Video Review: The Secret of Roan Inish
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker

A young girl is captivated by the stories spun from the past by her Irish grandparents.

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we can understand the significance of place. We have strong feelings for Nauvoo, the Sacred Grove, or Temple Square. Of course, we are not unique: Mecca, the Imperial Palace, and Jerusalem all possess great meaning to devotees.

Religious experience can infuse a simple plot of earth with immense meaning that speaks to the soul. Family life (generationally speaking) can do it too. Many have had the uncanny experience of visiting a nation from whence their ancestors came and instantly feeling as though somehow they had come home. But, how are these feelings passed along from generation to generation amidst social and geographic changes? Through stories.

Unraveling the Secret
In The Secret of Roan Inish, ten year-old Fiona Conneely is sent to live with her grandparents in a small Irish fishing village. There, she is captivated by stories of her family’s past and their ancestral home–the island of Roan Inish. Through excursions to the remote island, she discovers that it holds a secret which magically weaves the past, present, and future together into a rich legacy.

Unlike modern trends in storytelling, this movie focuses on the oral tradition of our grandparents and great-grandparents. In the days before “media” was a household term, entertainment was provided by those who could spin tales full of drama, mystery, wisdom and humor–usually the elders in the family.

Renowned independent filmmaker, John Sayles, places us in Fiona’s point of view as she listens to oral stories from members of her extended family. At the feet of her grandfather, we learn how Fiona’s little brother Jimmy disappeared into the ocean the day her family moved from Roan Inish, the island of seals. Her young cousin Eamon intrigues her with accounts of how some say they have seen Jimmy. Another relative explains why some of the Conneelys are born dark instead of blond. He explains how their family is mystically related to the seals which inhabit the island, adding to the mystery of her origins.

Finding her Meaning
Fiona doesn’t find out about the life of her parents and her ancestors by accident, and she doesn’t find it out chronologically. At first, these tales seem to be beside the point, or completely unrelated. We may have the tendency to complain that the movie isn’t “going anywhere” because of the constant stories–strange stories that can hardly be true. A single hue might give us a clue where the piece should be placed, but we don’t anticipate the fantastical final picture. In her search for understanding, Fiona finds her family, her meaning, her place in the world–in short, the secret of Roan Inish.

Jeni Courtney, in her first film role, gives a luminous performance as Fiona. Somehow this young girl is able to hold the entire film together with her innocence and strength of character. Writer/director John Sayles continues to show adeptness in immersing himself in a particular
environment and telling engaging and personal stories. He is a rare breed of filmmaker who finances his own movies and does not depend on the major Hollywood studios. This independence, though hard won, gives him the freedom to create on his own terms. Each of his films surprises us with its distinctness.

When we see Fiona succeed in discovering her secret, we begin to feel that life holds such significance for us as well. Our connection with place–the home where we grew up, the Stake Center where we were baptized, or the land where our ancestors struggled for survival–has the potential to remind us of our own “secrets”–what we stand for and what gives us identity.

The Secret of Roan Inish reminds us, both in form and content, the importance of stories in passing on our family heritage and providing meaning in life. It is important for us to remember the lessons and experiences of the past. Through accounts and stories, even the scriptures help us remember: remember the captivity of our fathers, remember their deliverance, remember great prophecies, remember the miracles of Jesus, remember the testimony of those who came before. Likewise, through our personal “stories”, written records and spoken testimony, our children and families may find a sense of belonging and a sense of home–earthly and spiritual.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.