Top Ten Irish actors: It's a matter of character

From Barry Fitzgerald to Colin Farrell, Irish actors bring brilliance, blarney, and blather to the silver screen. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, March 17, 2012 – Between all the roistering that’s going on this weekend in honor of Ireland’s patron, Saint Patrick (who is never reported to have visited a pub), it’s easy to forget that there are loads of interesting Irish men and women to celebrate on March 17. Given the considerable skill of the Irish in terms of expressing themselves in song, drama, and storytelling, it’s not surprising that many of those who are either native Irish or of Irish descent have made names for themselves in Hollywood over the last century or so.

Here’s our list of the individuals we currently regard as the most notable movie actors and actresses who hail more or less directly from the Emerald Isle. If it skews a bit contemporary, that’s largely due to the current flood of Irish talent that’s been currently taking Tinseltown by storm.

Colin Farrell.

Colin Farrell. (AP)

Our list is subjective, of course. There are lots more Irish movie and stage thespians who’ve graced our stages and movie theaters over the last century, many of them actually Americans whose ancestors had emigrated to these shores in search of a better life.

But in any event, let’s try these top ten on for size. And a hearty “Slainté” to you all.


10. Colin Farrell. (b. 1976). One of the new, younger generation of Irish movie stars, Mr. Farrell first gained significant recognition in “Minority Report” (2002), for his portrayal of the villain Bullseye in the otherwise moderately forgettable superhero flick “Daredevil” with Ben Affleck (2003). He has struggled fitfully with substance abuse since 2005, but has continued to star in films, including the upcoming release of the remake of the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi hit, “Total Recall” slated for this summer.

9. Una O’Connor. (1880-1959). Una who, you say? Born Agnes Teresa McGlade in Belfast, young Una—her eventual stage name—became a stage actress in Ireland and England, but scored her first signal success in late middle age in a 1933 Noel Coward play entitled Cavalcade. When Hollywood decided to film the play, Ms. O’Connor was invited there to reprise her role. She never went back to Ireland.

Una O'Connor

Una O’Connor meets The Invisible Man (Claude Rains.)

She was soon noticed by famed horror film director James Whale, the man who actually helped make her famous by casting her in his film version of “The Invisible Man,” starring Claude Rains. Ms. O’Connor performed in a supporting role, appearing as the publican’s wife, who memorably screams in terror as the Invisible Man, is, well, revealed to her. But the actress’ terror seizures proved to be so over-the-top funny that she ended up reprising similar roles in other horror and thriller classics, including her role as the Baron’s housekeeper in Whale’s 1935 “Bride of Frankenstein.”

But she occasionally played serious roles as well in films ranging from “The Informer” (1935). Her last memorable role was her comic appearance in Billy Wilder’s otherwise serious film version of Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957).

Aidan Quinn.

Aidan Quinn. (AP)

8. Aidan Quinn. (b. 1959). Born to Irish émigré parents in Chicago, Mr. Quinn has appeared in numerous big budget films including “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Benny and Joon,” “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” and “Michael Collins” in which he co-starred with Liam Neeson. His roles tend to be significant yet frequently low key. Our personal favorite is his role as Brad Pitt’s conflicted older brother in “Legends of the Fall” (1994).

7. Pierce Brosnan. (b. 1953). Hailing from County Louth in the center of the Irish Republic, Mr. Brosnan had a difficult childhood as his father left the family and his mother was forced to emigrate to England to earn a living while young Pierce was left with his grandparents.

He originally aspired to be an artist, but eventually found his way into acting. He first found fame in the U.S. in the oddball detective hit Remington Steele (1982-1987) in which he played the quirky title character. During the show’s run, he was approached to portray James Bond, replacing the aging Roger Moore, but he had to decline due to his TV contract and the role later went to Timothy Dalton.

Pierce Brosnan.

Pierce Brosnan. (AP)

When Dalton proved somewhat unpopular in the role of Bond, Mr. Brosnan got his second chance at the role and was signed to portray 007 in 1994. He appeared in four Bond films, all of them popular, before the role was given to Daniel Craig in 2005 in disputed circumstances. Mr. Brosnan has continued to appear in many films, probably the most popular being his remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair” in 1999.

6. Liam Neeson. (b. 1952). Mr. Neeson probably needs little introduction to contemporary filmgoers. Born in County Antrim in current Northern Ireland, he became an amateur boxing champion in addition to finding himself attracted to stage acting.

After winning small but significant parts in various films, he moved to Hollywood in 1987 and eventually won the starring role in the strange but notable action-horror flick “Darkman” (1990). But his fame began in earnest when he starred in the title role in “Schindler’s List.” In a significant role shift, he portrayed Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn in the initial revival episode of the Star Wars franchise (“Phantom Menace”) in 1999.

Star Wars.

Liam Neeson (r.) joined by Ewan McGregor in the first chapter of the Star Wars revival. (AP)

He’s appeared in a significant number of film roles since, including a few good films but also a few action potboilers. He’s rumored to be playing the character of Lyndon Johnson (!) in an upcoming film revolving around Martin Luther King. Married to English actress in 1994, he suffered a major tragedy when she was killed in a ski accident in Canada in 1959. Mr. Neeson is now an American citizen.

