Top Five Irish Actors


Best on the list — and I didn’t even have him pegged as Irish

I was thinking about doing a rant against Identity Politics, which I still might do if I find time today or tonight, because now that Trump’s gone, it seems to be all we can talk about (the argument over motivations in the Atlanta shooting, this business over who gets to play on girls’ teams in school, the unrelated battle over whether enough resources are committed to female sport on the college level, etc.) when there are far, far more important things we could be talking about (the deteriorating relations with China and Russia, the Biden administration’s upcoming $3 trillion spending plan — yes, that number is correct — and a host of other things that I won’t mention because this parenthetical, and the sentence of which it is a part, are both far too long now).

But that would take a long time, and I have less than zero time available for it. So I’ll go completely in the opposite direction. Earlier, I randomly ran across a picture of Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane in a Tarzan movie, and idly thought, “Whose Ma was she again?” (Mia Farrow’s, for the curious.) And I found on Wikipedia that she was listed No. 8 on a list in The Irish Times of “The 50 greatest Irish film actors of all time – in order.”

So of course I had to look at it, so I could disagree with it. And not just with the fact that it’s undisciplined to list 50 when the proper number is five.

Anyway, just choosing from this list of 50 (there could be others, but I’m not going to spend time thinking about it), here’s my five. I’ll start with my apologies for not putting Maureen O’Hara at No. 1 the way they did, or even on the list. I mean no disrespect to the lady. Here’s my list:

  1. Daniel Day-Lewis — First, I had no idea he was Irish. I thought he was a Brit. But he’s definitely the best. Interestingly, some of my favorite performances by him were as iconic American figures: Abraham Lincoln, the ultimate frontiersman Natty Bumpo, and violent nativist Bill the Butcher. They had him at No. 2, behind Ms. O’Hara, but he’s the best.
  2. Kenneth Branagh — Also would have pegged him as a Brit. He certainly impersonates one well. He can be overbearing, but the man can act. I agree with them that he was most impressive as Henry V. But they were wrong to put him way down at No. 20 on the list.
  3. Brendan Gleeson — He’s just magic in everything. If you haven’t seen it, try to find The Guard and stream it. He’s great. They had him at 18.
  4. Maria Doyle Kennedy — You may remember her as the hottest of the Commitmentettes. (Yes, I know Angeline Ball — in the center in that picture — was the prettiest, but I found Maria, whom you see to Angeline’s right as well as below, more appealing.) They had her at 46, and she deserves much better. She’d probably have been higher, except that — and this bugs me — you so seldom see her. But occasionally she’ll crop up where you don’t expect her — as Catherine of Aragon in “The Tudors” or Siobhán Sadler in “Orphan Black.”
  5. Chris O’Dowd — OK, he’s no Daniel Day-Lewis, or even particularly great at all, but I’m a huge fan of “The IT Crowd,” and I don’t think it gets enough attention, so I’m promoting him from where they put him, at 39. Mind you, if Richard Ayoade were in any way Irish, I’d have included him on my list — there’s a guy you don’t see enough, even less than Maria.

Honorable mention, with their ranks on the Times’ list:

8. Maureen O’Sullivan

9. Michael Fassbender

11. Barry Fitzgerald

24. Colm Meaney

That’s it. Back to work…

My favorite Commitmentette.

My favorite Commitmentette.

35 thoughts on “Top Five Irish Actors

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Ethnic identity is a mildly interesting thing about a person — fun to explore and try to understand, but really just one minor detail, among thousands, about who that person is. (Which is why, for instance, I use it as the organizing principle for something as trivial as a Top Five list.)

    And there’s no way, no way at all, that it assumes the importance of being the basis of a political creed. That way lie racism, strife and madness.

    Which puts me out of touch with so many on both the left and right…

  2. Bryan Caskey

    What? You left Liam Neeson out of your top five? I can’t even take your list seriously. 🙂

    Richard Harris was also great in Unforgiven as “English Bob” and in Patriot Games as the IRA leader. Pierce Brosnan is also likely in the top five.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Another postscript… Maureen O’Sullivan made the Honorable Mention list purely on the basis of being the real, true, original Jane.

    But what more would you want?

