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Film / The Secret of Roan Inish

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Fiona with a seal. Or is it a Selkie?
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A 1994 fantasy film written and directed by John Sayles, adapted from the novel Child of the Western Isles by Rosalie K. Fry.

Shortly after World War 2, a girl named Fiona (Jeni Courtney) goes to live with her grandparents in an Irish fishing village. While there, Fiona pieces together the story of how her family evacuated the nearby island of Roan Inish not so long ago, how her baby brother went missing, and how one of their ancestors married a selkie. When Fiona sees her brother near the shores of Roan Inish, she must find a way to get him back.


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The Secret of Roan Inish provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Title Change: The film is based on the novel Child of the Western Isles by Rosalie K. Fry.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Fiona's father. From a modern point of view, his behavior in the opening flashback is consistent with a severe episode of depression. Given that he lost both his wife and his youngest child in a relatively short stretch of time, it's not hard to see what might have set it off.
  • Arcadia: Roan Inish itself is an Arcadia within another Arcadia.
  • Bilingual Bonus:
    • Some of the stories people tell Fiona contain dialogue in Irish. Usually, this is translated by the storyteller, but Fiona's grandfather notably does not translate what Sean Michael Coneely says to the schoolmaster when he attacks him — because it's not the sort of thing a little girl should know.
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    • There are also a few songs that contain Irish singing, which also isn't translated.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The light from the story which Fiona sees from her bedroom window. The first indication that Jamie is living on the island.
  • The City vs. the Country: The Coneelys moved from living on the rural island of Roan Inish to living in the city. Eamon hated it so much that he went to live with his grandparents who, though they had also left the island, had settled in a rural area on the coast rather than in the city like the rest of the family.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience:
    • All the Coneelys wear some form of blue, representing their selkie ancestry.
    • Only one person each generation inherits the essence of their selkie ancestor, and each of them has the same dark eyes and hair as the original selkie did, making them distinctive in the red-haired Coneely family.
  • Convenient Escape Boat: Jamie escapes from Fiona in his cradle boat.
  • Despair Event Horizon: For Fiona's father, the moment when he realizes that Jamie's cradle boat has drifted out to sea and he can't reach it in the storm, an event which, judging by the fact that Jamie is still a baby, comes close on the heels of his wife's death. He is shown in the current time sitting in a bar drinking while other family members are hard at work, and barely acknowledges Fiona's presence when she comes looking for him.
  • Disappeared Dad: Fiona's father is out of the picture for most of the film, sending his daughter to live with her grandparents.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Fiona spends a lot of the movie wandering around barefoot.
  • Downer Beginning: Fiona's flashback as she rides on the boat establishes that her mother is dead, her father is a depressed drunk, her relatives work in a dingy laundry, and she looks wan and in ill health. She's then sent away from her immediate family to live with her grandparents.
  • The Faceless: For the majority of his screen time, Fiona's father is only shown from the shoulders down.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Sean Michael was an ancestor of Grandfather's, so obviously he's going to survive the story or else Grandfather wouldn't exist.
  • Foreign Cuss Word: Sean Michael yells something obscene (at least for the time) in Irish as he attacks the teacher, though the exact translation isn't given. Grandmother even scolds Grandfather for repeating it in front of Fiona.
  • Free-Range Children:
    • Fiona and Eamon are generally allowed to go out around the various islands without adult supervision, which is what allows them to fix up the cottages without anyone knowing. However, Eamon is old enough that the trope doesn't really apply to him (particularly in the film's 1940s setting), and the grandparents are presumably trusting him to be responsible for Fiona. The one time Fiona goes out on her own (not entirely intentionally), Grandfather and Eamon understandably freak out.
    • In one of the opening flashbacks, Fiona wanders around the city alone looking for her father. However, this is specifically portrayed as an element of her father's Parental Neglect.
  • Half-Human Hybrids: Fiona's family is descended from the union of a human and a selkie.
  • Hard-Work Montage: When Eamon and Fiona fix up the houses on Roan Inish.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: A few times, notably in Tadhg's story "her Irish was queer". The film is set in the 1940s.
  • Hypocritical Humor: After Grandfather takes Fiona to bed on her first night with them, Grandmother quietly sighs about him being a "superstitious old man" (it's also not the first time she's tut-tutted about "nonsense and superstition"). Then she gets up and says a prayer to bring protection on the home for the night.
  • Magic Realism: The movie treats the existence of selkies as a commonplace part of life in 1940s Ireland.
  • Missing Mom: Fiona's mother died several years ago. It's implied she's The Lost Lenore to her father. But since she has a doting grandmother, it's less glaring.
  • Ominous Fog: On one fishing trip, Grandfather and Eamon leave Fiona behind because it's foggy and they're worried a storm is coming. When Fiona realizes she still has their lunches, she goes out in a moored boat in hopes of being able to get their attention, but when she tries to pull herself back in, she finds that something has chewed through the rope and she's adrift in a fog so thick she can barely see the water in front of her. Fortunately, the same something guides her boat safely to Roan Inish, which appears to have been the plan all along.
  • Parental Abandonment: Inverted. Eamon abandoned his parents who moved to the city.
  • Parental Neglect: In one of the flashbacks in the opening montage, we see that Fiona's father spends his days at the pub and barely pays attention to Fiona even when she's standing right next to him.
  • Raised by Grandparents: Fiona and Eamon have left their parents to live with their grandparents — Fiona because her father was neglectful, Eamon because he felt more suited to a country life than a city life.
  • Raised by Wolves: Jamie was taken by the seals from a young age and raised by them.
  • Really 700 Years Old: It's mentioned Nula, the selkie, speaks archaic Irish.

  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The original book was set in Scotland, but the film was set in Ireland for budgetary reasons. Selkies are traditionally Scottish creatures and the Irish equivalent is a Merrow — but there has been some overlap between the cultures, making this less glaring.

  • Scenery Porn: An inordinate amount of time is just spent on watching Fiona run around around the countryside.
  • Separate Scene Storytelling: The scenes illustrating the story of Sean Michael, and Tadgh's selkie story, count as this. Grandfather's story about Jamie's loss at sea is a Flashback.
  • Sole Survivor: Several generations back, a full two generations of Coneely men were out at sea fishing when they were caught in a fierce storm that destroyed all four of their fishing boats. Most of them died, but teenager Sean Michael was found just barely alive on a beach the morning after the storm, and the locals were able to revive him. After regaining consciousness, Sean Michael told them that a seal dragged him to shore, saving him from drowning with the rest of his family.
  • Supernatural-Proof Father: Gender Flipped at first with Grandmother stopping Grandfather from telling Fiona stories and going on about "stuff and nonsense". Played straight when Grandmother believes Fiona straight away when she tells her about Jamie, while Grandfather is in denial.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: The selkie, though she can't change shape without her seal skin.
  • Walking Shirtless Scene: Jamie (even though he's five years old). He doesn't actually put on clothes during any of his scenes.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After Fiona goes to visit her grandparents, her father is never seen again and isn't even mentioned at the end. You'd think the family would let him know his son has been rescued and they're living back on the island.

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