Pff. Women, amirite? One day you’re walking down the beach and you see a beautiful woman walking out of the sea, you hit it off, you get married, have a couple of kids and then BAM! Turns out she’s a seal and she’s off gallivanting with her seal buddies without even leaving a forwarding address for child support. Ain’t it always the way? Well, maybe not where you come from but in Ireland it’s practically an epidemic. The canon is full of selkie stories. Shit, if I had my druthers, every Irish exchange of marriage vows would include the sentence “And by the way, I am totally not a seal.”
Selkie stories are not exclusively Irish, of course. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to call them a Scottish tradition but you also find Selkie tales in the Faroe Islands and Iceland and despite the basic similarities (seal turns into a woman, marries a human) they run the gamut from tragic romances to horror stories. A common feature is that the Selkie has a seal-skin cloak, without which she can’t turn into a seal again. The fisherman hides the cloak from her for years, until one day their children are searching around in the attic, find the cloak and show it to her, at which point the Selkie’s all “Laters!” and makes her escape. A particularly grim version from the Faroese Island of Kalsoy has the Selkie return to her seal family, only for her human abductor to kill her husband and children in revenge. The Selkie then swears to basically kill every dude from his village until there are enough bodies to circle the entire island which she is still doing to this day. Then there are other stories where the marriage between the fisherman and Selkie is loving and consensual, but she has to to turn into a seal to save him from drowning and so can never return to live on land. The universal theme running through these stories is loss. Happiness is transient, loss is forever. Sounds like a fun cartoon to me!
To follow up the phenomenal success of Secret of Kells, director Tomm Moore basically created Song of the Sea, an to homage selkie stories and to his own childhood growing up in Ireland in the eighties. I also grew up in Ireland in the eighties, but I remember it being distinctly less magical.
The movie begins with the opening credits and Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan) reciting The Stolen Child by WB Yeats (“Come away o human child, to the waters etc and so forth”) and we see our first look at the lighthouse and oh fuck me but seriously WHAT?
Jodie? Jodie, talk to me!
I…I think I broke her. Latin America, please take care of Jodie while I finish the review.
So the artwork in this movie is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in an animated film. It’s just…painfully gorgeous to look at. Perfectly complimenting the visual is the title song “Amhráin na Farraige”, (The Song of the Sea) which the heavily pregnant Bronagh sings to her son Ben as they paint a mural on the wall of their house. Bronagh’s husband, Conor (Brendan Gleeson), comes upstairs to tell them that it’s time for bed and sees the mural, which is of a woman who looks suspiciously like Bronagh turning into a seal.
If I can wax heretical for a little bit though, there is something I don’t like about this movie and it’s kind of a big deal. I don’t like Ben. I don’t like saccarine-cute “me and the baby are going to be BESTEST friends” Ben and I REALLY don’t like “little shithead waw-waw my mother left me and that gives me the right to be a complete bastard to my little sister” Ben. The character eventually redeems, and it’s a very strong moment, but my God it’s a slog getting there. Anyway, they tuck Ben into bed and Bronagh plays a lullaby for him on a sea shell that she just happens to have with her.
Yeah. Sorry Con. She’s almost definitely a selkie. In fact, let me consult my anti-Selkie pamphlet.
Ben wakes up in the middle of the night to see his mother tearfully saying that she’s sorry, and vanishing into the night. Cut to six years later where Ben is playing on the beach with his dog Cú and his little sister Saoirse so that’s odd, right? This scene establishes a lot of things very quickly and efficiently. Firstly, despite living on an island, Ben is terrified of the water and even wears a life jacket when he’s on land. Secondly, despite being six years old, Saoirse still doesn’t speak. And lastly, Ben is an absolute dick to his sister.
Suddenly, Saoirse sees a load of seals watching them from the water and wades out to them. Cú goes in after her and ends up pulling Ben into the water where he almost drowns in like three inches while wearing a life jacket so he drags Saoirse up to Con in the lighthouse and Ben tells Con that he needs to give out to her because he is a little nark. However Con is a little out of it what with this being the anniversary of the day he lost the love of his life and everything so he just gives Saoirse a hug and completely ignores Ben. And that’s some top notch parenting there Con.
I mean it. Focus on the good one, cut your losses.
Meanwhile, Con’s mother, Granny (Fionuala Flanagan) arrives on the island on the boat piloted by Ferry Dan (Jon Kenny). Dan tries to make small talk with Granny on the journey over, asking her for gossip but she ignores him and drives off the boat without a word, leaving Dan to mutter “You aul’ witch”. So remember what I said in the Secret of Kells review about the Irish obsession with borders and the otherworld? Well this movie continues that theme. Every major character in this movie has an otherworld counterpart , with the exception of Ben and Saoirse who, as the children of a human and a selkie exist in both worlds, and Bronagh, for whom the fact that she can only exist in one world is the whole point of her character. Dan is constantly looking for gossip because his fairy counterpart is The Seanachaí, literally a gatherer of stories. And he refers to Granny as an ” aul witch” because her counterpart is Macha, who is literally an “owl witch”. Well, okay, in the Irish dub he uses the word “cailleach” which just means “old woman” and in this context would mean a wise woman or soothsayer and not really a witch as it would be understood in a wider European context and what’s that I’m getting off topic yes I believe you’re right, okay so…
The first thing Granny says when she gets out of the car is “I don’t know how you can live in this dreadful place!” and I know right?
