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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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)
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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)
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