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March 15, 2023

4 documentaries on Irish history and culture to stream for St. Patrick's Day

Learn about the Troubles, traditional pubs and the fight for marriage equality in Ireland

Movies Documentaries
Irish Documentaries Screenshot/Universal Pictures Ireland/WildCard Distribution

Documentaries like 'The Queen of Ireland' and 'Bobby Sands: 66 Days,' pictured above, highlight key moments in Irish LGBTQ+ history and the lengthy turmoil known as The Troubles, respectively.

More than 1 million Irish Americans live in the Philadelphia metro area, making it the second-most "Irish" city in the U.S., after New York. This Friday, some of those Irish Americans will descend on bars and homes across the city to drink pints and swap shamrock necklaces. 

MORE: How a 1978 photo shoot in Haddonfield produced two iconic Bruce Springsteen albums

But Ireland is naturally much more than leprechaun lore. If you're Irish and want to dig into your roots — or someone who just wishes to learn a little more about the Emerald Isle — these four documentaries are a good place to start. They cover everything from IRA protests to drag queens, pop stars to the true star of the country: pubs.

Bobby Sands: 66 Days

On March 1, 1981, a 26-year-old prisoner at the H-Blocks in Northern Ireland began a two month-long hunger strike that ended in his death. Bobby Sands' protest over prison conditions captured national attention at a pivotal point in Irish history, when the country was still mired in The Troubles, a three-decade sectarian conflict that killed more than 3,500 people. Sands was a member of the IRA, infamous for much of this violence, but his peaceful protest turned him into a folk hero and sparked some criticism of the British government.

Runtime: 105 minutes Available on: YouTube for $1.99 rental

The Irish Pub

Ireland is famous for its drinking culture, and this cozy 2013 documentary makes the case for the pub as the center of community — a place where neighbors share their troubles, local musicians perform and marriages once were brokered between families. The movie visits multiple centuries-old pubs across the country, interviewing the proprietors about their odd hours, favorite patrons and side hustles as grocers and undertakers.

Runtime: 74 minutes Available on: Prime, Peacock, Pluto TV

Nothing Compares

Sinead O'Connor was once one of Ireland's most famous exports, ruling the Billboard Hot 100 for a month in 1990 with "Nothing Compares 2 U." But that all came crashing down after a controversial 1992 performance on "Saturday Night Live," during which she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II in protest of child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. This 2022 film follows her life and career prior to and through that point, touching on her difficult teen years in a Magdalene Laundry. Irish families sent their troublesome or pregnant daughters to these notorious institutions — where they washed clothes, unpaid, under the eyes of nuns — up until 1996, when the last one closed for good.

Runtime: 97 minutes Available on: Showtime

The Queen of Ireland

Rory O'Neill, aka Panti Bliss, is the subject of this documentary, which doubles as a recent history of LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland. Panti is the country's most famous drag queen, thanks in part to a speech on homophobia shared on social media by RuPaul, Boy George and Stephen Fry. The movie details her career as a performer and work as an activist, particularly in the lead-up to Ireland's 2015 constitutional referendum, which legalized gay marriage by popular vote.

Runtime: 86 minutes Available on: Pluto TV

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