The List: Top 10 Irish movie stars (2014 edition)

Chicago River, St. Patrick's Day celebration, 2009. (Via Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2013 – As you can see in the image above, dating from March 17 2009, the Chicago River runs green on or around every St. Patrick’s Day. It’s Chicago’s way of celebrating the fabled Irish holy man who not only was responsible for bringing Catholicism to Ireland but for summarily dismissing all the Emerald Isle’s snakes as well. Or so the legend says.

There are a lot less Irish denizens in the Windy City today than there were in those thrilling days of yesteryear. But Chicago’s colorful green river tradition still goes on, no doubt irritating green-freak eco-fanatics who likely don’t regard the river’s temporary emerald hue as very environmentally friendly.

On the other hand, the secret dye-mixture the city employs for this famous special effect has become more “sensitive” in recent years, particularly after EPA Storm Troopers raised a stink about it. Today, even “the environmental organization Friends of the Chicago River believes the dye is probably not harmful, [so] they do not oppose the practice,” according to the latest entry in Wikipedia.

But wait a minute. We’re not here today to talk about green rivers, green beer, or drunken Saint Paddy’s day revels. We’re here to present our latest Top Ten List of famous Irish thespians.

Irish men and women—either native born or of Hibernian descent—have come to international prominence in recent history not only in theater but in the movies as well. Given the considerable wit and skill of the Irish when expressing themselves in poetry, song, drama, and storytelling, the phenomenon is scarcely surprising.

All of which gets us at last to our 2014 list of those individuals we currently regard as the most notable movie actors and actresses who hail more or less from the Emerald Isle.

Obviously, our list is subjective. You’re free to agree or disagree with our choices and our rankings. If you have a suggestion for next year’s list, why don’t you add a comment below and we’ll look into it for 2015.

Meanwhile, a hearty “Slainté” to you all.

10. 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 she 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 (right) in "Little Lord Fauntleroy." (Via Wikipedia)
Una O’Connor (right) in “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” (Via Wikipedia)

But more importantly, she was soon noticed by famed horror film director James Whale, the man who really helped make her famous by casting her in his well-known film version of “The Invisible Man,” starring Claude Rains in the title role. Ms. O’Connor had a small part in the film as the publican’s wife, who memorably screams in terror as the Invisible Man reveals his invisible secret to her.

But the actress’ signature terror seizures proved so over-the-top funny—offering a welcome comedic break in this otherwise somber film—that she was soon in considerable demand to replicate this behavior in other horror and thriller classics, perhaps most notably in her role as the Baron’s housekeeper in Whale’s 1935 classic, “Bride of Frankenstein.”

Yet O’Connor occasionally had serious roles as well in films like “The Informer” (1935). Her last genuinely memorable role was a comic appearance in Billy Wilder’s otherwise serious film version of Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957). By then, she was a ripe old 77 years of age, though she would only live for two more years. Not bad, though, for Hollywood, which still tends to think an actress is washed up not long after her 35th birthday or thereabouts.

9. Barry Fitzgerald. (1888-1961). Born William Joseph Shield in Dublin, Mr. Fitzgerald started out in life as a civil servant. But, bitten by the acting bug, he soon began to appear onstage in Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre (which we’ve had the pleasure of visiting many times). During this early period of his career, he spent some time as the roommate of famed Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, and soon began to make appearances in his roomie’s now famous classic plays like “Juno and the Paycock.”

Barry Fitzgerald. (Wikipedia)
Barry Fitzgerald. (Wikipedia)

Eventually taking up residence in Hollywood, he was much in demand for character parts, becoming the go-to actor to portray witty, humorous, or simply very Irish roles in a slew of popular movies. Perhaps his most memorable screen excursions were his portrayal of the genial Irish priest who mentors 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).

Aidan Quinn, 2009. (Wikipedia)
Aidan Quinn, 2009. (Wikipedia)

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 Shelley’s Frankenstein,” and “Michael Collins” where he co-starred with Liam Neeson. His roles tend to be significant but low key. Our personal favorite is his role as Brad Pitt’s conflicted older brother in the vastly underrated “Legends of the Fall” (1994).

