Ireland has long been responsible for producing some of the greatest playwrights, writers and creatives of all time, with the likes of Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw each helping to revolutionise contemporary art throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. Ever since, the country has been seen as a geyser of imagination, where ancient folklore blends with timeless scenery to inspire countless original tales.
Whilst Wilde, Beckett, and James Joyce may be best known when it comes to Irish writers, the landscape of national filmmakers isn’t quite so clear, only popularly developing in the last 40 years or so. In contemporary cinema, some of the greatest and most critically acclaimed movies have been helmed by Irish directors and screenwriters, but the history of Hollywood might not have looked quite the same without the influence of a number of other historical names.
From Herbert Brenon, who helmed Beau Geste in 1926, to the director Rex Ingram, who created The Magician in the very same year, Irish filmmakers were key in the development of cinema in the silent era of the early 20th century. So influential was Ingram at the time that the actor and director behind 1924s masterpiece Greed, Erich von Stroheim, once called him “the world’s greatest director”.
His impact on the film industry was matched by a number of other iconic Irish directors throughout the industry, with the best of the best making it onto our list of the ten greatest Irish filmmakers of all time below.
The 10 greatest Irish filmmakers:
10. William Desmond Taylor
Also integral during the formative years of Hollywood cinema during the silent era of the early 20th century, William Desmond Taylor helmed such movies as 1917s Tom Sawyer, 1919s Anne of Green Gables and the 1920 film The Soul of Youth. A popular Hollywood filmmaker between the 1910s and 1920s, Taylor helmed a total of 60 movies and shorts throughout his career before he was brutally murdered in 1922.
Perhaps better known for his death, where Taylor had been shot in the back by an unknown assailant, the murder became an American scandal and led to much moral concern.
9. Rex Ingram
Not to be confused with the American stage actor of the same name, we’ve already briefly discussed the Irish director Rex Ingram, the iconic creative known by some at the time as the “world’s greatest”. Helming a number of acclaimed movies, such as 1921s revolutionary film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and 1928s The Three Passions, Ingram was an innovative mind eager to push the boundaries of known technologies.
Highly acclaimed both commercially and critically, the film is now recognised as one of the first great anti-war movies, starring Rudolph Valentino as the protagonist of a story that follows an extended family who finds themselves battling on opposite sides of the WWI conflict.
8. Aisling Walsh
A screenwriter and director, the films of Aisling Walsh often go under the radar of modern audiences but make no mistake, she’s responsible for some of the finest independent films of contemporary Irish cinema. A multi-faceted creative, Walsh started her career with her debut movie Joyriders in 1988 before heading into TV, helming multiple episodes of minor dramas. Later, after honing her craft, she would focus on feature filmmaking, creating multiple high-quality indie pictures.
The highlights of her later career included 2003s Song for a Raggy Boy and 2016s Maudie, starring Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins, which told the true story of the folk artist Maud Lewis.
7. John Carney
With a deep-rooted passion for music, playing bass for the Irish rock band The Frames in the 1990s, many of John Carney’s movies are suffused with a love of flowing Irish melodies. Such includes the Oscar-winning 2007 film Once, as well as the Golden Globe nominee Sing Street from 2016, which tells the story of a boy growing up in 1980s Dublin who starts a band to impress a girl.
Though his filmography is packed with wholesome cinematic goodness, for our money Sing Street is his very best, telling a heartfelt story with a charming honesty and some genuinely great music.
6. John Michael McDonagh
The older of the McDonagh brothers, John Michael McDonagh, also happens to be a little lesser known than his sibling, despite having made a handful of iconic movies. Whilst his hit rate isn’t quite as consistent, John Michael made the seriously good 2014 movie Calvary and the slightly lighter cop comedy The Guard in 2011, with his two collaborations with Brendan Gleeson making for quite the back-to-back.
He has made two films since then, yet neither 2016s War on Everyone nor 2021s The Forgiven could match his previous quality. Still, the potential is clearly there for the director to once again thrive.
5. Nora Twomey
Without a doubt, one of the most exciting animation directors working in contemporary cinema, Nora Twomey is the same mind behind such modern greats as 2009s The Secret of Kells and the 2017 Oscar nominee The Breadwinner. In addition, Twomey also worked with Netflix for the creation of My Father’s Dragon and produced the beloved 2020 animation Wolfwalkers, directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart.
Aside from Moore himself, there are few other filmmakers in the business of animation who can compare with Twomey’s elegant storytelling style, creating a niche for herself as something of a modern pioneer.
4. Neil Jordan
A truly diverse filmmaker, Neil Jordan has worked in several different areas of modern cinema, creating a number of independent films that would eventually take him to the heights of Hollywood. Highlights from his curious career include 1992s The Crying Game, the 1994 Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise flick Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles and the two-time Oscar-nominated movie Michael Collins from 1996.
More recently, Jordan found considerable success creating the series The Borgias for Showtime, for which he directed a number of episodes, adding to his staggeringly ambitious filmography.
3. Lenny Abrahamson
Rising to popularity at the dawn of the 2010s after pedalling several short films and minor feature film releases, Lenny Abrahamson helmed the eerie indie drama What Richard Did in 2012 and has seen his stock rise ever since. The musical comedy favourite Frank followed in 2014, before he would direct his most significant project to date, the Oscar-winning ‘Best Picture’ nominee Room, starring Brie Larson.
Despite not having a feature film hit since, Abrahamson most recently directed the Paul Mescal-starring BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People. No matter what he does, Abrahamson keeps surprising.
2. Martin McDonagh
Martin McDonagh is only really in the infancy of his own career, making four movies since 2008 that each happen to be modern greats. After winning an Oscar for ‘Best Live Action Short Film’ for his 2004 film Six Shooter, McDonagh stunned audiences and critics in 2008 with his hilarious feature film debut In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. Such would spark a remarkable contemporary career.
Creating two ‘Best Picture’ nominees in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2017 and The Banshees of Inisherin in 2022, McDonagh is an innovative filmmaker with a distinct style that feels both classic and contemporary.
1. Jim Sheridan
With a staggeringly eclectic filmography, including everything from the recent Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman drama Brothers to the 50 Cent movie Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Jim Sheridan has proven across multiple decades of filmmaking that he is a potent modern filmmaker. His most successful collaborations have come with the Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, however, working with the star in 1989s My Left Foot and 1993s In the Name of the Father.
These movies, alongside 1990s The Field and 2002s In America, make Sheridan a formidable filmmaking voice, being nominated for six Academy Awards throughout the years, even if he has never been lucky enough to win one.