Return to the Ocean – Ondine and The Secret of Roan Inish
by Mina Kelly
It’s no secret that selkies are one of my favourite mythological creatures. Heck, my debut novella is a selkie romance. Selkie myths cluster around the UK, anywhere seal colonies can be found. They’re like local mermaids, except without the whole tail issue.
There’s only one really well known selkie myth: that if a man finds the seal skin of a selkie woman and hides it, the selkie must be his bride. In most stories the selkie settles down and starts a family, which proves her husband’s undoing; one of the children unknowingly lets slip the location of the seal skin. The selkie is sad to leave her children behind, but returns to the sea nevertheless. It’s essentially a variation on the swan maid myth.
There are other myths, less well known. For example, if a young woman cries seven tears in the sea a selkie man will come and shag her senseless. Well, that’s not how it’s normally phrased, but that’s the gist of it, anyway. Often the woman goes mad with desire and drowns in an attempt to find her selkie lover again. The MacCodrum clan of North Uist claim to be descended from selkies, though considering the ‘sign’ of being a selkie descendant is having webbed fingers and toes one does wonder whether there might have been a little inbreeding going on amongst the isolated islanders during those long, dark, Scottish nights…
More information about selkie legends can be found here.
There are more examples of Scottish selkie myth online than Irish, but it’s in Ireland that both Ondine and The Secret of Roan Inish are set. Roan Inish is set in the late forties, Ireland’s rural communities still recovering from the war. Ondine gives us a modern Ireland, fishermen coping with quotas and the lack of an AA in a town that clearly needs it. In both, it’s the intelligent pre-teen girl that steals the show. Even from Colin Farrell. Sorry, Ballykissangel, but the oily fisherman look is not your sexiest.
Annie, in Ondine, and Fiona, in Roan Inish, are bright but lonely girls. Raised in a tradition of storytelling that goes almost unchanged from Roan Inish to Ondine, the girls use myths to explain aspects of their lives and bring their families together. These aren’t curly-haired Hollywood moppets, though; blessed with intelligence borne of necessity and sarcasm borne of frustration they’re perfect viewpoint characters.
Ondine spreads its weight across three main characters: Annie, Syracuse and Ondine. Colin Farrell is grubby, grumpy and perfectly believable as a recovering alcoholic and fisherman. Alicja Bachleda brings a dark eyed exoticism and mercurial nature to the role of Ondine, keeping her friends close and her secrets closer. The couple have chemistry, probably because they were dating when the film was made. Syracuse’s past provides his motivation for not delving too deeply into Ondine’s, even though the amnesia excuse is pretty weak.
Though the romance is meant to make up the thrust of the plot, Annie’s battle with kidney failure is what keeps the movie actually moving. The painful realism of her disease and the way her peers treat her – it’s more thoughtless than malicious, but is still essentially bullying – counterpoint her dedication to the idea Ondine is a selkie. She’s old enough to know it ought to be just a story, but she clings to the idea long after the real world intrudes on their carefully constructed lives. For all her biting wit she remains very much a child.
In Ondine the selkie myth is treated as such, a sign of Annie’s childishness that the adults around her are willing to play along with to help her get through her illness, whereas Roan Inish is careful to avoid letting characters give their opinions on the stories woven through the main narrative. The one adult who openly admits to believing it is dismissed as simple, but no one actually contradicts him. Roan Inish takes its child protagonist seriously. Sure, she’s cute, but the film isn’t about her being cute. She’s intelligent, curious, and not afraid of hard work. It would be easy to dismiss this as a children’s film (I almost did when I saw the U BBFC rating – I think the only other DVDs I have at that rating are Tom & Jerry) but it’s realism gives it a much broader appeal than that. Though it lacks the grittiness of Ondine it doesn’t shy away from the political and social realities of 40s Ireland, land being bought up for the tourist trade as traditional crafts and ways of life are dying off.
The moment that made me fall in love with Fiona was one of beautiful direction: stood in the pub, just tall enough to see over the bar, Fiona waits patiently while the adults around her discuss her future. The perspective is that of a child, the adults all waists and chests and voices booming way above her. Fiona’s life is decided for her; she stays quiet, too tired to care.
Selkie stories usually focus on the plight of the mother, unable to deny her true nature and forced to leave her children. Fiona and Annie are children who’ve been left behind: Fiona by her mother’s death, Annie by her mother’s alcoholism. They’re drawn to selkie myths by their loneliness – who wouldn’t want to believe their mother (or mother-figure) was just on the other side of the waves?
Both films are powerful, and I’d be hard put to choose a favourite between them. I haven’t even started on the scenery, which is stunning in both of them: Ondine is fond of blue filters and dark oceans, while Roan Inish plays up the Emerald Isle with rolling green landscapes and warm open fires. Put some money aside for plane tickets before watching either film, is all I can say. Both films have some pretty strong accents to contend with, but both stand up to a re-watch, so you can catch anything you missed first time around.
There aren’t a lot of selkie-based films – mermaids tend to beat them when it comes to recognisable oceanic fae – but it just goes to show that those that are out there are very good indeed. Let’s show them a little support and see if it persuades anyone to make some more, shall we?