The IRA on Film and Television
by Mark Connelly
The IRA on Film and Television analyzes the role Americans played in creating the Irish Republican Army and shaping it cinematic image. The influx of a million Irish Catholics following the Famine meant the United States would be home to a sizeable population with ties to Ireland and an animus to Britain.
In 1858 the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, precursor to the IRA, was founded in Dublin. A parallel organization called the Fenians was established in New York by John O’Mahony. The Fenians deemed themselves an Irish government in exile, issuing bonds, selecting a president, establishing a congress, and appointing ambassadors. At a Cincinnati convention in 1865, O’Mahony declared the Fenians were “virtually at war . . . with Great Britain.” The Fenians sent arms to Ireland and sought to fight the British closer to home.
On June 1, 1866 General John O’Neill led 800 men across the Niagara River to capture Fort Erie. Though nineteenth-century paintings depict Fenians dressed in matching green jackets, most wore civilian clothing or remnants of their Union and Confederate uniforms. Fenians went into battle bearing flags reading “Irish Republican Army.” Some wore coat buttons stamped IRA. Days later, 1,800 men under the command of Samuel Spiers attacked from Vermont with the goal of capturing Montreal. Lacking support, they were forced to withdraw.
Their next endeavor was worthy of Jules Verne. Unable to interest the US Navy in his submarines, Irish-born inventor John Holland approached the Fenians. Given $60,000 from the group’s “skirmishing funds,” Holland constructed a thirty-one foot submarine. During test runs in New York Harbor in 1883 the vessel fired both underwater and aerial projectiles. Dubbed the Fenian Ram by a reporter, Holland’s submarine was designed to attack the British navy. The futuristic sub never saw action but was displayed in Madison Square Garden in 1916 during a fundraiser for victims of the Easter Rising.
The Fenians were supplanted by the Clan na Gael, a secretive organization which raised funds during the War of Independence and pressured the American government to recognize an Irish Republic. The Clan supplied the Irish with money and weapons during the War of Independence.
In 1939 Sean Russell, the IRA’s Chief of Staff, toured America giving speeches and raising funds. His arrest in Michigan by federal authorities was protested by Irish-American Congressmen.
With the reemergence of the IRA in the 1970s Irish-Americans supplied arms and called for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. By the end of the 1970s British authorities determined that eighty percent of the IRA weapons seized originated in the United States.
American Angles on Film
Numerous IRA films depict Irish-Americans going to Ireland to join the IRA, wanted IRA men taking refuge in America, or the IRA conducting highly improbable operations in the United States.
Michael Collins, We Are Here: The Volunteers
In TheDay They Robbed the Bank of England (Summit Film Productions, 1960) Irish-American Norgate (Aldo Ray) arrives in London to exploit his mining expertise to help Irish nationalists steal gold for the movement and strike a propaganda blow against Britain. Irish-American Kerry O’Shea (Don Murray) is drawn into the conflict during the War of Independence in Shake Hands With the Devil (Pennebaker Productions/Troy Films, 1959). In The Outsider (Cinematic Arts, 1979) Michael Flaherty (Craig Wesson), a disillusioned Vietnam veteran, travels to Northern Ireland to join the IRA and fight for a cause he believes in. Patriots (Boston Pictures, 1994) purports to tell the true story of Alexis Shannon (Linda Amendola), a Boston graduate student who tires of “studying the past” and goes to Belfast help the IRA “shape the future.”
The IRA Comes to America
During the decade between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 filmmakers used the Troubles in Northern Ireland to provide villains and heroes in largely depoliticized action adventure films. In Patriot Games (Paramount, 1992) and Blown Away (MGM, 1994) assimilated Irish-American fathers – one an ex-CIA agent and the other a Boston cop – protect their families from murderous Irish psychopaths. Sean Miller (Sean Bean) terrorizes Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) because he killed his “baby brother” in an assassination attempt.
The mad bomber Ryan Gaerity (Tommy Lee Jones) threatens bomb squad cop Jimmy Dove (JeffBridges) for foiling one of his devices in Belfast. The Devil’s Own (Columbia Pictures, 1997) provides a more sympathetic Irish Republican in boyishly charming Frankie McGuire (Brad Pitt) who comes to America to acquire weapons for the Cause at home. In contrast to Ryan and Dove, an American cop (Harrison Ford) shows sympathy to McGuire even after he kills his partner. In The Devil’ Own Frankie McGuire is given a sympathetic back story so audiences view the IRA man not as embodiment of evil but a poor misguided youth, driven to violence by social injustice. The Jackal (Universal, 1997) moves beyond empathy to adoration, as an imprisoned IRA man (Richard Gere) is elevated from convict to action hero who saves America’s First Lady from an assassin.
Irish Odessa File
Two films depict wanted IRA men seeking shelter and new identities in the United States. The Break (Channel Four, 1997) follows Sean Dowd (Stephen Rea) as he attempts to find a new life in the United States after participating in a mass prison break in Ireland. In Disappearing in America (String and a Can Productions, 2009) IRA volunteer Sean (David Polcyn) flees Ireland to protect his family from retaliation after bombing a police station. A San Francisco-based ODESSA-like organization that provides protection and new identities for IRA fugitives. Sean is honored and sheltered as long as he meets the self-serving needs of his American keepers.
Disappearing in America
On TV, iconic American detectives Columbo (Peter Falk) and Hawaii Five-O’s Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) took on IRA gun-runners bankrolled by wealthy American industrialists. In HBO’s Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, bootlegger Nucky Thompson offers to deliver machine guns to the IRA in exchange for Irish whiskey.