Irish Oscar Winners – Ireland’s Long History of Success at the Academy Awards

The history of Ireland and the Oscars goes all the way back to the very first awards in 1929, and in fact, one of the most famous Irish gifts to the world is the gold statuette awarded to the winners, which was designed by an Irishman, Cedric Gibbons who worked as art director at MGM Studios. This Irish-American art pioneer was also the first Irish Oscar winner, taking home the prize for art direction for The Bridge of San Luis Rey. He would go on to win 11 academy awards in total but did not win for perhaps his most famous film – The Wizard of Oz.

George Bernard Shaw won an academy award in 1939 for best-adapted screenplay. His play Pygmalion was made into a film of the same name. Shaw’s play and film was the inspiration for another Oscar winner My Fair Lady in 1964 which would go on to win the best picture. Having also received the Nobel Prize for literature Shaw is the only person to have won both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. The Irish are famous for their stories so it is only natural that an Irish writer should have a unique place in both Hollywood and on the worldwide stage. Neil Jordan would continue the Irish tradition for excellent screenplays winning the award for best original screenplay in 1993 for The Crying Game.

It was 1944 before Ireland won their first award for acting, with Barry Fitzgerald winning the best-supporting actor award for Going My Way, having also being nominated for best actor for the same role, a unique occurrence which caused the academy to change the rules so this another double which no other nation can claim.

The countryside of Ireland was to bring Oscar success in 1952 in the best director category. While no Irishman has ever claimed this prize, John Ford won for a film that is sometimes credited with launching the Irish tourism industry, The Quiet Man. To this day busloads of tourists descend upon the village of Cong, in Co. Mayo to see the places made famous by John Wayne as Sean Thornton with his Donegal Tweed Cap. Other Oscar-winning films in which the landscape of the Emerald Isle played a role include Ryan’s Daughter made in and around the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, shot in counties Tipperary and Kildare, Braveheart which was filmed in Dublin and Meath and Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan whose famous opening scene features Curracloe Beach in Co. Wexford.

As famous as the actors from Ireland who have been recognized by the Academy are those who never received the famous statuette, amongst them Maureen O’Hara, perhaps Ireland’s best-known actress, who never even received a single nomination despite staring in best picture winners and nominees such as The Quiet Man and Miracle on 34th Street. Likewise, Richard Harris, who was nominated for his role in the screen adaptation of John B. Keane’s play The Field. Peter O’Toole was nominated 8 times for best actor without winning, despite the acclaim he received for roles in films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Goodbye Mr. Chips, another, albeit unwanted, record held by an Irishman. His contribution was finally rewarded when he was given an honorary academy award in 2003.

The first Irish woman to win an Oscar was Michele Burke, who was born in country Kildare and would win for best make-up in 1981 and became a multiple winner when she again claimed the same prize for Dracula in 1992. The 1980s were a glorious time for Irishwomen as Josie McAvin won for best art direction in 1986, having been nominated twice before. The decade ended with Brenda Fricker becoming the first (and to date only) Irish actress to win an Oscar for her role in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot. After winning she famously said of the media in certain countries wanting to latch on to success “When you are lying drunk at the airport you’re Irish. When you win an Oscar you’re British.”

Some might accuse equally the Irish of trying to claim the next batch of recipients from other nations, though all have strong connections with Ireland. Daniel Day-Lewis has won the best actor award the most times with 3 wins from 5 nominations, the most recent for his portrayal of Lincoln. Though born in the U.K. Day-Lewis lives in Co. Wicklow and holds Irish Citizenship. Both Martin McDonagh and Corinne Marrinan won in 2006 for short film and documentary respectively. McDonagh holds both U.K and Irish passports and the U.S. born Marrinan has dual citizenship. Short film success continued in 2012 with father and daughter Terry and Oorlath George and their film The Shore.

Richard Baneham ushered in a whole world of success with his win for visual effects on Avatar in 2010. On March 2nd viewers from Dublin to Kerry will be watching through the night to see if actor Michael Fassbender can pick up the best supporting actor gong for 12 Years a Slave and whether U2 can become the second Irish artist to win the best original song. Their song, Ordinary Love will be up against Pharrell Williams’ song Happy, Glen Hansard whose song Falling Slowly from the film Once won in 2008, continued a proud tradition of Irish music and success at the Oscars. Have your finest ballgowns, tuxedos, jewelry and diamonds ready for the red carpet!