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I'm Like a Pint of Guinness: Long, Black, Cool and Irish: 5 Very Cool Irish People and the Actors who Played Them

By Aggie Maguire | Lists | March 17, 2014 |

By Aggie Maguire | Lists | March 17, 2014 |

It’s St. Patrick’s Day: A day when we are confronted at every turn by craven caricatures of Irish people. We drink. We fight. We sing incoherently. We throw up on the sidewalk and then we drink some more. As a counterbalance to all that I offer you a random list of extraordinary Irish people whose reputations were built on something other than drinking, brawling and vomiting. Read it all at once, or use each entry as a palate cleansing sorbet between pints.

Note: to those of you who bemoan the lack of ethnic diversity in many Pajiba random lists, I did want to include Phil Lynnott (to whom we owe the title quote) and the long-awaited biopic of him, but four years on it’s still in pre-production and Idris Elba is now too old to play him. By way of consolation, consider that Pierce Brosnan is what’s known as “Black Irish” on the west coast of Ireland.

Picture 3.pngGiuseppe Conlon/Pete Postlethwaite (In The Name of The Father, 1993)

Conlon: Giuseppe Conlon was one of those ordinary men living quiet lives who, by sheer bad luck, was thrust into an extraordinary experience and distinguished himself as a result. Unlike the movie portrayal father and son never shared a prison cell, which actually makes the perseverance and determination of Giuseppe all the more admirable. He suffered terribly in prison. Guards would urinate in his food and leave his cell unlocked for him to be beaten up regularly by the English prisoners, and despite having advanced emphysema, he was never given any treatment other than an over-the-counter cough medicine. But he never lost his dignity and his death was the impetus for increased support for the Guildford Four’s appeals.

Postlethwaite: Although he appeared in Last of the Mohicans the year before In The Name of The Father, if it hadn’t been for the (well-deserved) Oscar nomination for the Conlon role, Postlethwaite might have remained a lesser known British character actor to most people. That he literally became Giuseppe Conlon to most people was evident in the numerous comments (on this site and others) when Postlethwaite himself died last year, echoing the response to his death in the film, “Giuseppe is dead, Mon”.

Michael-Collins-liam-neeson-1210170_495_320.jpgMichael Collins/Liam Neeson (Michael Collins 1996)

Collins: While there was never any doubt that Michael Collins was a brave man and a superb military strategist, it took a while for me to accept that Michael Collins was a cool guy. I was raised in a family that was on the other side of the civil war, absolutely opposed to a treaty with Britain, so Collins was always portrayed as the guy who sold us out. Over time, I have come to appreciate that Collins truly believed that signing the treaty was just an interim step that would quickly snowball into more concessions and a 32 county republic. The fact that he was wrong and unintentionally set up the system that led to the terrible situation in the North of Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s shouldn’t be used to blacken his legacy completely as it did in my family. One thing is certain; he didn’t take the decision lightly. His comment upon signing the treaty was “I have just signed my death warrant.”

Neeson: For many people, only Neeson could have played this role. Physically it was a no-brainer: Collins was a big, handsome man with a commanding personality. There’s some irony in that Neeson grew up in the part of the country that Collins had signed over to the British, and in the same town (also the home town of James Nesbitt) that to this day is a stronghold of the opposition to Irish unity. But for my money, Liam Neeson owned this part, fully inhabiting the role to the point where I can almost forgive the horrific miscasting of Julia Roberts in an otherwise pitch-perfect film.

cateblanchettimage577004x.jpgVeronica Guerin/Cate Blanchett (Veronica Guerin 2003)

Guerin: One thing is certain, Veronica Guerin had balls. She continued to investigate and expose the worst of mob life in Ireland despite significant threats and assaults against her, including being shot in her home. Her murder led to enough public outrage that a witness protection program was finally established in Ireland and many mob members who previously walked around Dublin with impunity were finally arrested and prosecuted. There’s a part of me that wonders if she put her ego as the leading crime reporter in front of her responsibilities to her young son when she continued her overt investigations and stories after being threatened, shot and beaten up, but the other part of me knows that unless journalists put themselves in harm’s way to expose ruthless killers and dealers, these thugs will continue to get rich by destroying communities.

Blanchett: You have to give credit to Blanchett: there are few accents more difficult to pull off than a middle-class Dublin accent. It’s very subtle and doesn’t have the typical sing-song lilt of Cork or distinguishing pronunciations of Belfast, which is why most non-Irish actors use with them (and often destroy them: see Roberts, Julia). She nailed the accent, but apart from that, this was one of the least impressive performances from an immensely talented actor. I came away from the film feeling a little like I had seen a Lifetime made-for-TV movie with the good woman and the bad men and no depth of character explored in the title role.

MV5BMTUwNzk5OD.jpgIvan Cooper/ James Nesbitt (Bloody Sunday 2003)

Cooper: There were many Catholics who led the way in the civil rights movement in the North of Ireland in the 1960s, but it took a lot more courage for a Protestant to become involved. Because he wanted working-class Catholics and Protestants to work together to promote their mutual interests, Ivan Cooper was viewed as a traitor by many in the Protestant community. He co-founded the Socialist and Democratic Labour Party, and led the civil rights and anti-interment march that would become known as Bloody Sunday.

Nesbitt: There is a point in the film Bloody Sunday when Nesbitt, playing Ivan Cooper, speaks to reporters after the march has been ambushed: his anger is barely controlled; you can see every muscle in his face struggling to remain calm, and you weep for him because you know his vision of peaceful protest is over, and the violence that will replace the civil rights movement will tear the region apart. That’s one fine acting job, right there, especially when you consider how reluctant Nesbitt was to take on the role (his wife urged him to wait for a script that would depict attacks on Protestants, and he received death threats from Loyalist paramilitary groups). He once said that he wished he had never seen the script because as soon as Paul Greengrass showed it to him, he knew he had to do it.

evelyn-pb-jm-aq-2.jpgDesmond Doyle/Pierce Brosnan (Evelyn 2002)

Doyle: There has been ample discussion and coverage of how oppressive Irish life was for women in the earlier parts of the 20th century, but through Desmond Doyle, we learned that it was no picnic for men either. Despite being poorly-educated and having almost no resources, in 1953 Doyle challenged an Irish Law that required children to be placed in institutional care if the mother was missing from the home (Charlotte Doyle had left him and the children). His case was the first constitutional challenge to an Irish law to go to the Supreme Court.

Brosnan: This was a pet project for Pierce Brosnan: he had been placed in care, albeit voluntarily, as a young boy when his single mother went to England looking for work. He acquired the rights to the story as soon as Evelyn Doyle’s book was published. It was also our first look at Brosnan unshaven and playing a decidedly unglamorous person. After three Bond movies and The Thomas Crown Affair, it was a little difficult to separate Doyle from Brosnan: rakish, charming and impossibly attractive even when he’s stinking drunk, leaving many of us to wonder why Charlotte left. But Brosnan hits his stride as the movie progresses and his passion for the subject matter prevails; though we could have done without the overly dramatic “I’m a changed man” speech in the court room.

Aggie Maguire lives in a fly-over state where she enjoys waving at the people flying over and wondering if anybody ever waves back. She is a member of the Jane Austen society and a life-long supporter of the Home for Abused Apostrophes.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.