For a relatively small island, the Irish have no shortage of familiar faces that have broke onto the big screen and secured their place in film history. Some of the most famous people from the republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are the Irish actors in our favourite movies and TV shows. From Kings and Queens to international spies and brilliant wizards, Irish actors have played many fascinating roles.
In this article we will rank our top 20 favourite Irish actors, based on their filmography, awards and contribution to both Irish and International arts.
#20. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Colm Meaney
Colm Meaney is a famous Irish actor who has starred in movies such as The Commitments (1991) The Snapper (1993) The Van (1996). He has also featured in Law Abiding Citizen (2009) and Die-Hard 2 (1990).
Meaney also featured in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in various episodes from 1987 to 1999
More recently Colm Meaney has starred in Parked (2010). His appearances in the film adaptions of Roddy Doyle’s ‘Barrytown Triology’ have cemented his place on this list.
#19. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor
Best known for his role in RTÉ’s Love/Hate as Nidge, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor achieved international recognition for his performance as the villainous Ebony Maw in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019), the culmination of a decades worth (23 films) of Marvel movies. For these two performances alone, Vaughan has earned a well deserved spot on our list of Irish actors.
#18. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Brenda Fricker
The first female Irish actor to win an Oscar, Brenda Fricker has had a very successful career in TV and film.
Fricker appeared in many soap operas and dramas in the early stages of her career such as her parts as a nurse in both Coronation Street and Casualty.
Winning the Academy Award for her portrayal of Bridget Fagan Brown in My Left Foot (1989), Frickers career had reached new heights. In 1990 she starred alongside Richard Harris as Maggie McCabe in The Field which is considered a classic in Irish cinema.
Fricker also appeared as the pigeon lady in 1992’s Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and continues to act to this day with notable movies she has starred in being Cloudburst (2011) as well as a TV adaption of Graham Norton’s Holding (2022)
#17. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Nicola Coughlan
After starring Lisa McGee’s hit series Derry Girls (2018-2022), Galway native Nicola Coughlan has become a household name. The show produced by Channel 4 has become an instant success with worldwide popularity, and follows a group of teenagers navigating their way through 1990’s Belfast in a hilarious and moving sit-com.
Coughlan appeared in Harlots in 2018, as well as performing onstage in the West End in the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In 2020 Nicola appeared in Netflix’s Bridgerton, a period drama based on Julia Quinn’s book series set in London in the 1810’s.
Coughlan is one to watch on our list of Irish actors and we can’t wait to see what projects she does next!
#16. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Maureen O’Sullivan
Roscommon native Maureen O’Sullivan was born in Boyle in 1911. She was best known for her role as Jane alongside Johnny Weismuller in the Tarzan series of films as well as the 1940 film adaption of Pride and Prejudice.
O’Sullivan’s legacy in Hollywood is evident by her star on the Hollywood walk of fame, and she was one of the first Irish actors to have a decades-long successful career in Hollywood.
#15. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Robert Sheehan
Laois born Irish actor Robert Sheehan began acting at age 15. Almost 20 years later, Sheehan has amassed an impressive resumé including his role as Nathan Young in the E4 sci-fi comedy drama Misfits (2009-2013), as well as Darren in RTÉ’s smash hit Love/Hate (2010-2014).
Robert Sheehan is currently starring in Netflix’s third season of The Umbrella Academy (2019-present) as Klaus, one of the adopted supernatural siblings of the Hargreeve’s family, who offers the comic relief as well as some of the most moving moments in the show.
#14. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Barry Keoghan
At only 29 years of age at the time of writing, Keoghan has already amassed an impressive filmography, including appearances in Love-Hate (2013), The Killing of A Sacred Deer (2017), Black 47′ (2018) and Chernobyl (2019).
Keoghan has also entered the much-in-demand superhero genre starring in The Eternals (2021) a Marvel Cinematic Universe production praised for its visuals and diversity. He also made a cameo appearance in Matt Reeves’s The Batman (2022) as one of the most iconic villains of all time, the Joker. Other critically acclaimed actors such as Jack Nicholson, and the late Heath Ledger have been praised for their iconic portrayals of the ‘clown prince of crime’, so we are hoping that Keoghan will get to put his spin on the role in a future sequel.
