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The Irish at the Oscars
05 Feb 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Left - right: Cedric Gibbons, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, and Saoirse Ronan
With 2021 nominations on the horizon, Ireland’s screen industry has good reason to hope for successful nominations across a number of categories.

With feature animation Wolfwalkers looking likely to be Cartoon Saloon’s fourth nomination for their fourth feature film (their fifth in total including the short animation Late Afternoon), actresses Saoirse Ronan (looking for a fifth nomination for Ammonite) and Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) both possibilities, writer and actress Clare Dunne a contender for Herself, and even Jamie Dornan a possibility for Wild Mountain Thyme (according to some US trades), Ireland is hopeful for more Oscar success. 

We have a rich history with the Oscars. Our industry has consistently boxed above its weight in its film and TV output over the years and this has been reflected in our success at the most highly coveted international annual award ceremony.

From Barry Fitzgerald being controversially nominated for supporting and leading actor Oscars for the same role in 1944 to Saoirse Ronan’s slew of nominations in more recent years, and from Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan breaking ground for Irish Directors in the 80’s up to the incredible success of contemporary Irish Animation, not to mention Eimear Noone, who last year became the first woman to conduct the Academy Orchestra, Irish talent has a long history of making waves in the Academy.

With hopes high for more success this year when the nominees are announced next week, IFTN takes a look back at Ireland’s rich history at the Academy Awards.

Acting 

(Best Lead Actor/Actress; Best Supporting Actor/Supporting Actress)

Ireland’s history in acting nominations goes back a long way too, all the way to 1940 when Wicklow’s Geraldine Fitzgerald was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Wuthering Heights. This was followed by Dublin-born Sara Allgood who was nominated in the same Category in How Green Was My Valley, which was directed by famed Irish-American John Ford (himself the recipient of five Academy Awards including a record four wins for Best Director). An Irish actor caused a major stir when Barry Fitzgerald was controversially nominated for both the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories for the role of Fr. Fitzgibbon in Going My Way in 1945 (he won in the latter category). Fitzgerald’s win was the last time the same person would be nominated for two Oscars for these two categories for the same role; the Academy would change the rules the following year. Shortly after the ceremony, he was reported to have decapitated his Oscar statuette with a golf club.

Wexford Native Dan O'Herlihy was next in line in 1955, when he was nominated for his role in  Luis Buñuel's Robinson Crusoe before Limerick-born Richard Harris was nominated for his role in This Sporting Life in 1964. Again, it was a long wait until 1990 when Kenneth Branagh was nominated for Henry V, and nominated for Best Director for the same title. Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker were also nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively in 1990, for their roles in My Left Foot. Both would go on to win at the Awards Ceremony, making Fricker the first Irish actor to win an Academy Award. The next year saw Richard Harris nominated again for his role in The Field before Stephen Rea was nominated for The Crying Game in 1993, swiftly followed by Liam Neeson for his performance in Steven Speilberg’s Schindler’s List.

There was then a 15-year wait until 2008, which saw a new Irish star launched onto the world stage when Saoirse Ronan was nominated for her supporting role in Atonement, beginning something of an Oscar-odyssey for the Carlow actress. In 2012, Keneth Branagh was nominated again for My Week with Marilyn in the Best Supporting Actor category with Michael Fassbender being nominated in the same category for his role in 12 Years a Slave.  Ronan and Fassbender were both nominated again in 2016. Ronan (lead actress) for her role in Brooklyn, and Fassbender for his titular role as Steve Jobs. In 2017, Ruth Negga was nominated for the Best Lead Actress Oscar for her role as Mildred Loving in Loving. Ronan would go on to be nominated twice more, in 2018 for Lady Bird and in 2020 for Little Women. She is the second-youngest performer, male or female, to ever receive four Oscar nominations, after Jennifer Lawrence, but she is still yet to win.

Day-Lewis who holds Irish citizenship has managed to win the Best Lead Actor Oscar three times; an honour only he holds. His wins were for My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood in 2008, and Lincoln in 2013, and he was also nominated for roles in Gangs of New York and most recently for Phantom Thread in 2018.

Spare a thought though for the late, great Peter O’Toole, who was nominated eight times for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, but was never able to win a competitive Oscar. In 2002, the Academy honoured him with an Academy Honorary Award for his entire body of work and his lifelong contribution to film. O'Toole initially balked about accepting, and wrote the Academy a letter saying that he was "still in the game" and would like more time to "win the lovely bugger outright".  His final nomination was in 2006 for Venus where he lost to Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland. 

