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They range in genre from romance and fantasy to suspense and horror-comedy. What binds these live-action films together is their common source of inspiration:
Irish myths, legends, folktales, and fairytales.
Truth be told, many of the films on this list pay but the meagerest and most surface-level of homages to the source material.
The plots, most of them family-oriented (with a few glaring exceptions), range from heartwarming and whimsical to unintentionally farcical and culturally insensitive.
Leprechauns, perhaps not surprisingly given their status as pop culture icons (Lucky Charms anyone?), are trotted out by Hollywood with reckless abandon.
Alas, the best movies inspired by Irish mythology have yet to be made, I’d argue. So consider this list of live-action Irish mythology movies the best of what we’ve gotten so far.
A Brief Note on Methodology
Before you ask, no, I don’t consider The Lord of the Rings films to be “Irish mythology films,” even if stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann (the Irish hero-gods), the Milesians (human Celts who would inevitably displace the Irish gods), Balor of the Evil Eye (Irish mythology’s “big bad”), and the Fomorians (Balor’s evil goblin henchmen) served as jumping-off points for Tolkien’s Elves, Men, Sauron, and Orcs, which they likely did.
My criteria for inclusion is simple:
Does the movie explicitly mention Ireland or a character from Irish mythology/folklore by name when delving into its fantastical/supernatural story elements? If so, it’s on the list….assuming the IMDb community deemed it worthy enough.
The 10 Best Live-Action Movies Based on Irish Mythology and Folklore
The following movies are ranked in order from worst to best based on their IMDb ratings (re: the green numbers). Ties were broken by referring to Tomatometer scores on Rotten Tomatoes.
10) Boys from County Hell (2020) – 5.9
An innovative horror-comedy pulled straight from the pages of Irish folklore, Boys from County Hell follows a construction crew as they destroy an ancient Cairn, inadvertently awakening Abhartach the vampire, or neamh-mairbh (“walking dead”). As I explain in Irish Monsters in Your Pocket, the legend of Abhartach likely helped inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Granted, director Chris Baugh’s version of Abhartach is not your typical vampire. To quote reviewer Phil Hoad, rather than sucking people’s blood, Abhartach’s “mere presence causes a haemorrhaging torrent of it,” (source: The Guardian).
Watch Boys from County Hell here:
9) The Luck of the Irish (2001) – 6.1
The Luck of the Irish is your classic tale of a basketball-loving teenager (Kyle) with a lucky gold coin who discovers that he and his family are actually leprechauns. Then the coin gets stolen and, naturally, Kyle has to win a basketball game to get it back. Wait, did I mention this is a Disney Channel original movie? The plot probably makes a lot more sense now. Reviewer Davis Cook warns that the movie features “problematic stereotypes,” the most prominent of which involve Irish culture, “such as over-the-top accents, cartoonish clothing styles, and ginger hair,” (source: Common Sense Media).
Watch The Luck of the Irish (2001) here:
8) Finian’s Rainbow (1968) – 6.2
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola (of The Godfather trilogy and, to a much lesser extent, Bram Stoker’s Dracula fame), Finian’s Rainbow is a musical fantasy that sees Fred Astaire’s Finian McLonergan journey from Ireland to the U.S. with his daughter—and a crock of leprechaun gold—in tow. The leprechaun, Og, does not take too kindly to this turn of events. In an attempt to retrieve his gold, Og follows the McLonergans to Rainbow Valley, located in the fictional state of Missitucky. Despite the hackneyed plot, Roger Ebert called Finian’s Rainbow “enchanting,” when he reviewed it in 1968, declaring it “the best-directed musical since West Side Story.”
Watch Finian’s Rainbow here:
7) The Luck of the Irish (1948) – 6.7
How about this for a twist: an Irish fantasy film where the protagonist doesn’t take the leprechaun’s gold? Based on the 1948 novel There Was a Little Man, the original Luck of the Irish movie is a romantic comedy that finds New York newspaper reporter Stephen Fitzgerald traveling abroad in Ireland. After Stephen refuses the leprechaun Horace’s gold, Horace takes a shining to the Irish-American, following him back to New York to help him win the heart of the Irish lass Nora. Reviewer Bosley Crowther called the film “a modernized version of a Chauncey Olcott-type of Irish comedy, done with a slick New York villain and a vague hint of Third Avenue,” (source: New York Times).
Watch The Luck of the Irish (1948) here:
6) Ondine (2009) – 6.8 / The Seventh Stream (2001) – 6.8
Ireland’s storytelling traditions boast a litany of supernatural creatures. The selkie isn’t one of them. And yet there are not one, but two Irish romances that feature these Scottish shapeshifters. In The Seventh Stream, an Irish fisherman begins a love affair with a mysterious woman who emerges from the water—a woman who may or may not be a selkie who has shed her seal pelt. Meanwhile, in Ondine…well, actually, pretty much the same thing happens, only this time Colin Farrell is the protagonist. A reviewer described the former as a “sincere and atmospheric love story making use of Celtic folklore,” (source: Variety), while the latter was once dubbed a “deeply spiritual tale of ruin and redemption,” (source: NPR).