Keoghan definitely joins Nicola Coughlin on our ‘Irish actors to watch out for’ list!
#13. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Ruth Negga
Ethiopian-Irish actor Ruth Negga has appeared in Breakfast on Pluto (1998) and won a IFTA for her performance of Dame Shirley Bassey in the BBC’s Shirley (2011) as well as playing Ophelia, the tragic figure in the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet. Negga also played Hamlet himself in the Gate Theatres production of Hamlet in 2018.
Negga has appeared in Marvel’s Agents of Shield as well as RTÉ’s hit series Love/Hate starring alongside Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Robert Sheehan (who she also worked with in E4’s Mis-fits)
Other notable roles include Mildred Loving in Loving (2016), earning her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, and Clare in Passing (2021), which earned her another Golden Globe award nomination.
In 2021 Negga starred alongside Daniel Craig as Lady Macbeth, for which she recieved a Tony award nomination.
#12. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Andrew Scott
Born in Dublin in 1976, Andrew Scott is best known as Jim Moriarty, the antagonist of BBC’s Sherlock (2010-2017), a modern take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective.
Scott’s take on modernising Moriarty has been praised, transforming the character into a suave mastermind, whose intelligence is equal to the hero detective, and who sees his actions as part of an amusing game. His lack of human empathy combined with his skills and unpredictable nature make him a genuinely scary villain.
Scott made his debut as a bond villian in 2015’s Spectre. Other notable performances include Pride (2014), Handsome Devil (2016) & Big Hero 6 (2017-18)
Scott has featured in many other TV Series such as the anthology series Black Mirror (S5 EP2) and Fleabag (2016-19) to much critical acclaim.
#11. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: The Gleesons
We couldn’t pick just one member of the Gleeson family! Brendan Gleeson, is the father of Domhnall and Brian and has stared in Michael Collins (1996), Caca Milís (2001), 28 days later (2002), the Harry Potter series (2005-2010), and Paddington 2 (2017) to name a few.
Brendan Gleeson married Mary Wheldon in 1982 in Dublin, where they live and raised their four children. Two of their children, Domhnall and Brian have followed in their fathers’ footsteps.
Domhnall Gleeson also starred in the Harry Potter series alongside his father, as well as About Time (2013), Frank (2014), Ex Machina (2014), Black Mirror (S2 EP1), Brooklyn (2015), The Revenant (2015) and Peter Rabbit and Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (2018/21).
Domhnall has also featured in the Star Wars sequel trilogy (2015-2019)
Brian Gleeson has starred in Love-Hate (2010) Snow White and The Huntsman (2012), and Peaky Blinders (2019).
Domhnall and Brian have went on to create and star in the sit-com Frank of Ireland (2021), in which their father Brendan also features.
#10. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Michael Fassbender
Irish-German Actor Michael Fassbender was born in Germany, moving to Killarney with his family at two years of age.
Fassbender has been featured in many movies from 300 (2006), an epic historical drama about Spartan war, to Hunger (2008), portraying Bobby Sands an Irish republican who went on hunger strike, to Tarantino’s WWII drama Inglourious Basterds (2009).
He has also starred in Shame (2011), 12 years a Slave (2013), Assassins Creed (2014), Macbeth (2015), Steve Jobs (2015), and the Alien franchise.
Fassbender is a prominent character in the superhero genre, playing a younger version of Ian McKellen’s Magneto in 4 movies in the X-men franchise, and is often seen as one of the constant highlights of a movie saga that has its fair share of highs and lows.
#9. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Colin Farrell
Dublin born Actor Colin Farrell actually comes from a family of athletes, his father and brother played professionally with Shamrock Rovers, a famous Irish soccer club. Farrell also auditioned for Boyzone, a well known Irish boyband who had many hit songs, but he didn’t make the cut. It seems one way or another – be it as a soccer player, singer or actor- Farrell was destined for fame!
