Why all the internet’s boyfriends are Irish

Why all the internet’s boyfriends are Irish

Actor Cillian Murphy attends the Oppenheimer UK premiere on July 13, 2023, in London, England. | Samir Hussein/WireImage

Irish men are having a moment in Hollywood.

One of the funniest and most charming storylines to emerge from this year’s awards season is none other than an Irish meme.

At January’s Critics’ Choice Award, comedian and actress Ayo Edebiri took home Best Actress in a Comedy for her role in FX’s hit series The Bear. When she went onstage to deliver yet another charismatic acceptance speech, she had a surprising someone — or nation, rather — to thank.

“I want to thank my real family,” Edebiri told the crowd at Santa Monica Airport’s Barker Hangar, shouting out her loved ones across the world. “To everybody in Boston, Barbados, Nigeria — Ireland, in many ways — thank you so much.”

Members of the audience, including myself, let out audible chuckles. Edebiri is, indeed, from Boston and the daughter of Nigerian and Barbadian parents, respectively. But her alleged “ties” to Ireland are only obvious to those who have witnessed the increasing popularity — and memeification — of the Emerald Isle on social media. In March 2023, Edebiri went viral for a Letterboxd interview where she joked, in a fake Irish accent, about playing Jenny the Donkey in the Oscar-nominated film The Banshees of Inisherin. Her new nationality was quickly embraced by social media and even the Irish Times.

The past two awards seasons have seen the film industry embrace Irish talent in a way that hasn’t been replicated since the end of the 20th century. Christopher Shannon, an assistant professor of history at Christendom University and the author of Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema, notes that the closest precedent is the 1990s, “when Irish actors from Ireland such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson became stars.”

Social media has played into this Irish invasion, with users fangirling over actors like Paul Mescal, Barry Keoghan, Andrew Scott, and Cillian Murphy. All of these men have been recognized for their work in critically acclaimed and/or popular films in 2023. Cillian Murphy is nominated for (and forecast to win) an Oscar for his role in Oppenheimer.

Irish film actors have long made significant contributions to Hollywood, from Maureen O’Hara’s iconic run during the Golden Age to Michael Fassbender emerging as a leading man in the 2010s. And in recent years, actress Saoirse Ronan has notably been holding it down for young Irish movie stars. However, this new male-driven phenomenon likely stems from the convergence of the two online trends: an overwhelming fan appetite for male celebrities in the “internet boyfriend” era, and a growing interest in Irish culture. The result is a super-online (and horny) generation of Hibernophiles.

Irish men weren’t always America’s sweethearts

The idea of Irish men as particularly sexy has been on the rise in recent years — at the very least since 2015, when Fifty Shades of Grey starring County Down native Jamie Dornan was released. But the modern romanticization of Irish men doesn’t seem to be pegged to one film or moment in time, and a cursory Google search pulls up a slew of articles declaring the purported pros of dating Irish men. These lists are not necessarily based on hard facts as much as cultural assumptions, and many of them, including one by Popsugar, emphasize the Irish’s supposed charm, good looks, chattiness, and love for their mothers — although, as I’ve been informed by a British friend, that last pro is more of a con.

Presumably, there’s a link between the idyllic postcard image many Americans have of Ireland — lush green pastures, poetry, music, and a friendly population — and the view of Irish men as ideal romantic partners. It has certainly helped that Americans and consumers worldwide have been inundated with images of handsome Irish men in popular culture, from former James Bond star Pierce Brosnan to One Direction member Niall Horan to scruffy sex symbol Colin Farrell. While interviewing Cillian Murphy on his podcast Armchair Expert in 2022, host Dax Sheppard raved about the “inordinate amount of handsome men” he encountered on a trip to Ireland.

But Mary M. Burke, a professor of English at the University of Connecticut and the author of Race, Politics, and Irish America, says the perception of Irish masculinity in America wasn’t always so dreamy. In fact, she says that at one point, Irish men represented “the very opposite of what was deemed desirable in ‘respectable’ white America.”

“In some ways, the notion of the attractiveness of Irish men in today’s America is a corrective to the old stereotype of the Irish male immigrant,” she said.

The 1845 Irish famine meant a huge influx of immigrants to the US, and the men quickly gained a reputation as “feckless, uncultured, and prone to drunkenness and violence,” Burke explained. “That stereotype has been argued to have persisted to some degree right up to the era of John F. Kennedy.” Kennedy’s election, she says, was thought to signal the full assimilation of the Irish in America. (A shift that, in turn, brought us notable Irish Americans like Alec Baldwin, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly.)

This shift in perception represents the “flexible racial status of Irishness,” as Diane Negra, film studies professor at the University College Dublin, writes in the book The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity and Pop Culture. She expands that this is due to a complex history and ethnic identity that allows them to “oscillate between otherness and whiteness.” Likewise, Burke says white Irish people fit into a category of “non-vanilla vanilla” in the Western imagination.

For the American viewer, “Irish actors arguably evoke a kind of safe ‘exoticness,’” she said. “Being native speakers of English with a purportedly cute accent, they are just ‘foreign’ enough for mainstream taste.”

