Alice's Academy

Elizabeth Pandolfo-Briggs, editor

Seaweed Soup: The Secret (Ingredients) of Roan Inish

Kathryn Graham

Kathryn Graham teaches children's literature in the English Department at Virginia Tech. Her articles on Kenneth Grahame and Peter Dickinson have been published in The Children's Literature Association Quarterly and The Lion and the Unicorn.

Soup is a favorite winter food, valued especially by those of us experiencing a particularly cold winter right now. Kathryn Graham serves up a terrific analysis of one for this issue. One note: A few secret ingredients are missing from this article. Please look up Rosalie K. Fry's illustrations of The Water Babies and The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, and check out the illustrations used in the credits of John Sayles' film The Secret of Roan Inish..
Elizabeth Pandolfo-Briggs, editor
- Alice's Academy


Hailed as a ground-breaking work of "Irish magical realism," John Sayles's recent film The Secret of Roan Inish won wide critical acclaim and appeared on many "Top Ten" lists for 1995. On seeing the film, I went right out to read the Rosalie Fry children's book on which it was based. The first text I found, an Hyperion Paperback published as a movie tie-in in February 1995, has the film's title. But a little research revealed that The Secret of Roan Inish is the third title under which Fry's novel has appeared. First published in Britain in 1957 as Child of the Western Isles, it was renamed The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry for Dutton's American edition of 1959. A collation showed that apart from the changed title, only one feature distinguishes Fry's 1957 and 1959 texts from the 1995 reissue: 15 color stills from the film replace Fry's own charmingly evocative line drawings. Interestingly, Sayles presents some of Fry's drawings as illustrations for the credit sequence at the end of his film. He also seems to have relied on other drawings as paradigms for setting up shot after shot in the film. Behind the changes to the title and the intriguing visual relations between book and film lies another metamorphosis. The best-kept secret of Roan Inish is that the palpably Irish tale became Irish only when John Sayles filmed it. The novel is set on the western coast of Scotland and was written by a Canadian-born woman who lived most of her life in a Welsh cottage. But Sayles' transformative art is entirely true to Fry's spirit and to the shared heritage of these two Celtic countries. Like the film, the novel appropriates, assimilates, displaces and echoes other texts. Blurring the bounds between a precisely rendered real world and a realm of myth and natural magic, both Sayles and Fry blend original materials and earlier texts into what one might call a narrative soup.

The novel centers on 10-year-old Fiona McConville's return to the coast of Scotland to live with her grandparents. Four years ago her family abandoned their ancestral home on the island of Ron Mor. Since then she has lived in an industrial city (presumably Glasgow) with her widower father and older siblings, all of whom work long hours daily in a factory. Fiona characterizes the city as "all gray and dirty with people, people everywhere. I kept getting ill--not really ill but just not well...and when I didn't get better the doctor said sea air was what I needed" (Fry 3). The family follows a pattern of fragmentation that began with the mother's death and the move away from the island. They willingly agree to part with Fiona and to send her back to her native environment.

As Fiona reacquaints herself with her loving grandparents, now relocated on a larger island but still within view of Ron Mor, she begs for stories of her island home, stories her grandparents are willing to tell as they mourn the loss of a way of life they loved. When Fiona asks why the people abandoned Ron Mor, Grandmother exclaims, "Ah, why indeed? Why, even me poor cow didn't want to leave--she never gives half the milk since we took her away from the island, and wasn't she the wise one wanting to stay! Och! It's there we should be ourselves this very minute!" (13). Grandfather adds, "Oh, well, times have changed, and it had to be, I suppose. Anyhow, there were those who said it had to be. It was the young chaps for the most part, your dad and others like him, growing dissatisfied with the old ways and wanting more for themselves and their children" (13-14). But it is obvious to Grandfather that his son's soulless, repetitive factory work in the bustling city offers no advancement in life.

Fiona's father has left more than his soul and his buried wife on Ron Mor. The day the family evacuated the island, Fiona's baby brother Jamie was lost, believed drowned. Asleep by the shore in his cunningly crafted cradle-boat Jamie floated off on the tide, accompanied by wheeling gulls and bobbing seals. Fiona's grandmother still can't bear to be reminded of this loss.