Colin has starred in many roles such as Alexander (2004), Miami Vice (2006), Horrible Bosses (2011) sci-fi action Total Recall (2012), Saving Mr. Banks (2013), The Lobster (2015), Fantastic Beasts (2016), The Beguiled (2017) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2019)
Colin has recently starred as notorious Batman villain The Penguin in ‘The Batman’ (2022), with rumours that he will be continuing his performance of the iconic character in a spin off HBO series focusing on the Penguin himself. Farrell looks unrecognisable as the iconic villain and was highly praised for his interpretation of the character.
#8 Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Kenneth Branagh
Belfast born actor Kenneth Branagh is a prominent actor, director, producer and screenwriter. His contribution to film is evidently not just for his acting, as he was the first person to be nominated for an Academy Award in 8 different categories.
His filmography is full of Shakespearian works, starring in and directing in Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Hamlet (1996) as well as featuring in Otello (1994), to name just a few.
Branagh directed and starred as Viktor Frankenstein in the 1994 film Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, In 2002 Branagh starred as fan favourite professor Gildroy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Branagh directed films such as Thor (2011) one of the first movies in the now dubbed Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as the live-action Cinderella movie in 2015; the first of many live-action Disney remakes.
More recently, Branagh has directed and starred as Hercule Poirot in film adaptions of Agatha Christie’s novels, Murder on the Orient Express (2017), and Death On the Nile (2022)
In 2021 Belfast , written and directed by Branagh was released, to critical and commercial acclaim. The film is a coming of age story set at the beginning of The Troubles in 1969 Northern Ireland. Branagh states Belfast is his most personal film, having left the city with his family as a child during the Troubles
It has been announced that Kenneth Branagh has been casted alongside Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr. and Florence Pugh in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023)
Branagh’s contribution to not just acting, but cinema as a whole, makes him a worthy contender for a top spot on our list.
#7. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Richard Harris
Richard Harris was an Irish actor and singer born in Limerick in 1930.
Harris starred as ‘The Bull McCabe’ in the film adaption of Jim Sheridan’s ‘The Field’ (1990), one of the most famous Irish movies of all time, for which he received a Golden Globe for best actor. He also received a Golden Globe for his portrayal of King Arthur in Camelot (1982)
Harris starred alongside Gerald Butler and Joaquin Phoenix, as Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator (2000)
Harris became famous with younger generations, starring as Professor Dumbledore in the first two films of the Harry potter series; Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone (2001), and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).
Did you know? Richard Harris was actually the Godfather of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone producer David Heyman; his father was even Harris’s agent. Heyman was certain that Harris’s mischievous charm was perfect for the role of the wise wizard.
Harris admitted that he only took the role because his granddaughter said she would not speak to him again if he turned it down!
Unfortunately Harris passed away in 2003. Fellow Irish actor Michael Gambon took over the role of Dumbledore for the rest of the series.
#6. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Pierce Brosnan
Pierce Brosnan is a multi-award-winning Irish actor and film producer. He made his film debut as Edward O’Grady in the 1979 TV movie Murphy’s Stroke.
Pierce Brosnan was the first ─ and, thus far, only ─ Irish actor to play the role of British secret agent James Bond. He played the classic spy in four films from the 90’s up until the early 2000s when Daniel Craig took over the mantle.
From Golden Eye to Robinson Crusoe and Mamma Mia!, Brosnans acting range is unquestionable.
In recognition of a rich and extensive career in front of the camera and behind the scenes as a producer, Brosnan has received the honorary award of European Achievement in World Cinema.
Did you know? Pierce Brosnan was in serious talks to play James Bond after Roger More. His current contract working on the drama series Remington Steele, appeared to be all but done due to the shows low ratings.
However the hype around Brosnan potentially becoming 007 led to a significant increase in viewership of the show and it was renewed for another season. As Brosnan was obliged to fulfil his contract he was no longer eligible for the role of James Bond, and so Timothy Dalton got the part. The very hype that had made Brosnan a front runner for Bond would eventually prevent him from being able to accept the role.
Thankfully the stars aligned for Brosnan and he still ended up playing our favourite British spy. You can learn more about Brosnans journey to Bond in the video below.
#5. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Maureen O’ Hara
Any list of famous Irish actors is incomplete without Maureen O’Hara, the Queen of Technicolour and Ireland’s first Hollywood superstar.