  4. bud

    I actually enjoyed Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter better that the Daniel Day Lewis Lincoln. Perhaps in the way elitists score movies the later was better. But let’s be honest that movie was pretty boring to sit through. Vampire Hunter on the other hand was loads of fun in a guilty pleasure sort of way.

    1. Barry

      I didn’t find it boring (But boring can be quite good too). I mean it wasn’t an action movie. It was a movie to show the inner turmoil Lincoln suffered nearly every day of his presidency. That wasn’t boring to me at all.

      I don’t think you have to be “elitist” to be able to acknowledge a great performance and enjoy it thoroughly simply because an actor able to show the day to day considerations of a war time President.

      What was amazing about it was when Lewis was on screen, I felt as if I was watching Lincoln. Incredible performance.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yes, so did I. It was amazing.

        As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate Lincoln as our greatest president more and more.

        I know a lot of people think ol’ Brad never got over all that simplistic patriotic stuff that we’re fed as children, and to some extent that’s true. But it went more like this… I started out embracing the stuff you get on Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays (back when we celebrated those), as much as or more than most kids. But I’m a reader, so I soon learned that the story about Washington and the cherry tree was at best apocryphal, and the other stuff that makes some people, who don’t look into things any more deeply, into cynics.

        Anyway, I sort of reached the point that a lot of semi-educated people do, of thinking that simple-minded people have a need for heroes, so they build up their “greatest presidents” into larger-than-life figures, and make up stories like the one about the cherry tree. So I this point I sort of thought “Lincoln did a good job, but maybe beyond that it’s kind of overblown.”

        But I kept reading and learning about our history, and learned a lot of things that gave greater, deeper understanding to these men as human beings, and as, yes, heroes. Particularly Lincoln. And the one thing that probably had the biggest effect on increasing my admiration of Lincoln was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

        And “political genius” was right. I was deeply impressed, over and over, at the wisdom he brought to bear on the most monumental challenges of our history — particularly his superhuman sense of timing. (I also lost respect for some of the Radical Republicans and abolitionists — the woke people of the day — who constantly attacked Lincoln for not moving fast enough to suit them. But Lincoln knew what was right, and he knew when to move, and just as importantly, HOW to move in order to succeed — and they did not.)

        That book, if I recall correctly, also inspired Spielberg’s movie — that, and other things. (There’s a great deal in the movie that wasn’t in the book, as it dealt rather briefly with that period.)

        And Daniel Day-Lewis embodied this Lincoln, brought him to life. I’ve watched it over and over, and I’m always impressed…

        1. Barry

          Conan O’Brien of all people is a big collector of all things Lincoln. He’s also studied him extensively.

          On CNN’s recent mini-series documentary about Lincoln, Conan mentioned something that I didn’t know – that Lincoln really has no significant family ancestry to speak of – it was like Lincoln was here for his appointed time, and then he was gone. Conan mentioned it as if it was something spiritual and God ordained about the situation. Maybe he’s right.

          Yeah, he had a son that did live but he there is no real history there.

          You don’t see Lincoln’s great-great-great grandson being interviewed on cable tv at every inauguration. You don’t see a great grand-nephew as Governor of a state.

          This entry from Wikipedia appears correct “The family line is believed to have been extinct since its last undisputed descendant, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, died on December 24, 1985, without any children”

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Oh, I think God had a hand in his appearance at that time, in that place. Big-time. It’s good to know the Almighty took an interest in us that way. In preserving the Union, and ending slavery.

            Which is why it’s so obscene that we took a gigantic dump on the country by electing Trump in 2016. And that so many people who claim to believe in God went along with that.

            Joe’s doing pretty well restoring the nation’s dignity, but it’s not and won’t be easy…

            1. Ken

              Ah yes:
              For the Lord so loved Americans, that he sent out hundreds of thousands of them to slaughter one another in a civil war.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Unusual way to frame it. As I see it, our sins had led us to the point when that war was inevitable. Which is why we so desperately needed Lincoln.

