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The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Why the film is worth your time

The legends, mystery, and characters in The Secret of Roan Inish beautifully embody our innate longing for home and how we deal with that longing. The Irish waterscape and the life within it becomes a character, being both lovely and treacherous, passive and with its own active agenda.

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

How the film enriched and changed me

After seeing The Secret of Roan Inish, I sat back and wondered how often I, like Tess (the grandmother), repress my longing for home. I wondered how often I, like Fiona’s father, opt for the easier and practical rather than for the harder and more beautiful. I wanted to know where my “home” is — which I place in quotes because it strikes me that the idea of home is more than an idea about a place. I wanted to live more authentically and more truly to the story, to the home, I was made to be in.

I was struck by the power of story and storytelling in the film. Multiple characters contribute to the multiple stories in the film. The direct storytelling would, at first glance, seem to run counter to the “show don’t tell” filmmaking principle. In Sayles directorial hands, though, the stories take on magic to the point that, for me, I wanted to hear more stories in the film. I wanted to live a story and to know my story. Perhaps home can be a story, not a place, and we are at home wherever we are if we are living in our true story, or at least a true story.

Hugh and Tess, Fiona’s grandparents, make a crisp point-counterpoint between longing for home (Roan Inish, Irish for “Island of the Seals”) through the stories of home (Hugh) versus suppression and denial of the longing for home (Tess). Tess is a wonderfully caring and protective grandmother, fearful that, should Hugh awaken a longing for home in Fiona, the girl will be led astray into foolish, potentially hurtful, dreams and distractions. But Tess is protecting not only Fiona, she is protecting her own heart as well. She is resigned to her life away from home, at least to a degree. To protect herself, she plays sour grapes with Roan Inish, talking up its struggles and its pains, ignoring the beauty and the draw that the island still holds on her heart — its hold on her becomes evident later in her quick turn of heart for going back to the island. Hugh keeps his longing alive, if not his hope, and to his peril. His joy is evident as he tells Fiona the family story. Although he gives Fiona the gift of story and the gift of home, his own longings prove risky. When even his temporary home is to be pulled away from him, Hugh suffers a downward spiral as he feels deeply the loss of home. He doesn’t even notice when Fiona calls to him from five feet away. Had he not taken the risk of maintaining his heart's connection to home, had he resigned himself to the view that home was lost, he would have suffered less when he learned his surrogate home was to be taken.

Fiona's trajectory through the film takes her from lost and out of place, to an awakening to the idea of home, to an active quest for home, then finally to rebuilding and returning to home, leading others back to home in the process. As her elders discuss her future in the pub, I feel Fiona's disconnectedness as she slowly walks by the pub's patrons and then stands without emotion. Shortly after she arrives beside her father, her future is decided for her, and it's sealed with a lemon squash (lemonade in the USA) — a bittersweet drink. She might have begun to take root at her grandparents' place but, on her first day there, Hugh and Eamon draw her into an attraction to Roan Inish. Then that night, Hugh embellishes with a story of Roan Inish as a truer home with deeper roots than where they are now — pulling together notions of the sea and seals, of heaven, and the island. In her joy of seeing Roan Inish on the first try and of seeing the light on Roan Inish later that night, I felt her move from the disconnectedness of the factory and the pub to the beginning of a life of the heart, wherein she knows she has a home, even if she can't be there. Her longing drives her thoughts and actions as she wants to touch home, to hear more stories about it, to enter into its mysteries. Chief among the mysteries of Roan Inish are how the sea stole Jamie, and so Fiona's longing for home mixes with a longing for kinship and to know her family's history. Then there are mysterious dark ones in the family tree. Home becomes a mix of story and place and people and legend, and the sense of home grows stronger as Fiona enlists Eamon in her search for home.

In helping Fiona, Eamon risks Tess's significant displeasure, should Tess learn of it. Tess's self-protection, her heart's caution at holding on to her love for home, becomes a vortex that sucks in others' talk of home. Hugh tells as much story as he can, right up to the point of Tess's tolerance. Eamon realizes right away, after Tess's sharp cut-off, that he would cross a line to tell Fiona certain things that would strengthen her curiosity about home. Fiona learns to keep her pursuit of home out of Tess's earshot. I felt Tess's pain and the risk we take with our hearts when we love — and especially when we continue to love something we've lost. With the strength of Tess's protection, she needn't even tell Hugh from taking Fiona out on a foggy day, which allows the story itself to come alive and take over. Our pursuit of home is not entirely within our control.

As Fiona's pursuit of home continues, she finds glimpses of the life found at home. She finds the fresh greens and feels the warm fire in the house. She sees the small footprints in the sand. Tadhg's story of the Selkie adds an even deeper sense of mystery to the idea of home, as the stories get more strange and other-worldy. Fiona learns that the dark ones in the family represent a deep tie to nature and the land and the sea. She sees Jamie running in the field. In her pursuit, her heart becomes more deeply knitted to the idea of home. Eventually, when the way forward is blinded by the foggy day, the story itself takes over and directs Fiona's path for her. She receives her most profound sighting of home as Jamie plays a game with a seal. The impact propels Fiona to action. Home is no longer merely a place to yearn for, it becomes a place to actively rebuild. She enlists Eamon, and the two take even greater risks as they rebuild home. As I watched, I began to feel the path toward home not merely as musings of the heart, but as something that requires me to actively rebuild what has decayed.

