My favorite holiday is upon us. ST. PATRICK’S DAY. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a nut for Christmas like nobody’s business. Mainly because of the songs, old TV specials and films. Furthermore, I’m truly a nut because for me, I could sing those holiday songs all year long (…the very opposite reaction for most folks.) But I’ve always felt St. Patrick’s Day was MY holiday. That is to say, my people.
All you have to do is look at my twitter handle and know that I take my Irish heritage VERY SERIOUSLY. Growing up, THE QUIET MAN was always our ‘instruction manual’ on what it means to be Irish, via the breathtakingly beautiful, big screen romance of John Ford, which was further spun into legend by stories from my Irish family. Years later, it was actually my Finnish husband that introduced me to my other beloved film of Ireland, John Sayles’ THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH (1995).
For folks who do not reign from the Emerald Isle, you may have a stereotype in your head of the Irish and how a film that tackles that subject should be. Oh you know, wee little men, dancing a jig and drunk all the time. But if you’re truly of the Irish way, you may be familiar with a lesser-known mythology, of the selkie. It took an American filmmaker to bring the legend of this celtic mythical creature of a half-human/half-seal to the big screen in this incredibly beautiful romance of Erie.
It’s unknown exactly how far back the selkie (sometimes spelled silkie, or selchie) folklore dates. There have been similar legends originating in Iceland, Orkney Islands and Scotland. But the most defined and lasting tales of this shape-shifting sea faery come from Ireland and the county of Donegal. (Donegal is where my maternal ancestors and current, albeit distant, cousins still reside in the O’Donnell homestead.) It’s sparsely populated area on the western Irish coastline and as such, the good people have made their living and lifestyles based on the cold, harsh waters of the sea. A sea that gives as much as it takes.
While in the water, the selkie keeps its form as a seal with sweet and kind, human-like eyes. The creature can rest on the rocks or beach and occasionally sheds its skin, turning into a strikingly handsome man or beautiful woman. For the male, it’s said they make unfit husbands because while they are highly skilled and willing lovers, they can be a tad mean-spirited. Imagine a ‘Don Draper,’ of sorts.
As for the female, the description gets much more specific. Like her male counterpart, she is a ‘dark one.’ Unlike the many blondes and red-heads that can be found in Ireland, a selkie is a true ‘black Irish’ with hair so dark it is almost black, generally in long, wavy, full curls, skin more akin to porcelain, and striking dark eyes. If a mortal should capture her and hide her coat, she is unable to return to the sea. It’s said that the desire for a man to do so is because female selkies make very good wives and mothers. To a point. If she should ever find her seal coat, her instinct to return to the sea is overwhelming and immediate.
In Sayles’ narrative on the selkie legend, he adapted the screenplay from a 1957 children’s book (The Secret Of Ron Mor Skerry) written by Rosalie K. Fry. But then from a child’s tale, he created something completely marvelous. The story is generally seen from the inquisitive and resilient eyes of 10 year old Fiona Coneely (Jeni Courtney). It’s determined in a pub, suggested by the barkeep herself, that she should go live with her grandparents. Her mother has died. And her father’s only path away from drinking all his grief is to take a job in Scotland.
Her grandparents, Hugh (Mick Lally) and Tess (Eileen Colgan), are an entertaining couple of characters. He shares too much, as Fiona hangs on to every word, and grandmother tries her best to keep him in check. Meanwhile the grandfather continues to share tales of their ancestors that seem to carry the selkie bloodline. Fiona’s grandparents live in a small coastal town in Donegal where there are only a handful remain of the Coneely clan; due to the war or, like Fiona’s dad, have moved on to bigger towns to look for better work. Originally the Coneely family lived on a nearby island, Roan Inish, that has since been abandoned.
We discover from Hugh’s conversations with Fiona, that Fiona’s mother was a poor and wistful soul when her parents met. Grandmother Tess describes her with thoughtful pity and a vague mystery to her past. Although she recalls few details, Fiona also had a raven-haired baby brother Jamie (Cillian Byrne) that was lost at sea just a few years earlier. When Jamie was born, Fiona’s mother insisted the baby crib be constructed from special lumber from a ship and decorated it with sea shells. Baby Jamie is only consoled when rocked in the gentle waves of the shallow waters of the sea, in his buoyant crib. There’s an intense and moving scene in this flashback as all the grown-ups are distracted by attacking gulls and the tide rises to carry Jamie out to sea in his sea-worthy crib. Jamie’s father and others desperately give chase; just as a violent storm erupts and pushes against their progress, and simultaneously speeds Jamie’s crib out to the open sea.
Fiona is surprisingly pragmatic and adaptive in this new world. We don’t see her grieve, instead she clings to the stories as she bonds deeper with her extended family. This includes her teen cousin Eamon that is a willing partner in adventure-seeking and then another cousin, Tadhg, who is introduced as ‘one of the dark ones’ with a mysterious affinity to the sea. He has a quick-to-ill-tempered edge when his co-workers tease him but he has an immediate connection to Fiona. She’s hungry to hear his insight of the selkie ancestral bloodline.
He reveals the tale of their ancestors, Liam and Nuala. Liam discovered her just as she sheds her seal skin, whereby he steals and hides her coat. Years go by and they’re happily married with several children, until she stumbles upon her hidden seal skin. She returns to the sea. Since then, Tadhg implies, all Coneely family members with similar black Irish appearance, show signs of the Selkie ancestry.
I won’t spoil the rest so you can experience the joy of this film for yourself by telling you what fearless Fiona discovers as she and her older cousin Eamon explore multiple excursions to the island of Roan Inish. But I can assure you that this film is a magical journey of music, beautiful visual artistry and a compelling layering of narratives.
There’s a common thread amongst Irish that Sayles captures well in THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH. We’re an oddly melancholic sort. We honor our past and our mortality A LOT. We’re not as fearful of death as we should be, because it seems our close relationship with tragedy has created an iron-strong survival need to romanticize our tragedies. Perhaps our surprising ability to survive, despite centuries of poverty and being invaded by pretty much everyone, is found in how we’ve learned to surf those storms. We don’t just brood about death or tragedy, we also write poems and songs about it. Our funerals are called wakes where we party and dance in a bar, celebrating the grand life of our departed. We make storytelling an art, including creating the most enchanting mythical characters.
The characters in “ROAN INISH” don’t keep their secrets for long. They share stories because that’s how they connect their present to their past, their children and children’s children to their ancestors.
So I’m grateful to my husband for introducing me to this beautiful film that I have developed a very deep and emotional connection whenever watching it. He is too. Because he’s convinced he’s captured a selkie and doesn’t plan on me finding my seal coat anytime soon.