Either adapted from true stories or fiction taking place in the historical period, movies about the Northern Ireland conflict can give you an insight into the Troubles and help you understand what happened.
Officially starting in the 1960s and ending with the 1998 Belfast Agreement, although violence and tensions persist even today, the Northern Ireland conflict, also called the Troubles, shook the north of the Emerald Ireland – and the world.
Tensions didn’t suddenly appear in the 1960s. They were linked to hundreds of years of violence between the local Irish population, British colonial settlers (predominantly Scottish), and the British crown, culminating at the beginning of the 20th century with the Easter Rising of 1916, the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921, and the Irish Civil War that followed in 1922 and 1923.
The Partition of Ireland in 1921 was supposed to calm these tensions, separating the loyalist population in the North that wanted to stay in the United Kingdom from the Irish Free State, but it didn’t prevent the conflict that marked the second half of the 20th century.
With a population divided by both political allegiances and religious beliefs after Partition, Northern Ireland became a discriminatory society with a segregationist local government, which led to the re-imposition of direct rule from London and the civil rights movement of the 1960s: the Irish, less famous version of the movement that changed American society across the ocean.
The Troubles were a violent and deadly civil conflict in which nobody was totally safe, with paramilitary groups on both sides launching attacks. Even if the 1998 Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement, was supposed to establish a long-lasting peace, the tensions provoked by Brexit showed us that the region is still unstable.
Learning about this history can be difficult and movies can be a good way to start. Even if they can’t replace a good history book or other academic work, they can provide more details and especially less biased information: they are useful for a first contact with this period.
1971 was one of the earliest years of the Northern Ireland conflict, and also a symbolic one for various reasons. In February, the first British Army soldier was killed during the conflict, followed by three off-duty Scottish soldiers shot in March.
This is also the year in which internment without trial was introduced in the region, targeting mostly nationalists. The radical Democratic Unionist Party, still existing today, was also founded in 1971, and the McGurk’s Bar bombing by the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group, happened in December in Belfast, killing 15 people.
It’s in this very tense context that the movie takes place, as the title indicates. It tells the story of the young British soldier Gary Hook (played by Jack O’Connell), sent to Belfast with his unprepared partners, who ends up needing to survive alone in the Northern Irish city, among both helpful and hateful locals. For the Washington Post, Stephanie Merry wrote that ’71 “succeeds as an action thriller, but with enough complexity to keep the brain engaged”.
In the Name of the Father (1993)
Unlike the fictional story of ’71, In the Name of the Father puts on screen the life of Gerry Conlon (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), a man accused and sentenced to life imprisonment for the bombing of two Guildford pubs in South London in 1974, that killed four off-duty British soldiers and a civilian.
The movie is an adaptation of Colon’s autobiography, Proved Innocent: The Story of Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four (1990), even if the director Jim Sheridan changed some facts for fictional purposes.
Telling the story of how the “Guildford Four” were wrongly convicted and how they then fought for their release from prison, the movie puts light on various aspects of the Troubles and especially British justice during these times, or lack thereof.
“[It] tells this story in angry dramatic detail, showing that the British police were so obsessed with the need to produce the IRA bombers that they seized on flimsy hearsay evidence and then tortured their prisoners to extract confessions. […] The story becomes a tragedy of errors,” Roger Ebert wrote about this movie. His article contains more details about the movie, and a few spoilers too.
“Director Steve McQueen’s first feature film […] captures the humanity and brutality on both sides of the conflict in the HM Prison Maze,” Alex von Tunzelmann wrote about this film for The Guardian before explaining the whole story and what was at stake.
This movie is adapted from real events and concerns the last days of Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA, more commonly “the IRA”). First arrested in 1972 and released from prison in 1976, Sands was arrested again in October of the same year, and sentenced to 14 years of prison for possession of a revolver.
The mistreatment of those held in the Maze Prison and then the removal of their Special Category Status as political prisoners in 1976 (granted in 1972) led first to a “blanket protest”, then to a “dirty protest”, before evolving into a hunger strike.
The movie tells this story, with an impressive Michael Fassbender in the role of Sands, who lost 14kg to look like the Irish republican fighter during his hunger strike. A difficult topic with hard images to watch, it represents one of the most striking episodes of the Troubles.
Five Minutes of Heaven (2009)
This movie wavers between fiction and reality, with a screenplay based on the lives of Alistair Little and Joe Griffin. They never met in reality, but the characters do meet in the movie. It tells the story of how Little killed Griffin’s older brother during the Troubles, then went to jail and was released. It’s more about the aftermath and impact of the conflict after its official end.
With a planned meeting for a television program between the former UVF fighter and the Catholic man whose brother he had killed 30 years before, the movie shows both images from the 1970s and the 2000s, showing how the two men evolved after the tragedy they both were a part of, on different sides.
For The New York Times, Manohla Dargis describes the movie as “two Irishmen talk and talk and talk, often in separate physical spaces that reflect their very different head spaces”. Five Minutes of Heaven remains a very good way to reflect on the Troubles and their impacts on everyone’s life, on both sides of the conflict.
Bonus: TV Show Derry Girls and a few other movies
If you’re looking for something a little less heavy, Derry Girls will probably bring a smile to your face. This short TV show follows a group of Catholic friends in Derry in the 1990s, showing both mundane teenagers’ lives and the dark background of the Troubles.
As a sitcom, Derry Girls is about funny situations and less-funny historical events. The main joke revolves around the fact that the group of friends is originally composed of girls, going to an all-girls Catholic school, but then the male English cousin of one of the girls joins the school and comedy ensues
If you want to know more about other stories related to the Northern Ireland conflict or taking place during the period of the Troubles, you can also check Bloody Sunday (2002), Some Mother’s Son (1996), Cal (1984) or Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008).
The easiest first contact with history is often a good entertainment piece about a period. Movies (and TV shows) about the Troubles are numerous and cover various aspects of the 30-year-long Northern Ireland conflict. And you, did you know about these movies? What do you think of them? Let us know in the comment section!