As Fiona visits Ron Mor in her grandfather's boat, gets acquainted with her cousin Rory (who longs to resettle Ron Mor when he is older), and hears strange tales of sailors spotting Jamie in his cradle boat, she comes to believe that Jamie is still alive on the island. She feels an attachment to the seals inhabiting the skerry. Her favourite, Chieftain, leads her boat through a fog to land on the shores of Ron Mor where she sees Jamie, small and naked, picking flowers. Frightened when Fiona calls to him, Jamie scampers to his cradle boat and sails out of sight. Grandfather thinks Fiona has dreamed the adventure, but Rory says, "I don't believe the old Chieftain will ever be satisfied until he has the McConvilles back on the island -- I'll never forget the way he moaned when the trawler took us away" (55).

Fiona and Rory decide to visit Ron Mor daily. They restore the ruined cottages, continue the search for Jamie, and finally convince their grandparents to return to the island. Chapter 8 meticulously describes the labours of the children as they inspect the cottages, repair thatching, paint, clean, gather wood for fires, and even begin to clear gardens. Their work is watched approvingly by the seals in the bay. When Fiona finally confronts her grandmother with the fact that she has seen Jamie, the adults suspend disbelief in favor of having their fondest hopes realized. The adults and children row over to the island as a fearful storm blows in. Astounded at the children's work on the cottages, Grandmother makes seaweed soup from an ancestral recipe as Jamie's cradle boat comes ashore with the seals. The seal clan urges the frightened little boy toward his waiting human family as Fiona promises, "We'll take good care of him, Chieftain, now we are home again" (83).

Rosalie K. Fry was an island girl of sorts, having been born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Her father, an engineer, moved the family to Swansea, Wales, where Fry received most of her early schooling. She attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London from 1929 until 1934. Fry says of this period, "A childhood love of drawing grew into a decision to illustrate children's books. But when I had completed a course at a London art school I was faced with the fact that I didn't know a single author who might write a book for me to illustrate! So there was nothing for it but to write my own" (Commire 73).

Significantly, Dutton, the press that would be her American publisher for The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, commissioned her to illustrate a reissue of Charles Kingsley's classic The Water Babies. The publication date was 1957, the same year her own story appeared under its first title. The black-and-white line drawings from the two books bear remarkable resemblances. For instance, there are similarities between the water baby asleep in his shell bed and Jamie in his cradle-boat. Marine materials comprise each picture's cradle, and sea creatures watch over both the water baby and Jamie. Fry's illustrations from both texts also show pensive, naked babies on the shore-lines. The children share a physical resemblance, and a flat horizon and simple linear structure characterize the illustrations. What is suggested visually is true thematically: Fry's novel, like Kingsley's, presents industrial society as hostile to humans, especially children, and depicts nature, specifically water, as a preserving and purifying force.

Whatever her debts to The Water Babies, Fry seems to owe more to Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, published in 1911, the year Fry was born. The parallels between the two novels are numerous and striking. Both protagonists, Mary Lennox and Fiona McConville, journey to a relative's care after bouts of illness and complete or partial orphaning. Both girls regain health and vigour with exercise, fresh air and abundant servings of hearty, natural food. Both are tantalized by a secret place partially forbidden to them. As the robin guides Mary to the buried key and obscured door to the secret garden, the seal Chieftain pushes Fiona's boat to the mysterious fog-bound island where she sees Jamie for the first time. Both girls discover lost relatives: Mary's cousin Colin is the mystery of Misslethwaite Manor just as Jamie is the secret of Ron Mor. Both girls reanimate neglected places with the aid of male collaborators and confidants, namely the cottager-boy Dickon and Fiona's cousin Rory. Both novels imply that dead human mothers can somehow cast a protective spell around their offspring. Both celebrate the benign magic by which Mother Nature creates, heals, nurtures and restores.

Sayles in his turn alters and supplements Fry's rather spare children's novel. His two most important changes are displacing the story from Scotland to Ireland and greatly enlarging the role of the folkloric selkie, briefly explained by Rory in the novel. Shifting the setting westward requires some linguistic alterations. The Christian names Rory and Jamie remind readers of the Scottish setting. Similarly, "Ron Mor" is a Scottish term for seal while "Roan Inish" in Irish is literally seal island. Apart from these matters of language, details of life and habits are similar on the Western isles of both Celtic countries.

So why move the mise en scène of the film from Scotland to Ireland? There are a number of practical and aesthetic reasons. Some of the depopulated Irish Western Isles lack technological signs of the twentieth century such as power lines and telephone wires. Ireland has a larger supply of accomplished vernacular actors than does Scotland, and Irish tax law offers concessions to artistic ventures that probably would make production costs cheaper there. More importantly, as production notes on the film indicate, Sayles had to do a great deal of "fleshing out" to make a feature film from the slender children's novel. One of the richest sources of Celtic island lore and language is the series of vernacular memoirs collected in the 1920s and 30s from residents of The Great Blasket, an island off the Kerry coast evacuated by the Irish government in 1953 and made a national park in 1989. Among these works are Tomas O'Crohan's The Islandman, Sean O'Crohan's A Day in Our Life, and Peig Sayers's An Old Woman's Reflections.

Intercultural ventures in story-telling often lapse into unconvincing usage, but thanks to his research Sayles admirably avoided this problem. As the well-known Irish actor Mick Lally (Grandfather in the film) comments: "What struck me reading the script for the first time was that John's dialogue is very accurate and true to the way Irish people speak, unlike what most overseas screenwriters put into our mouths and assume we say. He's very conversant with Irish folk literature which I am sure partly accounts for this" (Production Notes). Some of the best touches come directly from the Blasket memoirs which, written or collected in Irish and translated into English, caught the public imagination when published by Oxford University Press. As Peig Sayers would draw the ashes over the peat-embers to preserve the fire until morning, she would say, "I preserve the fire as Christ preserves all. Brigid at the two ends of the house, and Mary at the center. The three angels and the three apostles who are highest in the Kingdom of Grace, guarding this house and its contents until day" (Sayers xiv). In the film, as Grandmother draws ashes over her peat fire, she prays, "I rake this fire as the pure Christ rakes us all. Mary at the foot and Brigid at the head. May the eight brightest angels from the City of Grace preserve this house and all its people til the coming of day." Similarly the dialogue written for the story-spinning grandfather realistically represents the vigorous, direct and witty orality of the now-lost Blasket culture. Its characterization of tar "as stiff as an old man on a winter's night," its stories of shipwreck and drowning, and its portentous aphorisms such as "What the sea will take, the sea must have" all lend verisimilitude to the character.

Realism has been a Sayles trademark in such earlier films as Matewan, Eight Men Out, and Passion Fish. In these films, as in The Secret of Roan Inish, verisimilitude is more than a matter of language. Besides the authentic speech, Sayles takes considerable pains to record the work routines and habits of ordinary people. Supplementing Fry's novel with Blasket accounts, Sayles shows us how a curragh is tarred and paddled and how the children rebuild the cottages by cutting turf, mixing whitewash, and securing the thatched roof using the traditional island method of ropes with heavy sea stones at either end.

As mentioned above, the change to an Irish setting necessitates changes of name for some of the characters. The McConvilles become the Coneellys and Rory becomes Eamon. Sayles enhances the selkie legend briefly mentioned by Rory in Fry's text by inventing the fascinating character Tadgh. Tadgh, Coneelly kin, is one of the "dark ones", a throwback to the Coneellys' seal ancestress, the selkie. Considered "touched in the head," Tadgh works cleaning and catching fish; in one evocative scene we see him lean over the side of his boat and, effortlessly seal-like, flip a fish out of the water. Tadgh, played by the most recognizable actor of the cast, John Lynch, tells Fiona the story of the island's selkie. His vivid verbal description brings the story to life as the camera segues into a visual representation of his tale.

According to Celtic lore the selkie is a being who can swim ashore as a seal, shed its skin, and assume human form. As explained by Tadgh in the film, if someone steals the selkie's seal-skin and hides it, the selkie is under the possessor's power and will live as a human mate. But if the selkie should ever find its skin again, no power or loyalty to spouse and children can keep it from the sea. Perhaps the oldest reference to the origins of the selkie occurs in the story cycles of the Irish Tain, where the evil king Balor, in fear of a prophesy that he would be destroyed by his own grandson, imprisoned his only daughter in a remote sea-side cave guarded by twelve serving women. A young man heard of the plight of the lovely lady and, disguising himself as a woman, entered the cave to seduce the lady and her serving women. All thirteen bore children. On hearing of these miraculous births, Balor (like Herod) sent soldiers to kill all the babies. The soldiers hurled the infants into the sea, where they became the ancestors of the seals, "the people of the sea". This is why young seals have the faces of baby humans. The princess's son paddled to shore where he later fulfilled his destiny and fathered the hero-god of Ireland, Cuchulainn (Delaney 7). In Sayles' film, Eamon teases Fiona about her fondness for the seal Chieftain, telling her that Chieftain might be the seal king who can become a man for a day, select a human bride, and carry her beneath the water with him forever.

The intrusion of myth through the selkie legend enables viewers of the film to believe that an infant could float out to sea and survive among seals for four years. In Marina Warner's Six Myths of Our Time, the chapter "Beautiful Beasts: The Call of the Wild" explores the magnetic attraction that such interaction with animals has on the human imagination. Citing many legendary accounts of human children raised by animals in the wild, Warner asserts that "the animal mother breaks the link with the human parents, she helps distinguish her charge from ordinary children, she confers on him a mark of special difference from the human" (69). In Rosalie Fry's novel, Fiona speculates on how Jamie could have survived with the seals: "You weren't a bit afraid, because the seals were always there to guide you through the currents and keep the cradle off the rocks. And they brought you food too, tiny little fish that didn't taste at all bad, even if they were raw, and the right kind of seaweed" (86). This rather prosaic explanation doesn't evoke the more mythic resonances of the tales Warner cites of animal mothers, usually mammals, nursing adopted human infants, as the seals might have done for Jamie. The Blasket Island literature has many folk tales of speaking seals, particularly nursing females, who beg hunters to spare their lives until their infants have drunk their fill. From the earliest folklore, humans and "the people of the sea" have sustained a familial bond.

The production notes to Sayles's film mention that one function of the story's "magic" is to guide the displaced Coneellys back to their "natural spiritual habitat." Sayles particularly wanted to explain, as he put it, "what happens to people who are forced to leave a place, whose life and points of reference and feeling about themselves are tied up with a world other than the one they are living in now" (Production Notes). Drawing as he does upon real-life accounts of the Blasket culture, Sayles gives the transplanting of islanders an even darker aspect than it wears in Fry's text. While the novel recognizes the physical and psychic price paid by Fiona's family in terms of generational fragmentation, the unhealthy crowding of urban life, and the relentless work in the factory, Sayles adds the curse of Fiona's father's alcoholism. The displaced island man takes solace in the pub. Such a response might have been predicted by the Irish priest, Father Jerome Kiely, who wrote of the 1940s abandonment of the island Inish Capaill in a memoir called Seven Year Island. Father Jerome accurately predicted the enormous spiritual price his parishioners would pay as they relocated inland: with their way of life gone forever, uncertain about jobs and futures, many sank into nostalgia, alcoholism and deep depression. Returning to their native island, their natural habitat one might say, the Coneellys escape these spiritual and physical ills of modern life.

As is often the way in both the world of domestic reality and the world of myth, both Fry and Sayles have the matriarch, Grandmother, perform the final act that makes the refurbished island a home once again. With Fiona's help, she gathers assorted seaweeds, including some that "grow nowhere else in the Isles," to make the special broth a selkie bride brought into the family generations before. As Grandmother explains to Fiona in the novel:

"She taught the first McConvilles how to cook it long ago, and ever since, every Ron Mor woman has handed on the recipe to her descendants."

"And now you are handing it on to me!" said Fiona, feeling herself already an island housewife. (80)

The resulting concoction, a sort of sacramental brew, reconnects the island family with its environment and links the generations, putting Fiona in touch with her mythic selkie ancestor and restoring her brother Jamie, who later comes ashore with the seals. Grandmother has a method of gathering diverse ingredients and simmering them into a new whole that is magically more than the sum of its parts. This might serve as a metaphor for creation as practised by Rosalie Fry and John Sayles, who understand how to supplement individual vision with resourceful assimilation. The intertextual stew, like Grandmother's seaweed soup, proves both delicious and nourishing.


Works Cited

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1987.

Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1971.

Delaney, Frank. Legends of the Celts. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1971.

Fry, Rosalie K. The Secret of Roan Inish. New York: Hyperion Paperbacks for Children, 1995.

---. The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry. New York: Dutton, 1959.

Kiely, Fr. Jerome. Seven Year Island. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1969.

Kingsley, Charles. The Water Babies. Ill. Rosalie K. Fry. New York: Dutton, 1957.

O'Crohan, Sean. A Day in Our Life. Trans. Tim Enright. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Trans. from Irish.

O'Crohan, Tomas. The Islandman. Trans. Robin Flower. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. Trans. from Irish.

Production Notes to The Secret of Roan Inish. Online.

Sayers, Peig. An Old Woman's Reflections. Trans. Seamus Ennis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. Trans. from Irish.

The Secret of Roan Inish. Screenplay by John Sayles. Dir. John Sayles. First Look Pictures, 1994.

Warner, Marina. Six Myths of Our Time. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.



Kathryn Graham

Volume 4, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, December 2000

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"Seaweed Soup: the secret (ingredients) of Roan Inish" © Kathryn Graham, 2000.

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