The Story Behind The IRA on Film and Television by Mark Connelly

When I was eleven or twelve, I happened to catch The Nightfighters on television.  I was confused by the film’s plot about Irishmen fighting the English during World War II and asked my father about it.  He dismissively reminded me that the “Irish always need to fight about something.”  Still inquisitive, I looked up the Irish Republican Army in The World Book and read about the border campaign of the late 1950s.  I was intrigued by the idea of a secret Irish army my friend never heard of.  Years later with the reemergence of the Troubles and the birth of the Provos, I followed events in Ireland.  Attending college in London in the early Seventies, I saw the security measures being taken and anti-IRA graffiti scratched on Tube posters for a Brendan Behan play.

After years of writing literary criticism about British and American subjects, I felt drawn to explore an Irish topic.  By that time I was increasingly fascinated with the interplay of motion pictures and politics, especially the way film shapes not only public opinion but government policy.

Anyone investigating films about the IRA is struck by a great paradox.  The IRA is dedicated to ending British rule in Northern Ireland.  It has no global agenda.  An IRA victory would not affect world markets, create a haven for international terrorists, or threaten British security.  Other movements have inflicted more harm, advocate more radical ideologies, and pose greater threats to world security.  Yet none of these militant forces has captivated movie makers like the IRA.

Over eighty motion pictures and television programs have featured IRA plots and characters, ranging from classics such as The Informer and Odd Man Out to action films like Patriot Games and Blown Away.  On television, IRA characters have provided villains for shows like Columbo, Hawaii Five-O, and Law and Order.

My book The IRA on Film and Television presents a “history vs. Hollywood” analysis of how the Irish Republican Army has been depicted on film, beginning with the Easter Rising in 1916 to the post-peace process era of 2009.  Richard English has identified  three cinematic archetypes of IRA members – the “unredeemed psychopath,” the “unblemished hero,” and the “dilemma-ridden, tortured and solitary individual.”  Despite their diversity, these characters, he argues, have failed to capture the essence of the real IRA.

Nevertheless, filmmakers have created a mutable dramatic icon, who like the American cowboy, can be cast to serve as hero, victim, or villain.


Born in Philadelphia, Mark Connelly completed a masters degree in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he received a Ph.D in English.  His books include The Diminished Self: Orwell and the Loss of Freedom, Orwell and Gissing, Deadly Closets:  The Fiction of Charles Jackson, and several college textbooks.  He currently teaches literature and film in Milwaukee, where he is the Vice-President of the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center of Wisconsin.

His latest book is The IRA on Film and Television.

You can visit his website at

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