For a relatively small island, the Irish have no shortage of familiar faces that have broken 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 contributions to both Irish and International arts. Scroll down to read through the list, or click on one of the highlighted sections below to skip ahead!
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Best Irish Actors #20: Colm Meaney
Colm Meaney is a famous Irish actor who has starred in movies such as The Commitments (1991), The Snapper (1993), and The Van (1996). He has also featured in Law Abiding Citizen (2009) and Die-Hard 2 (1990).
Meaney has also made appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He was 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 Trilogy’ have cemented his place on this list.
Best Irish Actors #19: 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 decade’s worth (23 films) of Marvel movies.
For these two performances alone, Vaughan has earned a well-deserved spot on our list of Irish actors.
Best Irish Actors #18: 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), Fricker’s 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. She continues to act to this day, appearing in notable movies such as Cloudburst (2011), as well as a TV adaptation of Graham Norton’s Holding (2022).
Best Irish Actors #17: Nicola Coughlan
After starring in 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. It follows a group of teenagers navigating their way through 1990s Belfast in a hilarious and moving sitcom.
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 set in London in the 1810s, based on Julia Quinn’s book series.
Coughlan is one to watch on our list of Irish actors, and we can’t wait to see what projects she works on next!
Best Irish Actors #16: 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 and 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. She was one of the first Irish actors to have a decades-long successful career in Hollywood.
Best Irish Actors #15: 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 Hargreaves family. He offers comic relief and some of the most moving moments in the show.
Best Irish Actors #14: Barry Keoghan
Having just started his career, Keoghan has already amassed an impressive filmography, including appearances in Love-Hate (2013), The Killing of A Sacred Deer (2017), Black 47′ (2018), and HBO’s 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’ 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 own unique spin on the role in a future sequel.
Keoghan definitely joins Nicola Coughlin on our list of ‘Irish actors to watch out for’!
Best Irish Actors #13: Ruth Negga
Ethiopian-Irish actor Ruth Negga has appeared in Breakfast on Pluto (1998) and won an IFTA for her performance of Dame Shirley Bassey in the BBC’s Shirley (2011). She is also famously known for playing Ophelia, the tragic figure in the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet. Negga also played Hamlet himself in the Gate Theatre’s 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 (whom she also worked with in E4’s Mis-fits).
Negga’s other notable roles include Mildred Loving in Loving (2016), which earned her an Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination, and Clare in Passing (2021), which got her another Golden Globe award nomination.
In 2021, Negga starred alongside Daniel Craig as Lady Macbeth, for which she received a Tony Award nomination.
Best Irish Actors #12: 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 villain in 2015’s Spectre. His other notable performances include roles in 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.
Best Irish Actors #11: The Gleesons
We couldn’t pick just one member of the Gleeson family! Brendan Gleeson, the father of Domhnall and Brian, 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 lived 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), Peter Rabbit, and Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (2018/21).
Domhnall has also made his mark on cinema with his role 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 gone on to create and star in the sitcom Frank of Ireland (2021), in which their father, Brendan, also features.
Best Irish Actors #10: 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 warriors, and 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 multiple movies in the Alien franchise.
Fassbender is a prominent character in the superhero genre, playing a younger version of Ian McKellen’s Magneto across 4 movies in the X-men franchise. He is often seen as one of the constant highlights of the movie saga, which has its fair share of highs and lows.
Best Irish Actors #9: Colin Farrell
Dublin-born Actor Colin Farrell actually comes from a family of athletes. His father and brother played professionally with the Shamrock Rovers, a famous Irish football club. Farrell auditioned for Boyzone, a well-known Irish boyband that had many hit songs, but he didn’t make the cut.
It seems one way or another – be it as a football player, singer, or actor- Farrell was destined for fame!
Colin has starred in many films, 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 looked unrecognisable as the iconic villain and was highly praised for his interpretation of the character.
Best Irish Actors #8: Kenneth Branagh
Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh is a prominent actor, director, producer, and screenwriter. His contribution to film is evident, not just in 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 of his best roles.
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, and 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.
Recently, Kenneth Branagh has been cast 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.
Best Irish Actors #7: 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 is known worldwide for starring alongside Gerald Butler and Joaquin Phoenix as Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator (2000). Harris became famous with younger generations for his role as Professor Dumbledore in the first two films of the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (or Sorcerer’s) 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.
Best Irish Actors #6: 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 90s up until the early 2000s when Daniel Craig took over the mantle.
From Golden Eye to Robinson Crusoe and Mamma Mia!, Brosnan’s 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 over due to the show’s 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 Brosnan’s journey to Bond in the video below:
Best Irish Actors #5: 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 Western 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 enrolling in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin at 14. Charles Laughton saw potential in her and arranged 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 significant 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 prominent roles that she appeared in Included How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Black Swan (1942) and The Spanish Main (1945).
O’Hara paved the way for Irish actors in Hollywood.