Best Picture 

1990 saw Ireland’s first nomination for best picture with Noel Pearson and Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot (it would go on to win 2 acting awards at the ceremony); Sheridan was back in 1994 when In the Name of the Father was nominated for best picture. There was nearly a two-decade wait until Ireland’s next nomination when Element Picture’s Room was nominated in 2016, and they repeated the trick in 2019 when The Favourite was nominated for 5 awards.

Best Director 

The first Irishman nominated for Best Director at the Oscars was Dún Laoghaire native Herbert Brenon in 1928 for his Silent Feature Sorrell and Son. There was a long wait for our next nomination, however, but, like the old cliché about buses, you wait 62 years for a nomination and two come along at once. In 1990, Belfast-born Kenneth Brannagh was nominated for Henry V, and Jim Sheridan was nominated for My Left Foot, which would go on to win 2 acting Oscars. 1993 saw Neil Jordan nominated for The Crying Game, which was swiftly followed by Sheridan’s second nomination in 1994, this time for In the Name of the Father. There was then another long wait until Lenny Abrahamson’s nomination for Room in 2016. No Irish person has ever won the best directing Oscar to date. 

Best Screenplay (Original and Adapted)

George Bernard Shaw was Ireland’s first winner of a screenwriting Oscar, though it was an award he very much did not want. Winning in 1939 for Best Adapted Screenplay for Pygmalion (shared with Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Arthur Lewis, and W. P. Lipscomb.), he described his award as an insult, coming from the Academy who he regarded as emblematic of Hollywood, which he despised. However, Shaw did attend the presentation of his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925; this combined with his Oscar earned him a feat only two people have ever achieved. Bob Dylan being the other, who was present for his Oscar win in 2001, but ironically, did not attend his Nobel Prize presentation - citing “prior commitments” as the reason for his absence. 

In 1967, Mayo-born Bill Naughton was nominated for his adaptation of his own play Alfie, starring Michael Caine. It was more than three decades before we had another nomination with Shane Connaughton & Jim Sheridan’s adaptation of Christy Brown’s autobiography My Left Foot losing out in 1990. But Glory was just around the corner when Neil Jordan won Best Original Screenplay in 1993 for The Crying Game. The following year Terry George and Jim Sheridan would be nominated for their adaptation of In the Name of the Father Based on the book Proved Innocent by Gerry Conlon before Brannagh was nominated for adapting William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Sheridan would be nominated again in 2004 alongside his daughters Kirsten & Naomi Sheridan for the semi-autobiographical In America while Terry George was nominated the following year for Hotel Rwanda. Martin McDonagh received his first nomination in 2009 for his Original Screenplay for In Bruges before Emma O’Donoghue was nominated for her adaptation of her own book Room in 2016.

Animation (Feature & Short) 

Animation has been a major success for Ireland in recent years, a trend that looks likely to continue with this years’ nominations as Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers looks certain to get nominated in the Best Animated Feature Category. This would be Cartoon Saloons’s fifth nomination following their nominations for all three of their feature films  - The Secret of Kells in 2010, Song of the Sea in 2015, and The Breadwinner in 2018 - and the short film Late Afternoon in 2019. Song of the Sea was notable for winning Best film in the 2015 Irish Film & Television Academy Awards, the first time an Animated Film had done so. 

Irish Animated Shorts have been very successful too with both  Fifty Percent Grey and Give Up Yer Aul’ Sins nominated in 2001 and Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty in 2009.

Shorts (Live- Action, and Documentary)

Cradle of Genius, The 1962 Irish short documentary film directed by Paul Rotha on the history of the Abbey Theatre was nominated for best short documentary at the Academy Awards. This was followed in 1966 and 1971 by two nominations for Patrick Carey for Yeats Country and Oisin.

Louis Marcus’ documentary Children at Work (Páistí ag obair) became the first Irish-language title nominated for an Oscar in 1974, and Marcus would be nominated again, this time for Best Live Action Short in 1976 for Conquest of Light. The ’90s saw Kenneth Branagh nominated for his live-action short Swan Song while fellow Belfast man Tim Loane was nominated in 1998 for Dance Lexie Dance. Corinne Marrinan who holds both Iris hand US Citizenship won the short documentary award in 2006 for Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin, a 2006 documentary short subject about writer Norman Corwin. 

Since 2005, Ireland has had 3 wins and 9 Best Live-Action nominations including County Antrim’s Gary McKendry nominated that year for Everything in This Country Must. The Following year Martin McDonagh won the award for his film Six-Shooter which starred Brendan and Domhnaill Gleeson. In 2009 Steph Green (recently directing smash hit US TV such as Watchmen)  was nominated for New Boy which was adapted from a Roddy Doyle Short Story.  