Watch Ondine here:
Watch The Seventh Stream here:
5) Into the West (1992) – 7.0
Despite having a poster that makes it look like a Western, and sharing a title with an American TV series that is a Western, the Irish film Into the West is not a Western. At least not by traditional standards. The film follows two boys—sons of Gabriel Byrne’s Papa Reilly, former “King of Irish Travellers”—as they journey to retrieve their stolen magical horse named Tír na nÓg, which, in Irish mythology, refers to the Land of Eternal Youth. Roger Ebert lauded the film for combining relationships and “social realities” with magical realism. “Kids will probably love this movie,” he wrote, “but adults will get a lot more out of it.”
Watch Into the West here:
4) Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) – 7.0
Does Ron Perlman’s portrayal of Hellboy bring the house down? Absolutely. Are Guillermo del Toro’s creature designs amongst the best in the business, if not the best? Undoubtedly. Are the characters from Irish mythology who appear in Hellboy II: The Golden Army depicted accurately (i.e., as they appear in medieval Irish texts)? Hell no. Sure, we’ve got an evil ruler named Balor, but he’s an elf king? Balor isn’t an elf! And then there’s Nuada, who appears as an elf prince, Balor’s son, which…no. Just no. In Irish mythology, Nuada of the Silver Hand is the leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann, arch nemeses of Balor of the Evil Eye and his Fomorians. Regardless, the movie is well-loved, with reviewer Peter Bradshaw calling it “visionary,” (source: The Guardian). Also, del Toro gets bonus points for including the Giant’s Causeway as one of the film’s set-pieces.
Watch Hellboy II: The Golden Army here:
3) A Shine of Rainbows (2009) – 7.1
An adaptation of Lillian Beckwith’s 1984 novel of the same name, A Shine of Rainbows tells the story of an oft-bullied orphan boy who gets adopted and moves to an island community off the west coast of Ireland. Corrie Island is a place where local folklore is alive and well, where rainbows appear at the most opportune of times, and where harbor seals can communicate with humans. What is it with Irish fantasy movies and seals? But I digress. To quote reviewer Rob Nelson, the film is “[i]rresistibly good-natured even when it’s cheesy,” and could “shine anyplace there’s an audience for old-fashioned family fare,” (source: Variety).
Watch A Shine of Rainbows here:
2) Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) – 7.1
The first thing I want to say about Darby O’Gill and the Little People, before I say anything else, is that the special effects are incredible. Seriously. As unveiled in this video from Corridor Crew, everything is done practically, in-camera, which means in order to have the titular “little people” act opposite full-grown adults in the same shots, creative mirror and forced-perspective work had to be done. The second thing I want to say is, for all its issues, this movie might feature more varieties of supernatural beings from Irish mythology/folklore than any other movie on this list. In addition to leprechauns, we meet a banshee; the Dullahan with his death coach; and a pooka (púca) masquerading as a horse, as pookas are wont to do. The third thing I’ll say is simply…Sean Connery. Upon its release in 1959, reviewer A.H. Weiler described the film as an “overpoweringly charming concoction of standard Gaelic tall stories, fantasy and romance,” (source: New York Times).
Watch Darby O’Gill and the Little People here:
1) The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) – 7.4
Welp, I can be sure no one will ever accuse me of rigging this top ten list, because here in the number one spot is…another movie about selkies. For Donn’s sake. More supernatural seals. Based on Rosalie K. Fry’s 1957 novel Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, the film follows a young girl, Fiona, as she moves to a fishing village on the west coast of Ireland near Roan Inish (Irish: Rón Inis, or “Island of Seals”). Is this the same plot as A Shine of Rainbows? Not exactly. For one, there are, mercifully, fewer rainbows. Also, Fiona has/had a baby brother who was “stolen by the sea” years before, but she theorizes that the selkies have been keeping him safe. If only she can convince her grandparents to move back to their old cottage on Roan Inish, she’s sure the selkies will return her baby bro. Reviewer Peter Travers summarized the film thusly: “Alive with beauty, spirit and wit, Roan Inish is pure magic,” (source: Rolling Stone).
Watch The Secret of Roan Inish here:
- The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns [TV miniseries] (1999) – 7.0
- The Hallow (2015) – 5.7
- Pay the Ghost (2015) – 5.1
- Leprechaun (1993) – 4.7
- After Dark: Scream of the Banshee (2011) – 3.8
- The Otherworld (2016) – 3.5
Stay tuned for future posts about the best animated Irish mythology movies and the best Irish horror movies!
Want to learn about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…
Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)
Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…
Irish Monsters in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 3)
In the Ireland of myth and legend, “spooky season” is every season. Spirits roam the countryside, hovering above the bogs. Werewolves lope through forests under full moons. Dragons lurk beneath the waves. Granted, there’s no denying that Samhain (Halloween’s Celtic predecessor) tends to bring out some of the island’s biggest, baddest monsters. Prepare yourself for (educational) encounters with Irish cryptids, demons, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural beings. Learn more…
Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy
“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…
More the listenin’ type?
I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.