We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

ireland on screen

'People's perception of what an Irish film is, and the quality of it, has totally changed'

What’s making Irish film have such a moment in 2023?

LAST UPDATE | 12 Mar 2023

Aoife Barry reports from LA.

IN A WEEK like this week, where Irish films are duking it out among the big boys and girls at the Oscars, it’s a time to ask how we got here, and what it means for the future of Irish filmmaking.

Ireland is a small country, and though it’s a cliché to say it punches above its weight when it comes to cinema, this year is held as proof the saying is true.

Since My Left Foot was nominated for Best Film after its 1989 release, the country’s success has been building at the awards. The 1990s saw Oscar-nominated Irish directors like Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan find a footing outside of Ireland, giving them opportunities to take a chance on the Hollywood system.

Though Irish names had been present at the Oscars and in Hollywood for decades, Ireland’s 1990s film success was coming as the country was economically expanding, and must have seemed like a sign of a more confident, more ambitious nation.

Fast forward to the 2010s and Lenny Abrahamson received his nomination – and a win for his film Room’s star Brie Larson – for a story set outside of Ireland but written by an Irish author. 

This year is notable not just because we have 14 nominations, but 25% of the acting nominations are for Irish actors. We’ve long had big Irish names in cinema, but things are feeling a little different – Paul Mescal only started his career proper three years ago; Barry Keoghan is just 30. An Oscar nomination is now a legitimate aim for young Irish actors.  

What’s an Irish film?

This year is interesting too because of what the types of films in the mix say about what ‘Irish film’ is right now.

Banshees of Inisherin is by no means a film with a Marvel war chest, but it had a $20 million budget which it made back twice in the box office. Film4 was amongst the three production companies behind it and it was distributed by Searchlight.

An Cailín Ciúin, meanwhile, was made under a special scheme, which sees TG4, Screen Ireland and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) provide funding for Irish language film. Under this Cine4 scheme, films with a budget of up to €1.2 million can apply for funding support. The gulf between what it and Banshees cost is clear.

You can expect an even smaller budget was available for the short film An Irish Goodbye, while Aftersun (which Paul Mescal received his nomination for) is a British independent low-budget film.

There’s much diversity, then, in the films that made it through. The other Irish nominees are also proof of how wide-ranging Irish film careers can be – Richard Baneham, nominated in the Visual Effects category alongside three of his colleagues from Avatar, studied his craft in Ireland but went to the US where he made his way to the big leagues (and won an Oscar in 2009).

Jonathan Redmond, nominated for editing Elvis alongside Matt Villa, has worked outside of Ireland with Baz Luhrmann for 20 years, first meeting him in Australia.

There is clearly much opportunity to be had if you make your way to the home of Hollywood (where there is a plethora of options for study and work), but the homegrown nominees are also showing that there’s success to be had here too. That a smaller Irish film can make its way to the Oscars shows both the work necessary to get there (as outlined in our article here), but also gives hope to others for what’s possible.

Still, it’s a business after all. Films don’t just get made on a hope and a wish, and they certainly don’t get to the Oscars with just some crossing of fingers.

While in LA to cover the 2023 Oscars, The Journal took the opportunity to speak to some of the Irish film industry insiders over here this week to find out more about the reasons for this year’s success – and what an ‘Irish film’ is anyway.

‘It’s not a one-off’

Screen Ireland is a major funder of Irish film, and spokesperson Louise Ryan says that the Oscar nominations success “hasn’t happened by accident – it’s not a one-off”. She maintains that it’s the result of investing in talent “by creating a space for Irish filmmakers to take a risk, by providing skills [training] and providing a really creative infrastructure for filmmaking to happen”.

It’s interesting to note, too, that post-recession, Screen Ireland (then called the Irish Film Board), had its government funding slashed, having to slowly build back up to previous levels.

In 2009, it feared for its future after the An Bord Snip Nua report recommended it should be wound up. Those fears didn’t come to pass, but in the context of the recession things looked stark. 

Now, we’re more used to reading positive stories about Irish film. Robert McCann Finn is a co-founder, alongside Nell Roddy, of Break Out Pictures which is the Irish distributor for An Cailín Ciúin.