Juanita Wilson’s The Door followed up its Irish Film and Television Award (IFTA) in 2009 with an Academy Award nomination in 2010. This was followed by Michael Creagh’s The Crush at the 2011 Awards. There were two Irish films nominated in 2012 with Peter McDonald and Eimear O'Kane’s Pentecost losing out to Terry George and his daughter Oorlagh, with a win for their short film The Shore, which starred Ciarán Hinds and Conleth Hill and follows two boyhood best friends who are reunited after a 25-year division created by a misunderstanding from the days of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Ronan Blaney & Michael Lennox’s Buggaloo & Graham was nominated for 2015’s Awards while Ireland got back to winning ways with Benjamin Cleary’s Stutterer in 2016. Cleary is currently making his feature debut Swan Song for Apple with Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali. In 2019 Detainment, Vincent Lambe’s well-made and hard-hitting exploration of the Jamie Bulger Murderers was nominated for Best Live-Action Short.

Music

Ireland’s musicians have had a fair amount of success since the dawn of the new millennium with Enya’s May It Be nominated for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in 2002 and which she performed at the ceremony. The following Year U2’s The Hands That Built America from Gangs of New York was nominated for Best Original Song at the 75th Academy Awards but lost to Eminem's Lose Yourself. But victory was on the Horizon when Falling Slowly from Once won Best Original Song for Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in 2008. U2 were back in 2014, nominated with their song Ordinary Love from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.   

Craft and Technical

Though rarely given the same amount of limelight as other categories, Ireland has exceptional talent across the craft and technical categories, with some of our most successful Oscar-winners working behind the scenes including a record-breaker.

It’s impossible not to talk here about Cedric Gibbons who was nominated 39 times for the Academy Award for Best Production Design and won the Oscar 11 times, both of which are records. Born in Dublin,1890 (or 1893, and there are other reports suggesting he was born in New York to his Irish Parents), Gibbons also designed the famous Oscar Statue and when he retired in 1956, nearly 1,500 films were credited to him.

In 1986, Josephine “Josie” MacAlvin won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration for her work on Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa. She was nominated for an Oscar on two other occasions, in 1966 in the Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, black-and-white category for The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, and in 1964 in the Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color category for Tom Jones.

Two Irish men have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Seamus McGarvey was twice nominated for his work with director Joe Wright, firstly in 2008 for Atonement and again in 2013 for Anna Karenina. Robbie Ryan was the second when he was nominated for his work on The Favourite in 2019, ultimately losing out to Director Alfonso Cuarón who shot his own film Roma. 

Peter J. Devlin has dominated for Ireland in Sound with a staggering 5 nominations for Best Sound Mixing. He has been nominated for Pearl Harbour (2002), Transformers (2008), Star Trek (2010), Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2012), and Black Panther (2019)

Two of Ireland’s most successful Oscars regulars are Michèle Burke and Consolata Boyle. Burke has won two Academy Awards or best Makeup the first time for Quest for Fire (1983), the second time for Bram Stoker's Dracula (1993). She was also nominated in 1987 for The Clan on the Cave Bear,  in 1991 for Cyrano de Bergerac, in 2000 for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and The Cell in 2001. Boyle was nominated three times for Best Costume Design for The Queen in 2007, Florence Foster Jenkins in 2017, and Victoria & Abdul in 2018. Another Irish woman, Lynn Johnston, received an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Make-up 2012 for Albert Nobbs.

Ireland’s Greatest

Lastly, but very much not least, is Maureen O’Hara.

In 2004, the then-newly established Irish Film & Television Academy honoured Maureen O'Hara with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Dublin, led by video tributes from some of Maureen's many admirers and collaborators throughout the years including director Steven Spielberg, Chris Columbus, and actors Milo O'Shea & Hayley Mills. 

Almost a decade to the day since her 2004 recognition in her beloved home country, Maureen O'Hara was given the recognition she so richly deserves from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in presenting her with an Honorary Oscar Award at the Annual Governors Ball in Hollywood on November 8th, 2014. The inscription read, "To Maureen O'Hara, one of Hollywood's brightest stars, whose inspiring performances glowed with passion, warmth, and strength". O'Hara became only the second actress, after Myrna Loy in 1991, to receive an Honorary Oscar without having previously been nominated for an Oscar in a competitive category. In 2020, she was ranked number 1 on The Irish Times list of Ireland's greatest film actors.





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