His career seemed to fade somewhat after that 1994 film. But now you can see him on TV every week as a the beleaguered New York police chief who frequently ends up enlisting the aid of a manic, updated Sherlock Holmes in the hit show “Elementary.” He currently co-stars with Jonny Lee Miller (Sherlock) and luscious Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, the first-ever female incarnation of that role.

7. Pierce Brosnan. (b. 1953). Hailing from County Louth in the middle of the Irish Republic, Mr. Brosnan encountered a difficult childhood when his father abruptly left the family, essentially forcing his mother to emigrate to England in search of employment while young Pierce was left with his grandparents.

Pierce Brosnan in 2013. (Wikipedia)
Pierce Brosnan in 2013. (Wikipedia)

He originally aspired to be an artist, but eventually found his way into acting. He first discovered fame in the U.S. in the quirky TV detective hit “Remington Steele” (1982-1987) in which he played the quirky title character. During the show’s run, he was approached by Hollywood bigwigs to portray James Bond, replacing aging Roger Moore. At the last minute, he had to decline due to a TV contract clause renewing his character in “Remington Steele.” So the role went to Timothy Dalton instead.

But when Dalton’s more serious take on Bond proved increasingly unpopular with audiences, Mr. Brosnan got a rare second chance at the role, and he jumped at it, signing on to portray 007 in 1994. He appeared in four Bond films, all of them popular with Bond fans, before the role was abruptly handed off to Daniel Craig in 2005 under somewhat murky circumstances.

On the other hand, Mr. Brosnan was never a captive of the Bond series and has continued to star in a number of colorful roles before, during and since, perhaps most notably in the suave 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair.”

PR poster, Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara in "The Black Swan." (Wikipedia)
PR poster, Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara in “The Black Swan.” (Wikipedia)

6. 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 famous stage name. Trained in theater in Dublin, her skills and her looks attracted the attention of numerous English actors and filmmakers including Charles Laughton. He helped her land the role of the gypsy girl Esmeralda in his own classic starring vehicle, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939). The film was a popular and critical success and her career was launched in earnest.

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 resides in County Cork on Ireland’s southwest coast.

Liam Neeson in  2008. (Wikipedia)
Liam Neeson in 2008. (Wikipedia)

5. 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 there 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 won the starring role in the offbeat action-horror flick “Darkman” (1990). His fame began in earnest when he starred as the title character in “Schindler’s List” (1993). Demonstrating his versatility, he portrayed Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn in the initial revival episode of the Star Wars franchise (“Phantom Menace”) in 1999 where the fistic skills he’d developed as a young man served him in good stead.

Happily married to English actress Natasha Richardson in 1994, he suffered a major personal tragedy when she was killed in a ski accident in Canada in 2009.

Mr. Neeson has continued to appear in numerous films since the 1990s. Even as he enters late middle age, he’s morphed into a surprisingly successful action-film star, particularly in the popular “Taken” film franchise. Mr. Neeson is now an American citizen.

Statue of a sporting young Richard Harris  in Kilkee, Ireland. (Wikipedia)
Statue of a sporting young Richard Harris in Kilkee, Ireland. (Wikipedia)

4. Richard Harris. (1930-2002). Hailing from the gritty Western Irish city of Limerick, Mr. Harris is famed for his numerous and often offbeat film appearances. 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 become an actor, living for many years in poverty as he studied and perfected his craft.

He spent time onstage in England and appeared in small Hollywood film roles in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But reportedly, he didn’t much like his Tinseltown experiences. Worse, he would quarrel with well-known stars like Marlon Brando and Charleton Heston, behavior not likely to boost his career.

But he gradually reconciled himself with movie acting, appearing as King Arthur in the film version of the Broadway 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).

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

Kenneth Branagh in 2009. (Wikipedia)
Kenneth Branagh in 2009. (Wikipedia)

3. Kenneth Branagh. (b. 1961). Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Mr. Branagh is as well-known as an actor as he is a director. His initial claim to fame was due to the Bard of Avon, as he became prominent for his directorial and starring roles in film versions of Shakespeare’s classic plays, which garnered Academy Award nominations.

