The Secret of Roan Inish: a gem from the past

Jeni Courtney in The Secret of Roan Inish

The Secret of Roan Inish, an Irish tale about magic and mythology, is a 1994 gem that resurfaced on Prime Video recently. I remember how thrilled I was by it in 1994 and watched it again. There are spoilers in this review.

When I saw The Secret of Roan Inish the first time I went to the theater with a group of women I met with once a week to discuss each chapter in Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (affiliate link). I was so embued with the stories from the book that I saw them in every frame of The Secret of Roan Inish. Watching it 25 years later with fresh eyes, I saw the Irish magic, the Irish way with a story, and the Irish mythology as something beautiful and worth cherishing for that alone.

Eileen Colgan and Jeni Courtney in The Secret of Roan Inish

Young Fiona (Jeni Courtney) lives in the city with her father. He was always in the pub. Fiona is sent back to her grandparents (Eileen Colgan and Mick Lally). They are living in a small fishing village. Across the bay is the island of Roan Inish where all the family lived before Fiona’s baby brother Jamie floated off to sea in his cradle.

Mick Lally in The Secret of Roan Inish

The Irish storyteller lives in everyone around Fiona. She hears tales about her past and her family’s past. Some come from her grandfather. But the really interesting stories are from the townspeople and her younger relatives. They tell stories about how some of her family were born from selkies. A selkie is a seal who has shed its skin and taken on a female form. If the woman returns to her seal skin, she returns to the sea.

Susan Lynch in The Secret of Roan Inish

A stunning young Susan Lynch in her film debut plays the selkie. When she emerges from her skin, her future husband steals the skin and hides it. They marry and have many babies. When her children tell her where her skin is hidden, she reenters the sea.

Little Jamie in his cradle

Fiona also hears stories about her little brother Jamie being alive and floating about accompanied by seals, still in his cradle.

A seal watching Fiona in The Secret of Roan Inish

A particular seal, and numerous seagulls, seem to be guiding Fiona to the island of Roan Inish. There, she sees Jamie for herself. He runs away. When she talks to her cousin Tadhg (John Lynch) about it, he tells her Jamie’s “…not lost… he’s just with another branch of the family.”

Fiona determines that if the derelict houses on Roan Inish were refurbished and the family moved back to the island, Jamie would be returned to them.

Fiona and her cousin Eamon (Richard Sheridan) work in secret to make the homes livable again. When her grandmother finally hears that Fiona has seen Jamie on the island, she takes the family across the bay to their old home.

My description of the story doesn’t convey the magic and beauty of this lovely film. Everything about it is delicately and beautifully done. The Irish flute playing behind the melodious Irish accents from the actors created a nostalgic storytellering dreamscape.

For many years after first seeing it, I told people the director John Sayles was my favorite director. (He’s made several other good films, too.) I’m all about women directors these days, but John Sayles made a perfect film for women with this bit of mythology and magic.

I recommend you take advantage of it being on Prime Video right now and give it a watch.

Poster for The Secret of Roan Inish

Here’s the trailer. These old trailers are such a blast from the past. The movie itself does not feel so dated. It’s been restored so the sound in the film is better than in the trailer.

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