The two must work together, but suffice to say they have very different methods. Do not watch this film if the ‘c’ word makes you squirm.
The Guard shot mostly in County Galway, particularly Connemara, Barna, Salthill and Spiddal but the final fight scenes were filmed at Wicklow Harbour. I love how the beautiful rural towns with their patchwork-coloured rows of houses, well-worn fishing harbours and country pubs juxtapose against this very American action movie plot.
15. Calvary (2014) dir. John Michael McDonagh
Language: English Run time: 101m 89% Rotten Tomatoes
Then after you’ve finished watching The Guard, follow it with the slightly different-in-tone but still utterly brilliant film Calvary. This time, Gleeson plays a down to earth Catholic priest named Father James. He is visited in confession by someone who was horrifically sexually abused by a priest in his youth. This person promises to kill Father James in one week’s time and we don’t know who it is. Calvary documents the next week where James is reunited with his troubled daughter and wrestles with his impending appointment with death.
Okay, so it’s not as funny as The Guard. Obviously. But it’s not quite as doom-and-gloom as you might expect and I just think it’s a really f*cking interesting premise with some epic Irish scenery. Calvary was primarily filmed in County Sligo including Strandhill, Easkey, Streedagh beach, Rockwood Parade in Sligo and Sligo airport.
16. Frank (2014) dir. Lenny Abrahamson
Language: English Run time: 95m 92% Rotten Tomatoes
Sometimes the world seems too depressing, too serious and often feels like we’re forever rewatching sequels, reboots and reimaginings of the same film manufactured to make as much money as possible. Then I remember a film like Frank exists, in which the dreamy Michael Fassbender covers up his lovely face with a Frank Sidebottom-esque papier-mâché mask. And suddenly the world seems wonderfully weird and full of possibilities again.
Jon is an English musician hoping to catch his big break. A series of events leads him to join an eclectic, synth-pop band headed up by Frank and they travel to Ireland to record their debut album in a remote, rural cabin. After Jon helps the band build a social media following, they’re invited to SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. But Jon soon begins to realise being part of this band might be more trouble than he anticipated.
The cabin is situated next to the serene Lough Dan in the Wicklow Mountains and unfortunately, it’s mainly surrounded by private property which is a bit of a shame.
17. The Lobster (2015) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
Languages: English, French Run time: 118m 88% Rotten Tomatoes
Luckily, if you like weird and wonderful films set in Ireland then you have some choice. The Lobster is set in a slightly dystopian alternative world where single people must find a mate within 45 days at a special facility or they are turned into animals and sent into “The Woods.” Colin Farrell stars as David, an unlucky singleton who decides to escape into The Woods to try his luck with The Loners, people who either cannot or choose not to find a suitable mate.
The Lobster has some utterly fantastic actors, including Olivia Coleman and Rachel Weisz. And though it’s a bit quirky and off-kilter, it’s something a bit different. And it’s an easier watch than some of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ other films. The Lobster mainly shot in County Kerry and Dublin and I’ve written an entire blog post dedicated to the filming locations (plus a map) if that’s something you’re interested in!
18. Brooklyn (2015) dir. John Crowley
Language: English Run time: 112m 97% Rotten Tomatoes
The final entry on my list of wanderlust-inspiring films set in Ireland is also my favourite. I absolutely adore Brooklyn. Saoirse Ronan stars as a young Irish girl living in Enniscorthy, County Wexford in the 1950s. Unable to find decent employment, she is sponsored an American Visa by a priest in Brooklyn and sails across the Atlantic to start a new life. Tragedy brings her back to Ireland where it transpires that she is not the same scared, naive girl who left months before.
Brooklyn is a film about finding where you belong, literally and figuratively. Which I’m sure is a notion that all avid travellers can relate to. Which is why it’s not only a great film to watch before travelling to Ireland but before travelling in general. And definitely before moving to a new country as it touches on homesickness too.
I’m a broken record at this point, but I have written a separate post detailing all of the Brooklyn filming locations. Not just all the beautiful beaches and towns in Ireland, but in New York City and Canada too.
Other films set in Ireland: The Informer (1935), Poitín (1978), Taffin (1988), Far and Away (1992), The Playboys (1992), War of the Buttons (1994), The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), Circle of Friends (1995), Dancing at Lughnasa (1998), Garage (2007), Grabbers (2012), Philomena (2013)
And those are some of the best films set in Ireland! Have you watched any of these films or would you add any? Let me know in the comments below!