In the 1930s and 40s, Dublin City was movie mad. Picture houses dotted the streets, and I remember my mother telling me that between the Five Lamps and Fairview, there were seven cinemas she and her cousin constantly visited. They sometimes showed the same films for months on end, but cinephiles would go see these glittering Hollywood productions again and again to bask in a glamorous, sexually charged world so very different from the drab and repressed country they inhabited.
I've often wondered how those Irish audiences must have felt the first time they encountered that great staple of early Hollywood cinema - the Irish cop. Large and lumbering, with big feet and bemused expression, he would wander through street scenes humming a jig and twirling his baton till he espied wrongdoers and loudly berated them in an accent that was neither one thing nor another.
They were perhaps the earliest screen embodiments of Irish-American life, and first appeared in silent comedies, their ethnicity identified by tipsy, lilting jigs.
Representations of Irishness have moved on and become more sophisticated since, but in Hollywood, a tension has always persisted between stereotypical ideas about the old country and the sometimes grubby realities of Irish life. With no easy language or cuisine to cling to, Irish-Americans instead created a dreamy idyll of a wholesome rural Ireland that quickly ossified into cliché. As a result, American audiences have always preferred a heavily romanticised Ireland to the real one.
If the Irish cop was a stock figure in golden-era Hollywood cinema, the Irish gangster was his lawless counterpart. In the 1930s, James Cagney became a huge star at Warner Brothers by playing a string of colourful mobsters. Cagney, born in New York to Irish-American parents, burst into the public consciousness in The Public Enemy, playing a volatile Chicago-Irish gang leader who famously squished a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face.
In 1937, he teamed up with Humphrey Bogart to make the gangster classic, Angels with Dirty Faces. Cagney was Rocky Sullivan, a hard-as-nails crook, while Pat O'Brien was a Catholic priest who asks him to repent. O'Brien, a likeable character actor, would play Irish priests and cops in lots and lots of films.
Irish audiences were flattered and charmed by these stars with Irish names but better teeth who were flying the flag for their country in some sense at least. But these movie stereotypes ran deep, and when actual Irish actors moved to Hollywood, they were usually obliged to play caricatures as well.
Barry Fitzgerald made his name on the Abbey Stage, but just a year after his arrival in Hollywood, he was playing a stage Irishman opposite Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. It was a screwball classic, but Fitzgerald hammed it up outrageously as Aloysius Gogarty, a boozy Irish gardener who put his fists up comically whenever danger appeared, reminding one of the Notre Dame university's leprechaun logo.
Still, at least the Irish had one powerful advocate in Hollywood. Barry Fitzgerald had gone to Hollywood at John Ford's invitation, to star in his adaptation of Seán O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars (1936). One of the truly great American directors, Ford (born Jack Feeney) was deeply proud of his Irish heritage, and would end up having a significant impact on how Ireland was seen across the world.
In 1935, Ford directed The Informer, a powerful take on Liam O'Flaherty's novel set during the Irish War of Independence. But his most famous tribute to the old country came in 1952, with The Quiet Man. Crucially, he decided to bring John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara and Barry Fitzgerald to the wilds of Mayo and Connemara to give his film an authentically Irish feel.
Those stunning backdrops were just about the only authentic thing about it, and the story of an Irish-American boxer who comes to the old country to win the heart of a beautiful harpy seemed to Irish eyes like a corny cross between JM Synge and The Taming of the Shrew. But to Irish-Americans, this was Ireland exactly as they'd imagined it, and Ford's sumptuous technicolour shots of Cong and the Twelve Bens did much to encourage the rush of American tourism in the 1960s and 70s.
O'Hara was many Americans' ideal Irishwoman - proud, flame-haired, unwilling to take crap off anyone. She enjoyed a long career, but one could argue that she never quite escaped that Irish typecasting.
By the time Richard Harris arrived in Hollywood, all that cultural cap-doffing must have seemed a thing of the past, not that he'd have been inclined to do it anyway.
He made quite a name for himself in America in the late 1960s, starring in films like Camelot and A Man Called Horse. Funnily enough, though, he rarely played Irishmen, and when he did finally play one in Jim Sheridan's 1990 film The Field, the result was rather stagey.
But no one did stage-Irishness better than Hollywood. In Darby O'Gill and the Little People, a young Sean Connery did battle with mischievous leprechauns and a dodgy accent in a film that wildly traded in cultural clichés. Some American critics speak highly of it, but for Irish people it's a hard watch. As late as 1992, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were trotting out all the usual Oirish nonsense in Ron Howard's ghastly melodrama Far and Away.
American audiences, meanwhile, were somewhat bemused by the arrival of a film that reflected the existence of a very different, very modern Ireland. Irish and British audiences may have loved The Commitments, but in the US there was bemusement about these loud, scruffy, squabbling Dubliners.
Over the past two decades, a new breed of Irish actor has emerged, who seems less preoccupied by national identity. Liam Neeson, Brenda Fricker, Brendan Gleeson and latterly Colin Farrell, Michael Fassbender, Cillian Murphy, Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan have risen to the top of their profession in a very different era.
A lot of these actors don't play Irish people very often, and there are probably quite a lot of American cinemagoers who don't even realise that Saoirse Ronan is Irish. But perhaps that's the true liberty - a generation of Irish performers who are not defined by their nationality at all.