Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hollywood and the IRA

The IRA on Film And Television
by Mark Connelly
The Irish Republican Army has fascinated Hollywood, beginning with John Ford’s 1935 classic The Informer.   A secret “outlawed” organization for most of its history, the IRA has rarely consisted of more than a few hundred active members. Dedicated to ending British rule in Northern Ireland, the IRA has no global agenda.

An IRA victory would not create a haven for international terrorists, destabilize NATO,
disrupt world markets, or endanger British security. Other revolutionary organizations have inflicted more harm, espouse more ominous ideologies, and pose greater threats to international stability. Yet none of these militant forces has captivated moviemakers like the Irish Republican Army.  Major American stars – Richard Gere, Brad Pitt, James Cagney, and Robert Mitchum – have portrayed IRA figures.  IRA characters and plots have been featured in popular television shows, including Columbo, Hawaii-Five-O, Law and Order, and Boardwalk Empire.  

            The IRA presents both opportunities and challenges to filmmakers who generally try to appeal to the widest possible audience. The IRA continually appears in headlines, generating public interest and debate. As an underground organization, it provides screenwriters and directors with stories of intrigue, espionage, betrayal, suspense, and violence. Directors of action films and thrillers can capitalize on car bombs, spies, secret missions, assassinations, kidnappings, and rescues. The organization’s well-known bombing campaigns allow writers to explore ethical debates about the use of terror to achieve political ends and the suspension of civil liberties in the name of national security. The IRA presents filmmakers with a variety of dramatic events that lend themselves to visual expression—ticking time bombs, courtroom debates, demonstrations, car chases, interrogations, and jail breaks.

Hollywood filmmakers, however, have to overcome several obstacles. To most Americans, Ireland is the Emerald Isle of shamrocks, castles, and leprechauns populated by charming, childlike people given to poetry, drink, and dance. It is hard for many to reconcile these stereotypes with the portrayal of the Irish as ruthless terrorists. Similarly, England is commonly thought of as a peaceful, tidy, hyper-civilized society where rush hour commuters politely “queue up” for double-decker buses and police officers maintain order without guns. American audiences have a difficult time seeing the English, often ridiculed as effete aristocrats, as being capable of the brutality they easily accept in a Southern sheriff from their own country. 

The IRA also presents a challenge to filmmakers who wish to avoid offending British and Irish audiences.  Many IRA movies skirt controversy by being explicitly not about the IRA.  Early films do not mention the IRA, referring vaguely to “the organization” while giving visual clues – the IRA’s trademark trench coats or portraits of Republican heroes – to lead audiences to make unstated associations.  Later films such as Patriot Games, Ronin, and Blown Away point out that the terrorists belong to a “fringe” or “splinter group” often at odds with the “official” IRA.  By ascribing violence to lone wolves and rogues, these films seek to exploit public fascination with the IRA without endorsing or condemning it.  Avoiding politics, however, creates a political statement.  By blaming terrorism on malcontents and dissidents, these films grant the IRA a sense of moderate legitimacy.  


Born in Philadelphia, Mark Connelly completed a masters degree in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he received a Ph.D in English.  His books include The Diminished Self: Orwell and the Loss of Freedom, Orwell and Gissing, Deadly Closets:  The Fiction of Charles Jackson, and several college textbooks.  He currently teaches literature and film in Milwaukee, where he is the Vice-President of the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center of Wisconsin.
His latest book is The IRA on Film and Television.

You can visit his website at
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The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has for decades pursued the goal of unifying its homeland into a single sovereign nation, ending British rule in Northern Ireland. On film, the IRA has appeared in mainstream motion pictures such as The Quiet Man, action films like Blown Away, political dramas, dark comedies, and even a spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dynamite. The IRA has been explored by major directors from three countries, including John Ford (The Informer), John Frankenheimer (Ronin), Carol Reed (Odd Man Out), David Lean (Ryan’s Daughter), Neil Jordan (Michael Collins), and Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father).  IRA characters have been portrayed by international stars, such as Victor McLaglen, James Cagney, Anthony Hopkins, James Mason, Richard Gere, and Brad Pitt.  Films about the Irish Republican Army range from realistic docudramas like Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday, shot with handheld cameras and natural lighting to create the sensation of watching 1972 newsreel footage, to Joseph Merhi’s action farce Riot in which a British superhero battles IRA bikers in the streets of Los Angeles during a race riot.

Whether portrayed as a heroic patriot, ruthless terrorist, or troubled anti-hero, the Irish rebel has emerged as a universally recognized cinematic archetype.   Over eighty motion pictures include IRA references, and IRA characters have appeared in iconic American television series such as Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, and Law and Order.

This illustrated history analyzes film depictions of the IRA from the 1916 Easter Rising to the peace process of the 1990s. Topics include America’s role in creating both the IRA and its cinematic image, the organization’s brief association with the Nazis, the changing depiction of women in IRA films, and critical reception of IRA films in Ireland, Britain, and the United States.


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DarcyO said...

Sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for sharing.