                The only way to blame God for the problem is if you agree with the plantation owners that God was a fan of slavery…

                1. Ken

                  Lincoln clearly did not agree as to Godly intentions. And he did not see himself as an instrument of a Godly plan. The war was possibly God’s punishment — as shown in his Meditation on the Divine Will from September 1862. There he ponders why the war goes on when God could have come down clearly on one side or the other and avoided conflict altogether:

                  “By his mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun, he could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

                  More generally, the faithful often make fools of themselves by seeing God’s intervening hand in this or that event. (Lest we forget, some saw Trump’s election as God’s will.) Selective vision blinds them to alternatives (as the carnage of Civil War itself shows). It’s the same with the folks who are shown in news reports standing in front of the shattered remains of their homes after a tornado passed through. They might say something like, “God was looking out for me.” Well, if he were, maybe he wouldn’t have sent that tornado through your house. And just what makes you think you’re more important to God than the 5-year-old who was tossed in the air and killed or the grandma who was smashed flat while sitting in her rocker?
                  It’s nothing but self-serving selective perception.

                  1. Bill

                    ‘African slaves were forced to abandon their Islamic faith and practices by their owners, both to separate them from their culture and religious roots and also to “civilize” them to Christianity.
                    Blues music can trace its origins to Muslim influences from the slave era:

      2. bud

        Yes Lewis did a fine job with Lincoln. But so did Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck. But rather than rehash yet again the Lincoln we all agree was a very good president why not have a little fun with his persona. Let’s make him a super hero. We should expand our thinking to include a less conventional take on the world. I’m finding elitist thinking is becoming more and more dangerous. We MUST accept certain institutions as sacrosanct. Capitalism must not questioned. Religious institutions can never be criticized. The founding fathers are beyond reproach. And Abraham Lincoln can never be framed in a stylized, fictional manner. I think there is room for both a conventional, boring treatment of our 16th president and fictional super hero Lincoln. If we become too rigid in our approach to the world we lose our unique character as a nation. And that would be a shame.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          It’s not about elites or not elites. It’s just a matter of taste. I didn’t find Spielberg’s “Lincoln” boring AT ALL. I was fascinated by every moment of it. Which is why I’ve watched it so many times.

          Enjoy the superhero approach if it appeals to you. It’s kind of like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The title made me smile; I got the joke. But it doesn’t really appeal to me. I love Pride and Prejudice (which is why I acted in the play based on it) and sometimes like zombie movies and tv shows (I liked the first few seasons of “The Walking Dead,” and “28 Days Later,” but hated “World War Z”). My kids have urged me over and over to read P&P&Z, and I did pick it up and read the first chapter in the book store while drinking my coffee (you know, my favorite store in the world, which they closed down and replaced with a stupid clothing store).

          And it made me smile — I liked the line about how Mrs. Bennet’s main aim in life was to get her daughters married, and Mr. Bennet’s was to keep them alive, in spite of the zombies. But after a chapter, I was done. I wasn’t interested in seeing the point elaborated upon for the length of a book.

          It’s just a matter of what you dig. I dig the 1995 BBC production of P&P, with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, and Spielberg’s movie about Lincoln. And I can’t get enough of either.

          I also love “Office Space” and “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off” and “30 Rock.” I watch them over and over. I don’t think there’s anything elitist about it. To each his own…

    1. Barry

      Nah, Trump is the reality tv guy who has shown up in a few movies.

      Joe did a nice job.

      Oh, I didn’t watch it. But the people I expected to dump all over him have been silent about it so that tells me what I need to know.

      Heck, he didn’t even have to insult everyone or toss out a conspiracy theory.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Tucker Carlson Accuses Biden of Faking Mental Sharpness for More Than an Hour

        1. Barry

          There are a number of videos online showing Tucker Carlson’s polar opposite positions depending on who is in office.

          I like how he use to push the IRAQ war along with the rest of Fox News and now they pretend to have always been skeptical. LOL

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    Back on the subject of “The IT Crowd” …

    I couldn’t sneak in Richard Ayoade, since he’s clearly a Brit, and his parents were Norwegian and Nigerian.

    Maybe I’d have better luck with Katherine Parkinson. She, too, is definitely a Brit, but hey, she’s a redhead, so I should be able to fool someone into thinking she’s Irish! Often, I thought she was the funniest of the three stars of IT Crowd. Certainly the best-looking. And she’s another one I don’t get to see often enough! Ayoade is involved in a lot of things, just not always on screen, because he’s a writer and director. But blast it, Katherine is an actress, and I should see her far more than I do.