O’Hara was born in Dublin on 12th August 1920. She is an Irish-American actor and singer who was famously known for playing fierce and passionate roles in westerns and adventure films. On many occasions during her career, she worked with director John Ford and appeared on screen with friend John Wayne.
Maureen O’Hara trained in theatre and acting when she was young, attending the Rathmines Theatre Company from 10 years old and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin at 14 years of age. Charles Laughton saw potential in her and arrange for her to appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Jamaica Inn in 1939 at age 19. The same year she decided to move to Hollywood to pursue her acting career full time and appeared in the production of the Hunchback of Norte Dame.
From then onwards she continued to get great roles and obtain success in the film industry, often referred to as the “Queen of Technicolour”. Maureen O’Hara is best known for her role in the iconic movie The Quiet Man in 1952. Other great roles that she appeared in Included How Green Way My Valley (1941), The Black Swan (1942) and The Spanish Main (1945).
O’Hara paved the way for Irish actors in Hollywood.
#4. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Cillian Murphy
The Cork born Irish actor has one of the most impressive filmography’s of any top actor in Hollywood.
From his early beginnings as the lead singer in his band ‘The Sons of Mr. Green Genes’, Murphy transitioned into the world of acting with one of his earlier break-out works including starring as Jim in the Zombie-horror ’28 days later’ (2002)
Cillian Murphy went on to star as Kitten, also known as Patricia in the comedy drama ‘Breakfast on Pluto’ (2005), a film adaption of the novel of the same name which focuses on a transgender foundling searching for love and her long lost mother; a movie which earned him a Golden Globe award for best actor in a musical or comedy.
Murphy is a recurring actor in Nolan’s cinematic masterpieces,. He appears in The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-12) as Dr. Johnaton Crane, the infamous Scarecrow.
Other Nolan movies that Cillian has starred in are Inception (2010); a sci-fi action film that can only be described as a dream-heist, Dunkirk (2017); a highly acclaimed WWII drama, and the upcoming Oppenheimer which will release in 2023.
Other notable works in which Murphy features are ‘Red Eye’ (2005) ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ (2006) ‘Sunshine’ (2007) ‘In Time’ (2011) and ‘ A Quiet Place part II’ (2020)
We would be remissed not to mention Tommy Shelby, the protagonist of Peaky Blinders (2013-2022). One of Murphy’s most recognisable portrayals, and one of the most beloved characters in recent pop-culture, Peaky Blinders explores the life and tribulations of the Shelby family; from a street level organisation, to influential empire.
Peaky Blinders is a crime drama based (loosely) on a real life gang in Birmingham, but Murphy manages to portray this potentially ruthless character as a multi-faceted, three dimensional person. Tommy is not just a gang leader, he is a also a war hero suffering from PTSD; the patriarchal figurehead of his family and an intelligent businessman. He is proud of his Birmingham and Romani roots, yet open to change if it will improve the lives of his family. Nonetheless he can also be cold and calculating; vindictive yet kind. Despite his flaws, we as the audience root for him; he is so much more than a broken man or a downright villain.
One quality that we can all admire about Cillian Murphy is his confidence to choose roles that are vastly different from each other; he is not afraid to break the mould. Even accepting the role as Tommy Shelby – at a time when many actors on the big screen would shy away from TV roles- was a bold move. It did prove to be the right one however, as alongside the arrival of streaming services, TV series’ saw a resurgence in their popularity, with shows like Peaky Blinders leading the way.
Numerous awards and accolades to his name to support our claims that Murphy is one of the best Irish Actors of all time!
#3. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Saoirse Ronan
Saoirse Ronan is one of the most in demand actors working in Hollywood right now! She was born in Bronx district of New York but moved to Ireland when she was a young child with her Irish parents. She has gone on to become one of the most successful Irish actors, starring in huge films such as ‘Atonement’ at only 12 years old!
Saoirse initially starred in roles such as ‘The Lovely Bones’ and ‘Hanna’ as well as a supporting role in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’
Ronan’s career skyrocketed even further after the release of Brooklyn (2015) a moving and relatable story about an Irish emigrant who arrives in New York, homesick and lonely in the 1950’s. Other major roles include Ladybird (2017) , where Ronan stars as the titular character of Greta Gerwig’s film of the same name. It is a coming of age story about a high school senior preparing for the the next chapter of her life.
