By Tab Olsen
Watching these movies around St. Patrick’s Day has become a tradition in our family. The first two, The Secret of Roan Inish and The Quiet Man, were filmed on location in northern Ireland.
The Secret of Roan Inish
The Secret of Roan Inish is an enchanting tale based on an ancient Irish legend about a boy raised by seals. The name “Roan Inish” is Gaelic for “Island of the Seals.” Based on a 1959 novel by Rosalie Fry titled “Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry,” The Secret of Roan Inish tells the story of a young girl, Fiona, whose mother dies so she is sent to live with her grandparents in the years immediately after WWII. I won’t give away the plot, but while exploring a nearby abandoned island she uncovers a mystery that holds special significance for her family. This independent film was skillfully shot with beautiful windswept coastal scenery, lilting Celtic soundtrack, and real Irish actors. One thing that really inspired me was the work ethic of the two young characters! The Secret of Roan Inish is a wonderful family film for all ages. Buy at Amazon.
The Quiet Man
The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne, was filmed in 1952 by the famous director John Ford (whose birth name was Sean Aloysius O’Fearna). This classic film was a departure for Wayne and Ford, who were best known for Westerns. The entertaining 2-hour movie takes place in the lovely Irish countryside. The movie is a serious drama interspersed with many comedic moments. It has plenty of romance for the girls and action for the guys. (Including “one of the longest and most memorable knock-down, drag-out fights” ever choreographed on film!) Although personally I think the characters spend a little too much time in the local pub, I like how they demonstrate the proper Irish way of courtship – obtaining the family’s permission first, making an official announcement, and having a chaperone along at all times. It’s also interesting to see the amicable relationship portrayed between the local Roman Catholic church and Protestant church. Incidentally, John Wayne was of Irish and Scots-Irish descent. His red-headed co-star, Maureen O’Hara, was born in Dublin, Ireland. Buy at Amazon.
In both of the above movies, whenever a guest enters someone’s home they say “May God bless all in this house.” I wonder if that’s an Irish custom? If so, it’s a good one!
Now here is an animated Saint Patrick’s Day movie that’s in a class by itself:
The Secret of Kells
“I have seen the book … that turned darkness into light.”
These are some of the opening words spoken as a voice-over at the beginning of Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells, which began development in 1999 and was released in 2009.
This movie is not your typical animated film. It is a beautifully illuminated work of art in which Christianity and Celtic mythology come together in a kaleidoscope of color and exquisite detail that dazzle the eyes in an enchanting tale about the power of imagination and faith.
The Secret of Kells gives a fictionalized account of the creation of the Book of Kells, an extravagantly decorated illuminated manuscript containing the four Gospels of the New Testament. The setting is a monastery in 8th-century Ireland, where young Brendan has lived since Vikings killed his parents. Brendan is apprenticed in the scriptorium, the place where the copying and illuminating is done by the monks. One day Brother Aidan arrives and introduces Brendan to an important manuscript.
Aidan sends Brendan outside the monastery walls to obtain gall nuts for making ink. While there, Brendan gets lost and meets a forest fairy named Aisling. With her help, Brendan defeats the pagan god Crom Cruach and works to get the manuscript completed. But then Vikings invade and their leader takes the book’s bejeweled cover and scatters the pages. Before the Vikings can destroy Brendan and Aidan, Aisling’s black wolves attack the Vikings. Brendan and Aidan travel across Ireland and complete the book. The film closes with an animation of the illuminated pages. (The Vikings were portrayed as such monsters, it would have been nice if an epilogue stated that by 1000 AD most of the Vikings had converted to Christianity, making it clear that Christianity triumphed in the end.)
As it is, the story can be viewed from several different angles. On one hand, it’s about medieval Christian scholars courageously dedicated to preserving knowledge, creating books, and demonstrating reverence for God’s words through painstaking arts. (Although the movie focused more on the artistry and we never actually hear the Gospel.) On the other hand it’s a hero quest that takes place in a magical childhood world of fairies and demons. (There are some very scary scenes, so The Secret of Kells is not recommended for young children.) In addition, the movie is a visual homage to Ireland’s history, a coming-of-age story, and a parable about Christianity overtaking Celtic paganism in Ireland.
The Christian context is not as obvious as it could be, and there are Celtic pagan undercurrents in the film, but it’s not an attempt to reassert paganism over and above Christianity. Rather, in the spirit of C.S. Lewis who spoke about “shards of God’s truth” being found throughout creation, we see Celtic and Christian elements combined in brilliant ways. For example, there is the symbol of the infinite God in the unending Celtic knotwork, and the Trinity as seen in the shamrock and trefoil design. Saint Patrick himself used Celtic symbols to teach the people about Christian concepts, such as placing the cross of Jesus inside the Celtic circle of life.
As much as The Secret of Kells story is captivating, the decorative details are what keep you riveted to the screen. It’s like you’re peering into a painting rather than watching a movie. Some of the action scenes are framed as though moving on the pages of a book, or through a triptych (three paneled picture). The richly embellished animation is a breath of fresh air from the typical Hollywood style of today. Some critics have compared The Secret of Kells to Hayao Miyazaki’s works such as Princess Mononoke. Filmmaker Tomm Moore was indeed inspired by Hayao Miyazaki, who based his visual style on traditional Japanese art and mythology. Moore decided to do something similar but with Irish myths and art.
The Secret of Kells is full of quirky humor and themes of friendship, courage, danger, struggle, and light overcoming darkness. Along the way you will be treated to Celtic music and Medieval Latin hymns. This movie with its Irish setting and Celtic design is a great way to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day while learning a little bit about Vikings, monasteries, and illuminated manuscripts. It may even inspire some artistic viewers to create their own illuminated manuscript! The imagery in The Secret of Kells is so spellbinding, you will want to watch it again and again. Buy the DVD/ Blu-Ray at Amazon.
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I also loved the movie The Secret of Roan Inish. What I did find a little jarring was that the movie had switched the location of the story from the original west coast of Scotland to the west coast of Ireland, and renamed many of the characters. Never could quite figure out why, unless it was because a lot of the financing for the movie was from Irish sources. While the movie sets the date of the story as being in the late 1940s, the book gives no date at all, but the evacuation of Ron Mor at the beginning of the book is very obviously based on the historical evacuation of St. Kilda, which took place in 1930. The book was originally published in the U.K. under the name Child of the Western Isles, and then released in the U.S. as The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry. Both the English and American editions are very hard to find now, and tend to be expensive. I am fortunate enough to own a beautiful first edition copy of Child of the Western Isles.