More recently, he served as director for the Marvel Comics-based superhero hit, “Thor” (2011). He’s also become well-known as a TV actor for his brilliant portrayal of the existential Swedish detective Kurt Wallander in the English-language “Wallander” television series, which is built on adaptations of author Henning Mankell’s best-selling “Wallander” crime novels. Mr. Branagh also serves as executive producer of this gritty series.

Bob Hope (L) and Bing Crosby (R) in "Road to Bali." (Wikipedia)
Bob Hope (L) and Bing Crosby (R) in “Road to Bali.” (Wikipedia)

2. Bing Crosby. (1903-1977). Once one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and still one of popular music’s record-holding recording stars, “Der Bingle” was a triple threat: a classic, brilliant baritone when thin-voiced tenors were still the rage; a snappy dancer; and a serious and comedic screen actor with impeccable skills and stage presence even in the absence of classic good looks.

While perhaps better known as a vocalist today, Bing displayed his acting chops in a substantial number of films ranging from the sentimental “Going My Way,” to jazzy movie musicals like “Holiday Inn,” and even to a classic Western like the original “Stagecoach.” He was also popular in the string of hit comedy “Road” films (like “Road to Utopia”) where he co-starred with longtime comic sidekick Bob Hope and, of course, the lovely Dorothy Lamour (gotta love that fake French name). He later became an important early TV personality as well. It seemed like there was nothing the Old Groaner couldn’t do.

Crosby didn’t originate in the Oulde Sod, growing up instead in Tacoma, Washington. But his family was Irish through and through, something he capitalized on whenever he could.

Again, sadly, his massive film fame seems to have been forgotten in recent years, perhaps damaged some time ago by a poison pen biography written by one of his sons who, by most accounts, had an axe to grind. Like his late contemporaries, Bob Hope and John Wayne, Crosby was also an unabashed American patriot, something that seems to earn demerit points these days in the Hollywood fame game.

PR shot, Peter O'Toole as "Lawrence of Arabia." (Wikipedia)
PR shot, Peter O’Toole as “Lawrence of Arabia.” (Wikipedia)

1. Peter O’Toole. (1932-2013). Although clearly of Irish descent, Peter O’Toole to the day of his recent death claimed he was not certain whether he was born in County Galway, Ireland, or in Leeds, Yorkshire, U.K. In any event, he ended up being raised a Catholic in England. He actually began his career as a would-be photojournalist, but eventually enrolled in stage training in England after being rejected for a similar program at Ireland’s famous Abbey Theatre.

O’Toole first began to appear in stage and TV roles in London. There he was noticed by David Lean who was looking to cast the lead in “Lawrence of Arabia,” after failing to obtain the services of either of his first choices: Marlon Brando or Albert Finney.

Casting Mr. O’Toole, a virtual unknown, in the title role of this epic film proved almost divinely serendipitous for both Lean and O’Toole. The dramatic sweep and scope of this film, which also starred dashing Egyptian actor Omar Shariff, transformed Lean’s epic into a genuine Hollywood blockbuster while simultaneously transforming the photogenic Mr. O’Toole into an instant Hollywood icon. (The film was recently restored to its original widescreen splendor and is now available via DVD.)

Unfortunately, due to ongoing bouts with the bottle, O’Toole’s career didn’t always follow a predictable or positive trajectory over the years. But he continued to land hugely significant roles, including repeat performances as English King Henry II in two widely 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 the swashbuckling and equally alcohol-besotted Errol Flynn, Mr. O’Toole scored a comedic coup for his role as a Hollywood has-been in “My Favorite Year” (1982).

Throughout the years, even as he experienced periodic ups and downs, he continued to appear from time to time in costume dramas but eventually chose to retire. In his later years, he resided in the tiny western Irish town of Clifden, located in a rocky, remote part of County Galway. While he actually died in London after a long illness, his remains were returned to the west of Ireland, apparently in accordance with his wishes, according to his daughter, Kate.

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  • jen

    I totally expected to see the amazing James Cagney on this list!

  • Brittany

    What about Gabriel Byrne, you idiots?!

  • Terry

    List changes every year. Thanks for the suggestions. Who knows who’ll make it in next year?