Rugby Ain’t for everyone, but Coming of Age is retrospective

A Handsome Devil retrospective

While the summer is always huge for sport in Ireland, this week alone saw Dublin host the Europa League final, congratulations to Italian club Atlanta, and the Champions Cup rugby final will see Irish side Leinster attempt to tie the record for most wins in that competition. Sport and its relationship with our society is an integral part of our culture, and as such, it is reflected in our films. 

Sport, in theory, should be for everyone, a universal language that allows us to meet people and share a common hobby. However, as the coming-of-age film Handsome Devil (John Butler 2017) explores, this is not always the case. Sport can often become entangled with our gender expectations, as Butler recounts in an interview with the Irish Times. 

“I went to a fee-paying, rugby-playing school in south Dublin in the 1980s. I was gay and I was into sport. I had such trouble resolving those two things as a kid.” (Mullally 2017)


The film itself follows Ned Roche (Fionn O’Shea), a musically inclined teenager at an all-boys school where all worship at the altar of rugby, and he is the subject of homophobic bullying. The school seems hellish for Ned until he finds an unlikely ally in the school’s new star out-half, Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), who was kicked out of his previous school for fighting—the two bond over their shared love of music. People connect over different things, and that is not wholly determined by their gender, nor should it be.

Critics praised the film’s thematic focus on gendered expectations and homophobia. TN2 Magazine’s Robynn Mitchell wrote:

“What makes this film so appealing is the mixture of humour and light hearted moments, whilst thoughtfully tackling issues such as homophobia, toxic masculinity and confining expectations.” (Mitchell 2017)

The focus on the theme of masculinity is common in Butler’s oeuvre. The Irish Times’ Donald Clarke identified an ‘all-male environment’ as a standard feature between Handsome Devil and Butler’s first feature, The Stag (2010). However, it is still early days for Butler, with only three directorial credits for feature films released as of writing. 

The film came off the back of a run of hit Irish coming-of-age films such as Young Offenders, Sing Street, My Name is Emily, and A Date for Mad Mary. As RTÉ’s Harry Guerin styled it:

“Five class coming-of-age movies in a row – Irish cinema really has done a lot of growing up in the past year.” (Guerin 2017)

Within that genre, some found it formulaic, such as Empire’s Ian Freer, who called it “predictable, coy but still eminently likable and engaging” (Freer 2017). What Handsome Devil really was was more than the sum of its parts. Part of this was the stellar cast. Andrew Scott of Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge 2016-2019) and Sherlock (Gatiss & Moffat 2010-2017), fame as the Keating-esque teacher, and Fionn O’Shea of Normal People (Various 2020) and Dating Amber (Freyne 2020) in the lead role, were stand-outs. In addition, much praise was awarded to Nicholas Galitzine’s Irish accent. 

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Ultimately, though, it was the cultural moment; as I stated previously, Handsome Devil followed on the heels of a raft of coming-of-age Irish films. Yes, we had seen high school dramas, jocks, and all of the tropes, but all in an American context. Finally, it felt like Irish teenage life was depicted on screen. As Guerin wrote:

“Butler and co play the Yanks at their own game, win and inspire viewers to bring a bit more empathy to their own lives.” (Guerin 2017)

Butler was tapping into his experience of being a gay teen in a rugby-obsessed private school in 1980s Ireland and processing that through the forbidden teen drama genre.

Regarding Rugby adjacent media, if you want something triumphant, watch Invictus (Eastwood). If you want a bit more romance, watch Heartstopper (Oseman 2022-) (emphasis on adjacent). Still, Handsome Devil is an exploration of masculinity and a critique of homophobia in posh Dublin schools. It is rooted in a particular place and time and is rooted in Butler’s personal experience.

Children’s Literature

Samuel Hayes