That newfound perception of Irish men as harmless and gentle feels connected to a wider trend that they’ve shown up in on the internet: the “babygirl.” The moniker has become a go-to term of endearment for grown men in Hollywood who are physically attractive and display pleasant traits. According to Mashable, it describes “when a man is being cute, comfortable in his masculinity, or weak in an evocative way.” This act of infantilization can be applied to a wide range of men, but it’s hard not to notice actors like Mescal, Keoghan, Murphy, and Farrell being popular recipients of this treatment online.

Whether any of these Irish archetypes are applicable to the men social media is stanning at the moment doesn’t seem to matter. Parasocial relationships are obviously an exercise in imagination and projection, rarely requiring true knowledge of a person. However, the past two awards cycles have given social media enough interviews, red-carpet appearances, and acceptance speeches for these online admirers to play with.

Irish celebrities are having a moment

2022 saw American media begin to acknowledge a “green wave” occurring in Hollywood — albeit involving some familiar faces. Martin McDonagh’s Ireland-set film The Banshees of Inisherin, starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, was a critical and box office success. Not only did the film, which was nominated for Best Picture at the 2023 Oscars, reunite McDonagh with the stars of his 2008’s In Bruges, Farrell also teamed up again with fellow Dublin actor Barry Keoghan, his co-star from Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2017 movie (and Film Twitter fave) Killing of a Sacred Deer.

The movie marked a notable comeback year for Farrell, one of the most visible Irish men on the planet, whose career had taken some hits over the past decade. Simultaneously, Paul Mescal was emerging as his heir apparent. Following his Emmy-nominated role in Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, he made his gut-wrenching movie-star turn in the father-daughter film Aftersun. The one-two punch of these roles has seemed to lend to a larger perception of him as a melancholic, soulful, and specifically Irish performer.

At the 2023 Oscars ceremony, Irish talent scored a record number of 14 nominations, including its first international film nod for Colm Bairéad’s The Quiet Girl. This year, the awards conversation is once again focused heavily on the Irish, even if they aren’t racking up that much hardware collectively.

Three men in suits stand in a group and laugh.
Carlo Paloni/BAFTA via Getty Images
From left, actors Cillian Murphy, Andrew Scott, and Paul Mescal at the 2024 BAFTAs on February 18, 2024.

The Andrew Haigh film All of Us Strangers, starring Andrew Scott and Mescal, was on the precipice of Oscars glory, with Scott campaigning but failing to make it to the final stage for Best Actor. For months throughout awards season, though, Mescal and Scott were making the internet swoon in joint interviews and red-carpet appearances, demonstrating that their onscreen chemistry carried over into real life. The same attention was paid to Keoghan, who became more of a talking point throughout awards season for his role in the polarizing Emerald Fennell film Saltburn — not to mention that nude dance scene — than a realistic Oscars contender.

Last but not least, there’s Cillian Murphy, whose role in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer could very well win him an Oscar on March 10, after a near-sweep at the year’s major awards ceremonies. The standom and thirst for him on social media is particularly striking, given that he’s had a lengthy, mostly unsung career that hadn’t yielded huge starmaking moments before Oppenheimer, despite playing multiple side characters in Nolan’s filmography. Prior to playing the “father of the atomic bomb” last year, his most notable role as a leading man was as gangster Thomas Shelby in the BBC2 show Peaky Blinders, which ran for almost a decade and earned a strong Tumblr fan base.

Professor and author Christopher Shannon adds that the public’s affinity for Murphy is particularly fascinating, given that American audiences haven’t necessarily fallen in love with him through Irish cinema like previous Irish actors.

“What strikes me about someone like Murphy is that he has achieved his fame mostly in non-Irish roles,” he said. “Murphy is celebrated as an actor who happens to be Irish rather than as a distinctly Irish actor.”

Nevertheless, Murphy’s Irish identity seems to be part of his draw, based on how his online fan base interacts with him. Despite being rather reserved, the Batman Begins star has generated an entire mill of memes, many of them stemming from routinely unenthused interactions and a general “who gives a fuck?” attitude. In particular, it seems as though the internet enjoys the ways he firmly declares his Irishness.

One of his most viral moments is a clip of him repeatedly stating that he’s Irish after an interviewer refers to him and his Inception co-star Tom Hardy as British. Another popular image of Murphy shows the actor seemingly giving Prince Harry a dissenting glare as the cast lines up to meet him at the Dunkirk premiere. This could well just be Murphy’s natural expression (he’s not exactly known for looking cheery), but the internet interpreted Murphy’s look as proof of his disdain for the British monarchy.

That said, the fact that Irish people have a devastating history of oppression by the British seems to have made them somewhat relatable to certain marginalized people in the US — and even inspirational when they experience success. Film Twitter, specifically, seems to enjoy watching Irish actors express solidarity with one another and pride in their heritage. Instagram user @alyvidz, whose fan edits of Irish actors have gone viral, shares the same sentiment.

“I feel like there’s a lot of community there,” she said about the new crop of Irish actors. “I think they all take very big pride in coming from Ireland, and it makes sense. I feel like that kind of shows in our work even though a lot of times they’re not even playing Irish people.”

Murphy has said that it’s a “good time to be an Irish actor” in Hollywood. At the same time, when asked how he felt about being the first Irish-born actor to win Best Actor at the BAFTAs last week, he seemed slightly exhausted by a sense of tokenism. “It means a lot to me to be Irish,” he answered a journalist. “I don’t know what else to say. Should I sing a rebel song?”

Of course, this quip only made the Murphy Hive fall in love with him more.

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