While out in LA, Break Out announced a slew of new acquisitions of Irish films, including Sinead O’Shea’s award-winning Pray For Our Sinners; Andrew Legge’s debut feature Lola (with Signature Entertainment); Lisa Mulcahy’s psychological thriller Lies We Tell; Ballywalter, starring Patrick Kielty in his acting debut alongside Seána Kerslake (a joint release with Elysian Film); Ken Wardop’s feature I Hate Christmas, and a joint acquisition of the film version of Mark O’Halloran’s hit play Conversations After Sex, to be directed by Aisling Walsh. It also acquired the rights to Harry McGee’s multi award-winning Irish Times podcast GUBU, about Malcolm Macarthur. A varied and vibrant list of Irish productions there.

“I think the whole perception of Irish film has changed – from An Irish Goodbye, and Banshees of Inisherin and now [An Cailín Ciúin],” McCann Finn told The Journal. “I think people’s perception of what an Irish film is and the quality of it, it’s just totally changed. I think that naturally attracts more creative people from all over [to Ireland].”

Roddy spoke about the confidence that she’s been seeing blossom within the homegrown industry. “There’s a real confidence in Irish filmmaking over the last number of years and I think that’s coming through a lot now,” she said. The Oscar nominations are the “pinnacle” of that, she said.

“Just this confidence in what the crew can bring, what actors can bring, what directors can bring… And you really are seeing more and more that even if they are small budget, independent films, the quality can compete now on the world stage.”

She says this has all been growing “for years”, leading to Irish films being able to compete internationally. 

Producer Rebecca O’Flanagan from Treasure Entertainment has been involved in a swathe of interesting and impactful Irish film and TV work over the past few decades – like Handsome Devil, Smother, Viva, and Papi Chulo. Next up is the John Carney (Once) directed Flora and Son, starring Eve Hewson.

O’Flanagan’s been involved in projects that challenge any perceived stereotypes around what an Irish film ‘is’, with some set outside of Ireland and with no distinct ‘Irishness’ besides their writer or director. 

“A number of years ago we did a film called Viva, which was in Spanish and directed by Paddy Breathnach and written by Mark O’Halloran. For me it is an Irish film and it was obviously produced by us – but of course, there’s no actual Irish elements to it,” she said.

“And we did a film in Los Angeles [Papi Chulo, starring Matt Bomer] by John Butler – again, which was purely an LA story, but it was an Irish film at its heart, I think, in terms of what it was exploring.”

This brings up a question tackled by Professor Ruth Barton in her book Irish Cinema in the Twenty-First Century, of what an Irish film ‘is’. Barton writes about a ‘globalisation’ of Irish production and talent, something which this year’s Oscars underscores.

Irish film also frequently involves co-productions these days, which Barton writes is not as criticised as it was in the past for leading to ‘europudding’-style films. Instead, there’s  typically a leaning into the opportunities that these co-productions can bring. 

The work of people like Flanagan shows that within Ireland, the idea of Irishness on film is an expansive one. But she also maintains that in terms of looking at what an Irish story is, “a lot of times, we’re focusing initially on the domestic audience”. If we want an Irish film to do well, making it appeal to the masses outside of Ireland isn’t always the place to start, she says.

“Sometimes I think, if you stay true and authentic to [the domestic audience], it’s the kind of thing that can break out. I think the minute you start trying to over analyse – ‘what will travel, how do we position Ireland as something for an international audience’ – very often you can start to lose the thing that feels real and authentic about it.”

For her, the hook is the storytelling – an aspect of Irish film that came up again and again while speaking to people in LA this week. 

Mark Swift, nominated alongside Joel Crawford for their work on Puss in Boots, told us: “I think there’s something magic in the air in Ireland – they’re the best storytellers in the world. It’s such a cultural country, it doesn’t surprise me that it’s all come together for the Irish this year.” (He has Irish parents, so has some personal investment too in what happens here.) 


Though again we might come back to cliché with the ‘Ireland is a great home for storytelling’ angle, it’s not necessarily a load of blarney.

An Cailín Ciúin, for example, is based on the stunning novella Foster by Claire Keegan. It shows how a deeply emotional story, which itself takes in greater stories around Ireland’s treatment of its children, can be entirely local in its depiction – it’s in Irish and set in rural Ireland, though not a stereotypical rural location – but has moved audiences internationally. 

It contrasts in many ways with the version of Ireland in Banshees of Inisherin, which has some fantastical elements even if its location is grounded in reality.

Both tell fictional stories about Ireland, but what audiences have connected with is what’s at the heart of that story.

There are undoubtedly future filmmakers taking note. 

The Journal will be liveblogging the Oscars and present in the winners’ press room when the 2023 event takes place later today.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel