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The Secret of Roan Inish

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The Secret of Roan Inish was filmed on the rugged coastline of Donegal, near Portnoo and Rossbeg, in northwestern Ireland. It tells the story of Fiona, a young girl who, after her mother dies, is sent to live with her grandparents near the island of Roan Inish. It's there that she learns about selkies, seals who can shed their skins to become human. She also learns that her younger brother is believed to have been swept away to sea by the selkies as a baby.

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It's a magical tale, but set in the harsh reality of post-War Ireland, and so rooted in the landscape that it's easy to believe in selkies. The coastline of Donegal is solid and flinching, which gives the film a certain gravity.

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The movie has been widely praised for its cinematography, by Haskell Wexler. As Stephen Holden, of The New York Times, commented, 'The Secret of Roan Inish is the first film directed by Mr. Sayles that could be described as visually rhapsodic. Photographed by Haskell Wexler on Ireland's rugged northwestern seacoast, it is a cinematic tone poem in which man and nature, myth and reality flow together in a way that makes them ultimately indivisible.'

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Says Scott Rosenberg of the San Francisco Chronicle, the movie is a lot like the island on which it is set: 'It seems to occupy a time of its own, cut off from the speed and overload of contemporary life and drifting to its own ancient rhythms… Without ostentation or self-consciousness, the film immerses you in the spume, fog and glare of the seaside life, with its temporal mysteries and its organic metamorphoses.'

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The film is set in the 1940s, but there isn't much to set it apart from the Donegal coast visitors might see today – rolling green hills, shores littered with granite rocks, sweeping golden beaches. Portnoo is apparently really small, with a few homes, a shop and a golf course, and the nearest pub is down the road in Navan. Its beach is also apparently great for long walks, and during low tide you can even walk out to the island. (The most significant local island is called Inishkeel, which I suspect doubled for Roan Inish. It is dotted with early Christian churches, holy wells and decorated stone slabs.)

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Roan Inish in Gaelic means 'island of the seals', and the seals are significant players in the movie – littering the rocks and bobbing around in the water. They are native to the region, so they weren't, as far as I know, Hollywood stunt doubles. (Though one does look distinctly animatronic.)

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Watching Roan Inish is a great way to see a stunning part of the world in a really raw state – cold, blustery and overcast as it often is. It's not clear exactly who this movie is aimed at (it's a fantasy for children with an intensity more usually seen in films for grown-ups), but it is undoubtedly a great travelogue. – Roshan McArthur

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  • Cillian Byrne

    September 27, 2016

    There were 4 trained seals involved in the production. I should know, I played Jamie 🙂

  • Maria Molloy

    February 20, 2013

    Dear Sirs,

    The film Roan Inish was filmed in Rosbeg itself. Which is 4 miles from Portnoo. Rosbeg does have a Bar and Restaurant which served as the base for the duration of the entire film.

    Rosbeg is a stunning little gem with an abundance of fine sandy beaches. Please could you correct the article.

  • JT

    January 2, 2012

    You said Portnoo is close to Navan. Navan is a long way away in county Cavan,I’m guessing its a typo, and you meant to say Narin/Naran.

Any comments?