Saoirse appears in ‘Loving Vincent’ (2017) as Marguerite Gauchet. A revolutionary movie in terms of it’s animation, Loving Vincent is a biographical drama that revolves around the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh, the man who painted the instantly recognisable ‘Starry Starry Night’. Each frame in this movie is actually a hand painted piece of art, in Van Gogh’s recognisable style, a true gem of modern cinema!
Saoirse also starred alongside Margot Robbie as Mary Stuart in ‘Marry Queen of Scotts’ (2018) as well as an ensemble cast in Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ (2019) as Jo March.
Saoirse has featured in music videos of Irish artists’ including Ed Sheeran’s ‘Galway Girl’, a fun video that showcases the charm of Galway, as well as Hozier’s ‘Cherry Wine’ music video; a truly moving and emotional performance about domestic abuse.
Saoirse has over 25 movies under her belt and at only 28 years of age, there is so much more to look forward to!
#2. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson is an Irish actor who was born in 1952 in Ballymena, County Antrim, and educated at Saint Patrick’s College, Ballymena Technical College, and Queen’s University Belfast. He moved to Dublin after university to further his acting career, joining the renowned Abbey Theatre.
As Established star with numerous nominations and awards Neeson has firmly established his position in Hollywood among the greats. But his ascent to fame was not an easy journey by any means.
In his 20s he was still making his mark in Irish regional theatre; by his 30s he had progressed to small parts in TV mini-series. It wasn’t until his Academy Award-nominated role in Schindler’s List (1993), that he felt he had truly arrived as a successful actor at age 41.
Other notable movies and TV shows that Neeson has appeared in include Rob Roy (1995), Michael Collins (1996), Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), Love Actually (2003), Kinsey (2004), The Simpsons (2005), Batman Begins (2005) The Chronicles of Narnia (2005), Taken (2008) Ponyo (2008), The Clash of the Titans (2010), The A-Team (2010), Taken 2 (2012) The Lego Movie (2014), A Million Ways To Die In The West (2014), Taken 3 (2014), Atlanta (2022) and Derry Girls (2022) …. What an impressive list of iconic movies and TV shows!
Liam Neeson has made over 100 movies so far in his career, contributing so much to modern cinema and popculture.
#1. Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis
3 time Oscar winner, and star of ‘Lincoln’ (2012), Daniel Day-Lewis holds both an Irish and English citizenship.
Day-Lewis is considered one of the greatest actors of all time, partly due to his method acting approach. Day-Lewis is known for fully embracing a role, allowing the role to consume all aspects of his life, not just a job or a state of mind when he was on set.
Day-Lewis is quite a private person but his love for the arts is clear in everything he does.
Day-Lewis did extensive research into all of his roles, from living onset in the Crucible (1996) to immerse himself in the replica 1600’s Massachusetts village, a place that had no running water or electricity, even building his own house on set. For Lincoln (2012). Day-Lewis didn’t break character for months before up until the last day of shooting
Day-Lewis retired from acting in 2017, other notable acting appearances include, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), My Left Foot (1989), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Boxer (1997) and Gangs of New York (2002)
Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Other Honourable Mentions:
Michael Gambon, Fiona Shaw, Peter O’Toole, Jamie Dornan, Jack Gleeson, Paul Mescel, Evanna Lynch, Fionnula Flanagan, Aiden Gillen, David Kelly, Jim Norton, Devon Murray, Gabriel Byrne, Una O’Connor and Johnaton Rhys Meyers.
Top 20 Best Irish Actors: Final Thoughts
We really struggled to narrow down this list of honourable mentions, let alone our featured Irish actors – it just goes to show how much talent is created on our little island! Have we forgot anyone? let us know in the comments below.
Have we left anyone out of this list that deserves their place on the list? Why not comment your top 5 Irish actors in the comments below! Do you want to see which of the actors in this list have featured on our article about the most influential Irish people, past and present who have made history in their lifetime?