Finally, the situation comes to a head. Home is now so real to Fiona that, when the storm threatens her family — she can't bear to think of Jamie bearing it alone — Tess's suppressing influence is broken. Fiona blurts out her concern. Hugh thinks that Tess's silent and seemingly stern turn toward the house means that there will be consequences. He seems sure that Tess will be on about all the stories and legends and misleading a young girl's heart, but it turns out to be just the opposite. Tess's spell has been broken. Fiona's rebuilding of home has expanded to Tess's heart. Tess's love for home was only dormant, not dead, and the confluence of the presence of life in Fiona, losing their temporary home, the storm, and Fiona's breakthrough make a sudden turn in Tess. Finally she can admit, "I knew [Jamie] wasn't gone from us...I felt it all along." She gives up caution and suppression and lets her love flow fully again. A grandmother's first priority is to tend to the practical needs of her family, and she's immediately on to pulling together provisions for Jamie. As my own protective spells break, what might I do to break the spells of those around me that have wandered from home?

Reunited on Roan Inish, even before they find Jamie, Hugh and (especially) Tess interact differently with Fiona, the little one who was their guide home. Now Tess accepts Fiona's talking of Nuala's legend, and Hugh seems to believe her that Jamie brought in the whale bone. The family — or at least a core of it — reenters their true story. They are people of the island and of the sea. They are simple in their ways, unlike the complexities of the city and the factory. There is a unity between place and family and nature and story. I felt life return to them, summed up in Hugh's words as he looks to the houses, "Look what they've done." Fiona, with Eamon's encouragement and help, has brought them home.

Am I home? What strange occurrences are rightfully part of my story? How do I suppress my love for home beneath the practicalities of everyday life? Do I have the courage to even look for home, much less the fortitude to try to rebuild it should I find where it lies? I don't know, but I feel a bit stronger for the journey having seen The Secret of Roan Inish.

  • Roan Inish is a place where, from across the water at Fiona's grandparents' place, you can see it only if you have eyes to see it — you must have a heart for home.
  • The way that, as the reverberating voices in the pub tell Fiona's father that this is no place to raise a girl, the camera stays on Fiona, showing no (significant) adult faces, not even her father's. The adult world swirls around the child and sweeps her away in its concerns and its plans; her life is carried by the wind, by fate as it were.
  • In the film's multiple stories, the way that the voice-overs and the video are blended wonderfully in framing and pacing, adding depth and life to the stories while maintaining their character as stories.
  • Tess's explanation of why they moved off of Roan Inish: It started with restlessness among some of the men, then took opportunity when the war created jobs in the city, then they got the "taste of the city in their blood" and they were hooked; as Fiona's father had said, he was "never going back to the island. That's done."
  • Tadhg's story of Liam and Nuala, the Selkie, and the way it takes Fiona even a level deeper than Hugh understands the story of home.
  • During Tadhg's tale, the still, standing positions of the people watching Nuala, first as she arrives to Roan Inish, then as she rocks her first-born on the water for the first time — it clearly and starkly brought in the eyes of the community watching, probably in wonder, certainly in gossip and "wagging" tongues.
  • Tadhg catching a fish with his bare hand: He retains not only his heart's tie to home, but also the deep intertwining of humanity and nature alive in the story.
  • Tess's characterization of Tadhg as "caught between earth and water" when really the case is that Tadhg blends earth and water (island and sea) — we often see a dichotomy where the truer case is that more than one thing exists simultaneously intertwined.
  • Nuala's summoning to Fiona in Fiona's dream — a call back to home.
  • The rebuilding sequence, the extended screen time given to it, smiles shared between Fiona and Eamon (especially when they notice the seals watching), and the music that covers it — it paints the rebuilding process with its own beauty, when we might see it as a painful chore.
  • The sequence where, with the storm coming, Fiona tells Tess that she fears for Jamie, setting off tense moments followed by Tess's surprise turn — maybe sometimes what we really need is someone just to tell us straight out what we already believe deep down.
  • The seals chasing Jamie back to his family: The seals, representing the home that would call them back, never wanted to separate the family, only to bring the family back into its true story.
  • The landscape. The sea. The sky.
  • The music, particularly the Irish flute setting the tone at the film's opening.
  • The timing of when the flute from the film's opening comes back in: When Fiona is on the boat to her grandparent's and the frame first shows Jax, watching and waiting for Fiona's return, then standing up for a closer look at Fiona.
  • Many little bits of dialog and interaction:
    • When Fiona asks why they had to leave Roan Inish, the film includes a quick shot of Hugh turning his head toward Tess: It seemed to me that Hugh didn't understand why, he needed Tess to explain.
    • Tess's summary of why they can't move back: "There isn't a thing out there for us but sad memories." — it captures well her sour grapes perspective.
    • Tess's characterization of Hugh's and Eamon's love for the sea: "Love of the sea is a sickness, and you two will come to grief for it." — more of Tess's sour grapes.
    • After Tess has cut short Eamon's telling more of Roan Inish, telling him she'll "not have nonsense and superstition in my house," there is a quick sequence where Hugh motions to Eamon, apparently that he should respect Tess's notion to be careful what he says, then Tess glances up with a slight pause from pouring tea, seeing Fiona back at the window looking at Roan Inish — the sequence strengthens the tension between Tess's reserve and Fiona's newly awakened longing for home.
    • After Eamon tells Fiona of the seal king that might take an island girl "below to live as his queen," and she says, "that's just stories," Eamon says, "Some stories is true, though." — the film draws a line that Fiona must discern, and we too, throughout our lives.
    • The compression of story between Fiona asking Hugh if she can go out on the boat and Hugh saying it must be a fair day and they must ask Tess, then to Fiona waking, going to the window and saying, "Grandmother!", and then to the Fiona, Eamon, and Hugh on the boat.
    • When Fiona describes that the cottages on Roan Inish are not in such bad shape, Tess seems to not hear, she just continues on describing how deteriorated they must be.
    • Fiona says that it's not fair that the landlord is making them move, and Tess says, "It's the times." — "progress" is one of the things that pushes us from home, if we let it.

Screenshots and dialog copyright © 1994 by the filmmakers.

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