If you grew up in the early to mid-90s, it’s safe to say you were deeply affected by one, if not all, of the following: 1993’s The Secret Garden, 1994’s The Pagemaster, 1995’s The Indian in the Cupboard, and 1996’s Matilda. Alongside the lingering effects of films such as Labyrinth and The Neverending Story, the last decade of the 20th century was filled with childlike wonder and films that bridged the gap between real-world limitations and fantasy, all focusing on the power children can possess. Creating strong ties between nature, exploration, imagination, and curiosity, these films all inspired the last pre-social-media generation to get out and discover their own fantasy worlds. Speaking as a member of that generation, it was a pretty good childhood.
Despite the popularity of the aforementioned films, there was no other film that spoke to this sense of adventure, intrigue, and nostalgia in my household better than 1994’s The Secret of Roan Inish. It had been well over a decade, maybe two, since I had returned to Roan Inish, and I (alongside my husband, who had never seen it) was long overdue for a rewatch. Growing up in a family that sports an Irish surname, albeit a few generations removed, my mom, siblings, and I would watch The Secret of Roan Inish constantly on repeat during the 90s. Recently taking the time to revisit Roan Inish reminded me of a bygone era less saturated with streaming services and content and (here’s the nostalgia talking) it eased my mind as it took me to a time where I saw the world for possibility and not for what it would come to lack. On a more positive note, however, Roan Inish reminded me of the folklore I loved in my childhood and how it magically made me feel closer to my distant Irish heritage, not to mention, how watching the film itself became a beloved tradition in the threads of my own personal, immediate heritage.
So, this St. Patrick’s Day, I hope to pique your interest in the little-known gem, The Secret of Roan Inish. Holding strong on Rotten Tomatoes with a 96% Tomatometer and an 87% Audience Score, I have yet to meet someone outside of my family who has seen this film. Let me tell you why you should.
John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish opens in 1946 in the aftermath of a series of family tragedies. Our protagonist, young Fiona (a delightful Jeni Courtney in one of her only three film acting roles), is being shipped off to stay with her grandparents in Donegal Town, due to her father’s lack of ability to care for her. In a series of flashbacks, we find out why Fiona’s father, Jimmy, has sunken into this state; before their entire family was evacuated from their generational home on Roan Inish during WWII, Fiona’s mother passed away, and then later, during the evacuation, their youngest son (in his ship-like cradle, resting on the beach) was taken out to sea during an unexpected tide, never to be seen again. Needless to say, Jimmy is well in his cups, so Fiona must go elsewhere, for her sake and for his.
Once living with her grandparents, Hugh and Tess (a wonderful Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan), Fiona slowly learns more and more about her family history. She learns, from Hugh, the story of a distant grandfather who held onto his Gaelic dialect in the face of English suppressors. She learns more about fishing and boat care from her grandfather and her cousin Eamon (a great scene partner for Fiona played by Richard Sheridan), who accompanies Hugh on his fishing trips. But, most importantly of all, she learns from a distant cousin, Tadhg, about the legacy of the “dark ones” in their family. Legend has it that a member of their clan, generations ago, took a mysterious wife on Roan Inish. He went out to sea alone and came back with a beautiful woman, one he beguiled by stealing her skin, the skin of the selkie. The woman, Nula, stayed with her husband, Tim, and together they happily raised their brood. But Nula always ached for the sea, and one day, when her eldest asked why their father kept a leather coat hidden in the roof, Nula knew she must return. Generations later, Fiona’s family still occasionally birthed a descendant of Nula, known as a “dark one.” Jamie, her brother lost to the sea during the evacuation, has been rumored to be a true descendent of Nula, one of the generational “dark ones.”
During her trips to Roan Inish (for Fiona begs to spend time on the island while her grandfather and cousin are fishing), she begins to see signs that Jamie might still be alive after all these years, living side by side with the seals. A fire just finished and still warm, an assortment of tools laid out on a table in one of the abandoned homes, footprints on the beach..and then an actual sighting! Similarly to the other fantasy films of the era, The Secret of Roan Inish never doubts young Fiona; what she’s seeing is the truth. So, she and Eamon hatch a plan to fix up the familial homes on Roan Inish in order to lure the grandparents back to the island and to finally be reunited with Jamie. But, will Fiona and Eamon’s plan work?
It’s here I leave you with the tale of Roan Inish, but I promise there’s much more to be seen. The beauty in The Secret of Roan Inish is that the folklore is deftly woven into the story like a tapestry, inseparable from the “reality” of Irish life (and the film still feels remarkably fresh and spry after nearly 30 years). Adapted from a Scottish story, Roan Inish was originally called Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry by Rosalie K. Fry, but the story mainly remains the same as the selkie folklore, one of Celtic and Norse mythology, and could easily be adapted for an Irish setting. The Secret of Roan Inish may be my favorite selkie movie, but the mythology was also beautifully spotlighted in Cartoon Saloon’s 2014 Song of the Sea, as part of Tomm Moore’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy,” sandwiched sequentially between the equally great The Secret of Kells and Wolfwalkers. Additionally, the selkie mythology was given a more “adult” treatment in 2009’s Ondine (starring resident Irish cutie Colin Farrell), which I will now be watching as it had not previously been on my radar. It’s a good time to be a selkie fan.
Returning to Roan Inish brought me great joy this St. Patrick’s Day season, and I hope it does the same for you. With films like Leprechaun and The Luck of the Irish, there’s truly an Irish film for everyone, but I think the most special ones are those that bring you back to your family and those warm memories of yesteryear: an earlier time when wonder and luck felt vibrant, within reach, and just outside your front door. We’ve been blessed with some quality Irish films in the past few years (2015’s Brooklyn and 2022’s The Banshees of Inisherin, to name a few), and I hope they keep on coming. But sometimes it feels good to go home, back to Roan Inish.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day: Éirinn go Brách.
The Secret of Roan Inish is available to stream on AmazonPrime and Mason Daring’s excellent soundtrack can be found on Spotify.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.