Everything you need to know about life in Ireland can be learned by watching a handful of select television shows, (not really, but it makes for a nice list). If you’re a new arrival, if you’ve been here for years or if you’re just planning a trip, there are a myriad of surprising nuances that you might not expect from a country of this moderate size and population.
For starters, there’s the endless accents, and not just slightly varying lilts, oh no; full-on, vastly different, occasionally unintelligible accents. Practically every county has it’s own variant – Dublin alone has three (at least)!
There’s also the cultural references, religious idiosyncrasies, traditions, history, sense of humour, national identity, and slang as diverse and abundant as the accents.
Reeling in the Years
As soon as the opening bars hit of Steely Dan’s song of the same name, Reeling in the Years evokes feelings of nostalgia for so many Irish viewers. The show frames Ireland against the backdrop of global events, showcasing political, sporting and cultural milestones. The format is simple but stunningly effective: a year-by-year account of Irish and international headlines and news reports set to the soundtrack of each year’s biggest musical hits.
How so much footage is crammed into 25 minutes per episode is nothing short of remarkable. This deep dive into the archives is essential viewing and will provide a crucial frame of reference for the other nine shows on this list. Watch it! And if you’ve already watched it, watch it again.
Love / Hate
Love/Hate was a cultural phenomenon at the time it was first broadcast. At its height, one million viewers were tuning in each Sunday night to find out the fate of Dublin’s gangland kingpins. RTÉ’S masterpiece resonated at a time when such criminality was at the forefront of Irish daily news.
The show was a launch pad for its ensemble cast, including Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones, Dark Knight Rises), Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: End Game), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, Chernobyl),Ruth Negga (Preacher), Robert Sheehan (The Umbrella Academy), and Charlie Murphy (Peaky Blinders).
Love/Hate will help you to grasp the strong Dublin accents, familiarise yourself with some inexplicable slang, and understand the aspects of Ireland’s criminal underbelly, all wrapped up in five seasons of gripping entertainment.
There aren’t many Irish shows on Netflix. Then again, there aren’t many shows which could extract such side-splitting hilarity from a backdrop as bleak as the sectarian violence of “The Troubles” in early 1990s Northern Ireland.
Derry Girls offers life lessons with a history lesson thrown in for good measure.The show provides acute insight into Irish family dynamics through a wonderfully relatable group of friends navigating their formative years in an all-girls, Catholic high school. Nevertheless, everyone can see a little of themselves and their close friends in one or all of the main cast.
Young Offenders was launched on the back of the success of the movie of the same name, documenting two teenagers’ attempt to loot a capsized boat carrying bales of cocaine off the Cork coast. While the movie was based on true events (no, really) the series instead follows the fictitious events of best friends, Jock and Conor, living an underprivileged life in an underprivileged part of Cork.
Munster accents routinely cause the most difficulty for new arrivals to Ireland (and indeed those here all their lives) and get harder to grasp the closer you move to the Atlantic. Limerick, Clare, Kerry and Cork account for roughly a quarter of the country, so you’ll need to catch on, and there is no better way than watching this duo stumble through their teens.
*Subtitles very much on*
Father Ted is, in my humble opinion, the greatest Irish TV show ever made; as good or better than all-time classic sitcoms such as Only Fools and Horses and Fawlty Towers. It paved the way for shows like Derry Girls and Young Offenders to take the comedy world by storm and for that alone we should be forever grateful.
For those who don’t already know, the show revolves around three priests living on one of Ireland’s more remote West coast islands, and their housekeeper, Mrs Doyle, whose vocation for serving tea is more true and robust than any divine call to the clergy.
Joined by an ensemble support cast including giants of Irish comedy like Tommy Tiernan, Brendan Grace and Graham Norton, the show exposes the irreverence with which many viewed the Catholic church in a 1990s Ireland that was slow to adapt to a fast-changing world.
Full Confession: I’ve never seen the show, but anything that causes so much consternation and controversy among a certain element of the Irish population is OK in my book. You know it’s good when Joe Duffy’s Liveline is trending.
The show (as far as I could gleam from a glance at the trailer and brief Google search) is an adaptation of best-selling Irish author, Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name. The critically acclaimed show follows the relationship of two Trinity College students and the complexities of life for young people in Ireland.
Not every immigrant to Ireland lives in Dublin. Indeed, not every immigrant lives in a city. Hardy Bucks gives an all too real glimpse of country life for young men of a certain age and socioeconomic background. Never before has the spirit of Celtic jerseys, cigarettes, boy-racer cars and lack of self-awareness been so purely distilled.
The show – which has recently found its way to Netflix – is perhaps best described as Trailer Park Boys meets It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia with Connacht accents.
Hardy Bucks, Derry Girls, Young Offenders available on Netflix
What better way to learn about life in late 80’s, early 90s rural Ireland than through the lens of a twelve year old boy and his imaginary friend? The show combines coming-of-age tropes with a childish charm that makes for a wonderfully whimsical TV experience. The brainchild of writer, director and aforementioned imaginary friend, Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids, Calvary), Moone Boy is one of the few shows on this list that can be enjoyed with the whole family.
If you’re worried this list is missing a whodunnit, fear not, Dublin Murders has you covered. Killian Scott (Love/Hate), Sarah Greene (Normal People) and Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones) bring to life the small-screen adaptation of two Tana French novels, In the Woods and The Likeness. The show follows a murder investigation following the discovery of body and a potential connection to similar disappearances two decades prior. Each episode is an all-too-real reminder of the ghosts that populate the past of Dublin’s mountains.
Normal People, Dublin Murders available on Hulu
Bridget & Eamonn
What started as a three minute weekly sketch on RTÉ’s The Republic of Telly became a hit sitcom. Comedians Bernard O’Shea and Jennifer Zamparelli star as the eponymous couple, living their best life in a non-PC, arbitrary Midlands town in 1980s Ireland. The threat of the wooden spoon, the distrust of anyone who didn’t drink alcohol, the complete and utter disregard for anything resembling health and safety; all those truisms and more are neatly on display in this hilarious reflection of a life many of a certain age will never forget.
If you think there’s any I’ve left off the list, or if there’s any of these TV shows you’ve found useful, please comment below.