Best Irish Actors #4: Cillian Murphy
The Cork-born Irish actor has one of the most impressive filmographies 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: 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. His role in the movie was well-received and 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. Jonathan Crane, the infamous Scarecrow. Other Nolan movies that Cillian has starred in are Inception (2010), a sci-fi action film described as a dream heist, Dunkirk (2017), a highly acclaimed WWII drama, and Oppenheimer (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 remiss not to mention Murphy’s role as Tommy Shelby, the protagonist of Peaky Blinders (2013-2022). It is 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 as they go from running a street-level organisation to an influential empire.
Peaky Blinders is a crime drama based loosely on a real-life gang in Birmingham. Still, Murphy manages to portray this potentially ruthless character as a multi-faceted, three-dimensional person. Tommy is not just a gang leader. He is 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 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 of Tommy Shelby was a bold move. It was a time when many actors on the big screen would shy away from TV roles.
It did prove to be the right choice, however, as alongside the arrival of streaming services, TV programmes saw a resurgence in their popularity, with shows like Peaky Blinders leading the way. The numerous awards and accolades to his name support our claim that Murphy is one of the best Irish Actors of all time!
Best Irish Actors #3: Saoirse Ronan
Saoirse Ronan is one of the most in-demand actors working in Hollywood right now! She was born in the Bronx district of New York but moved to Ireland with her Irish parents when she was a young child. 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 landed leading roles in shows and movies 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 1950s.
Her other significant roles include Ronan’s portrayal of the titular character Ladybird in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film of the same name. It is a coming-of-age story about a high school senior preparing for the next chapter of her life.
Saoirse appears in Loving Vincent(2017) as Marguerite Gauchet. A revolutionary movie in terms of its animation, Loving Vincent is a biographical drama that revolves around the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh, who painted the instantly recognisable Starry Night. Each frame in this movie is actually a hand-painted piece of art in Van Gogh’s recognisable style. It is a true gem of modern cinema!
Saoirse starred alongside Margot Robbie as Mary Stuart in Mary Queen of Scots (2018) and an ensemble role in Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) as Jo March.
Saoirse has been featured in music videos of Irish artists. These appearances include Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl, a fun video that showcases the charm of Galway, as well as Hozier’s Cherry Wine music video, a genuinely moving and emotional performance about domestic abuse.
Saoirse has over 25 movies under her belt, and with her career still skyrocketing, there is so much more to look forward to from her in the future!
Best Irish Actors #2: Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson is an Irish actor born in 1952 in Ballymena, County Antrim. He attended 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 an 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 and 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. By this time, he was 41 – it just shows its never too late to make it big!
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 appearances in over 100 movies so far in his career. It is easy to say that he has contributed so much to modern cinema and pop culture!
Best Irish Actors #1: Daniel Day-Lewis
3 time Oscar winner and star of ‘Lincoln’ (2012), Daniel Day-Lewis holds both Irish and English citizenship. Day-Lewis is considered one of the greatest actors of all time, partly due to his method acting approach. Method acting is when an actor fully embodies a character or role full-time throughout the production of a show or film.
Daniel is known for fully embracing his roles, allowing them to consume all aspects of his life. To him, characters are not just a job or a state of mind when he is on set. He becomes the character, leaving his own personality behind until the role is finished.
Day-Lewis did extensive research into all of his roles. He lived at the set while making The Crucible (1996) to immerse himself in the replica 1600s Massachusetts village, which had no running water or electricity. He even built his own house on set.
For Lincoln (2012), Day-Lewis didn’t break character for months up until the last day of shooting.
Day-Lewis retired from acting in 2017. If you haven’t seen many of his works, his 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). Make sure to check them out!
Best Irish Actors: Other Honourable Mentions
With so many amazing actors hailing from the Emerald Isle, we struggled to narrow this list down to our top 20! Here are some of our other favourite Irish actors who didn’t make the list:
- Michael Gambon
- Fiona Shaw
- Peter O’Toole
- Kerry Condon
- Jamie Dornan
- Jack Gleeson
- Paul Mescal
- Evanna Lynch
- Fionnula Flanagan
- Aiden Gillen
- David Kelly
- Jim Norton
- Devon Murray
- Gabriel Byrne
- Una O’Connor
- Jonathan Rhys Meyers
There are Tons of Great Irish Actors!
From the early pioneers of stage and screen to the contemporary icons who continue to captivate audiences today, Irish actors have consistently demonstrated exceptional skill, versatility, and a deep commitment to their craft.
Through their remarkable performances, they have transported us to different worlds, evoked a wide range of emotions, and sparked meaningful conversations about identity, culture, and the human experience.
In this article, we have explored the contributions of some of the best Irish actors throughout history, from legends like Maureen O’Hara and Richard Harris to modern-day luminaries like Saoirse Ronan and Cillian Murphy. We have seen how their exceptional talent has transcended borders and enriched the global cinematic landscape.
With how much star power comes from Ireland and how much we struggled when narrowing down our list of best Irish actors, it just goes to show how much talent is created on our little island! Have we forgotten anyone? Let us know in the comments below.