    I see Chris O’Dowd more, and frequently enjoy him. Anyone see him in “Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel?” He was good in that — doing much the same character as on IT Crowd…


    1. JesseS

      Richard Ayoade deserves enduring respect for being an actor who knows me can’t act. Like dude turned down Doctor Who because he was the only person in the room who realized it was a horrible idea. Playing an autistic office dweller is his range as an actor.

      Now go watch Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, where they leverage and lampoon the fact that Ayoade can’t act, Matthew Holness isn’t winning any acting awards either, and Matt Berry (Reynholm in IT Crowd) can kinda act, but his niche is playing a pompous, 2nd rate Shakesperian ham. Then there is Liz (Alice Lowe), poor Liz. The token woman, who the male cast can’t even bother to remember her real name.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Speaking of making fun of actors…

        Is anyone besides me a fan of “Upstart Crow?” I was startled by the fact that Spencer Jones plays William Kempe (a real-life actor from Shakespeare’s day) as a Ricky Gervais impersonation.

        Apparently, that’s because Anglophile that I am, I’m no Brit, so I didn’t get the joke about Gervais: Apparently, the Brits think it’s funny that Gervais is such a star (just ask him; he’ll tell you) over here in the colonies. So they present Kempe as a guy who keeps bragging about what a hit he is in Italy. And does it all as a sort of 16th-century David Brent.

        Y’all should really try to get connected and watch this show (I watch it on BritBox) if you haven’t seen it. It’s silly, but fun…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I said, “making fun of actors,” when really it makes the most fun of Shakespeare, as you’ll see in that clip.

          The still image on that clip shows the back of a remarkable actress, Gemma Whelan. She plays Kate, the daughter of Shakespeare’s London landlord, as a sweet, brainy, chirpy, perky girl whose one great ambition is to ACT — in other words, to get by the rule that allows only men on the stage.

          I was really startled when I realize the other day that Gemma was also Yara Greyjoy, the rough warrior sister of poor Theon, on “Game of Thrones.” Not at all sweet, chirpy or perky.

          She’s got a LOT of range. Burbage and the rest really should have let her join the company of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Had they seen her as Yara rather than as Kate, they’d have been afraid not to…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      It starts like this, and continues in this highly encouraging vein:

      It might discomfit the president and secretary of state to be told that their excellent first steps in foreign policy are reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s 40 years ago, so instead let’s call them Trumanesque. Even before last week’s admirably acrimonious meeting between senior Chinese and U.S. officials in Anchorage, Joe Biden and Antony Blinken seem to be adhering to the principle that in diplomacy it is generally wise to know your own mind and to make sure that the other side knows it too….

      1. Bill

        “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality” Tutu

  6. Bryan Caskey

    Old Joke:

    A storm descends on a small town, and the downpour soon turns into a flood. As the waters rise, the local preacher kneels in prayer on the church porch, surrounded by water. By and by, one of the townsfolk comes up the street in a canoe.

    “Better get in, Preacher. The waters are rising fast.”

    “No,” says the preacher. “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.”

    Still the waters rise. Now the preacher is up on the balcony, wringing his hands in supplication, when another guy zips up in a motorboat.

    “Come on, Preacher. We need to get you out of here. The levee’s gonna break any minute.”

    Once again, the preacher is unmoved. “I shall remain. The Lord will see me through.”

    After a while the levee breaks, and the flood rushes over the church until only the steeple remains above water. The preacher is up there, clinging to the cross, when a helicopter descends out of the clouds, drops a rope ladder, and a state trooper calls down to him through a megaphone.

    “Grab the ladder, Preacher. This is your last chance.”

    Once again, the preacher insists the Lord will deliver him.

    And, predictably, he drowns.

    A pious man, the preacher goes to heaven. After a while he gets an interview with God, and he asks the Almighty, “Lord, I had unwavering faith in you. Why didn’t you deliver me from that flood?”

    God shakes his head. “What did you want from me? I sent you a canoe, a speedboat, and a helicopter.”


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