5. Barry Fitzgerald. (1888-1961). Born William Joseph Shield in Dublin, Mr. Fitzgerald started out as a civil servant but soon began to appear onstage in Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre. He was for a time the roommate of famed playwright Sean O’Casey, and began to make appearances in his roomie’s famous plays like Juno and the Paycock.

Barry Fitzgerald

Barry Fitzgerald in “Going My Way.”

Eventually taking up residence in Hollywood, he was much in demand, becoming the go-to actor to portray witty, humorous, or simply very Irish roles in a slew of popular movies. Perhaps his most famous roles were his appearance as a genial Irish priest alongside Bing Crosby’s younger cleric in “Going My Way (1944) and his humorous supporting role in the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara Irish-based classic “The Quiet Man” (1952).

4. Maureen O’Hara. (b. 1920). Hailing from the environs of Dublin, this stunning, popular redheaded actress was originally known as Maureen FitzSimons before adopting her stage name. Trained in theater in Dublin, she attracted the attention of English actors and filmmakers, including Charles Laughton who eventually helped her land the role of the gypsy girl Esmeralda in his classic starring vehicle, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1939. The film was a tremendous popular and critical success and her career was launched.

Maureen O'Sullivan

Maureen O’Sullivan in PR poster with Tyrone Power.

She continued to appear in classic films such as “The Black Swan” (1942); “Sentimental Journey” (1946); “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947); the popular John Wayne classic “The Quiet Man” (1952); and many others. She effectively retired in the early 1970s, but returned to acting in 1991 to star with the late comedian John Candy in “Only the Lonely.” She became an American citizen in 1946, but has returned to Ireland where she currently lives in County Cork.

3. Richard Harris. (1930-2002). Hailing from the gritty Western Irish city of Limerick, Mr. Harris is famed for his countless and often offbeat films. As a young man, he was an up-and-coming rugby star but was forced to abandon that pursuit after enduring a bout of tuberculosis. Relocating to England after WWII, he dabbled in directing plays while studying to be an actor, but lived many years in poverty as he studied his craft.

He spent time onstage in England and even appeared in small parts in Hollywood films in the late 1950s and early 1960s but didn’t much like his Tinseltown experiences and quarreled with well-known stars like Marlon Brando and Charleton Heston. But he gradually managed to reconcile himself with movie acting, appearing as King Arthur in the film version of the musical “Camelot” (1967); as a British adventurer in “A Man Called Horse” (1970); the uniquely quirky role of English Bob in the Clint Eastwood classic, “Unforgiven” (1992); and the small but significant role of the dying philosopher/emperor Marcus Aurelius in “Gladiator” (2000).

Richard Harris

Richard Harris (r.) as Dumbledore. Maggie Smith and Miriam Margolies are skeptical, too. (AP)

But perhaps his crowning achievement occurred at the end of his career when he appeared as the crafty old wizard and headmaster Albus Dumbledore in the first two installments of the “Harry Potter” Series. He died of cancer just prior to the opening of the second Potter film.

2. Kenneth Branagh. (b. 1961). Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Mr. Branagh is as well-known as an actor as he is a director. His main claim to fame has been his highly cinematic directing and starring roles in film versions of Shakespeare’s classic plays which have garnered him Academy Award nominations. Most recently, he served as director for the Marvel Comics-based superhero hit, “Thor” (2011).

Kenneth Branagh.

Kenneth Branagh. (AP)

1. Peter O’Toole. (b. 1932). Although he’s clearly of Irish descent, Peter O’Toole to this day is not certain whether he was born in County Galway, Ireland, or in Leeds, Yorkshire, England. He has birth certificates from both counties! In any event, he was raised as a Catholic in England. He started his career as a would-be photojournalist, but eventually received stage training in England after being rejected for a training program at Ireland’s famed Abbey Theatre.

Mr. O’Toole began to appear in stage and TV roles in London when he was noticed by David Lean who was looking to cast the lead in “Lawrence of Arabia,” after he was unable to obtain either Marlon Brando or Albert Finney to play this significant role. Casting Mr. O’Toole, a virtual unknown, in the title role of this epic film proved a fantastically prescient bet for both Mr. Lean and Mr. O’Toole. The sweep and the scope of this film, which also starred Egyptian actor Omar Shariff, made it a Hollywood blockbuster while simultaneously making the photogenic Mr. O’Toole a Hollywood icon.

Peter O&squot;Toole, Katherine Hepburn, "Lion in Winter."

Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, “Lion in Winter.”

Due to ongoing bouts with the bottle, Mr. O’Toole’s career didn’t always follow a predictable trajectory. But he continued to land hugely significant roles, including repeat performances as English King Henry II in two different classics, “Beckett” with Richard Burton (1964) and “Lion in Winter” with Katherine Hepburn (1968). In a seeming parody of his own career, but more particularly that of swashbuckler Errol Flynn, Mr. O’Toole scored a comedic his for his role as a Hollywood has-been in “My Favorite Year” (1982). He has continued to appear from time to time in a number of costume dramas. He currently lives in the small town of Clifden in County Galway.


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington. For Terry’s investing insights, visit his Communities column, The Prudent Man in Politics.




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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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