Granny, being an Irish grandmother, knows what the appropriate attire is for every conceivable occurence in a human lifetime and knows that whatever you’re wearing is not it so she drags Saoirse into the house to dress her in something appropriate for a six year old’s birthday as laid out in the ancient grandmother’s handbook. The party kicks off and Granny makes Saoirse try some of her nettle tea because she knows what the kids are into. While Con gets the cake ready with the air of a man on his way to the gallows Ben sulks because he’s not the centre of attention and ends up shoving Saoirse into the cake because he is just the fucking worst. Anyone who’s seen this movie and was wondering what Granny calls Ben after he does this, the word is “Tachran” which means a brat. Personally, I would have have gone with another Irish word; “arse-biscuit”.
Ben is sent to his room and later that night Con tells Granny that he’s going out for a drink with Dan. She tells him he’s better off not thinking about that night and he replies “her anniversary’s only once a year, Mam.”
Saoirse brings a storybook to Ben and and asks him (wordlessly) to read her a story. Because the child is the spawn of Satan, he instead tells her the tale of Macha, the Owl Witch. He tells Saoirse that the nearby island Mac Lír is actually a giant, Macha’s son, whose feelings were stolen by her owls until he turned to stone. He tells her that Macha got a taste for it after that, and she’s been turning people to stone ever since. He then puts a big old cherry on top by saying that Halloween is coming and that Macha might turn Con to stone and then there will be nobody left to love Saoirse and my God this kid makes me wish I could pull the trusty board of education out of retirement.
IRISH FOLKLORE DIGRESSION WHERE MOUSE ACTUALLY GETS TO USE HIS DEGREE: So a little bit of information on the mythology here, it’s
bollocks original to this motion picture. Manaman Mac Lír was indeed a fairly major Celtic God…
…and Macha was indeed a goddess who was by all accounts not to be fucked with but that’s about all that’s accurate. For example, they weren’t mother and son, and the owls, the stealing emotions and turning people into stone were all invented for the movie. Macha was actually one of three goddesses who combined Voltron-like to form the triple goddess Morrígan, who was associated with crows, not owls, because people who encountered her tended to end up dead. END OF IRISH FOLKLORE DIGRESSION.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, Con nurses a pint and mourns his lost wife.
While Ben sleeps, Saoirse finds the seashell that Bronagh left him and starts to play it. This summons some floating lights who lead her up to the top of the lighthouse where she finds a glowing white cloak that’s just her size. The lights then lead her out to the beach where the seals are waiting for her. She transforms into a white seal swims with them and aw hell I can’t do justice to this just watch for yourself.
And in every hill and fairy fort, in every crannóg and secret place, creatures long forgotten listen in the darkness and the otherworld stirs awake.
Waking in the middle of the night, Granny finds Saoirse washed up on the shore. She’s understandably distraught and tells Con that Up With This She Will Not Put. She tells Con that she’s taking Ben and Saoirse back to Dublin to live with her. Ben shows Con the cloak and asks where Saoirse got it. Con simply takes it from him, locks it in a chest and throws the chest into the sea along with the key.
The next day Ben is pissed off (as usual) but actually has a good reason (unprecedented) as he doesn’t see why he should have to leave his home, his father and his dog just because his sister went for a little night swimming. But Con just doesn’t have the strength to fight anymore and he lets Granny take the kids back to Dublin.
Ben draws a map as they go so that he can find his way back to Cú. The music in this movie is again done by Bruno Coulais and Kíla and their work here is even better than their score for Kells. The piece that plays over the car journey is called “The Derry Tune” and it’s kind of hard to describe just how perfectly it captures the feel of a long car journey through the misty Irish countryside. It just gets me. It feels like I’m ten years old again on in the back seat of the family car, half asleep, half way between Kerry and Dublin. Give it a listen.
They arrive just in time for Halloween and the local children are running around in costume, playing with fire and setting off more explosives than would be considered appropriate for the average Middle Eastern warzone. But of course Ben and Saoirse aren’t allowed do that and instead have to sit with their Granny drinking tea in a living room that is pretty much the perfect amalgamation of every Irish grandmother’s living room that has ever existed. Seriously, they all look like this.
Saoirse sneaks upstairs into Granny’s room and sneaks into her wardrobe. Her daring attempt to escape to Narnia fails but she does find Granny’s fur coat and gets into the shower with it, trying to turn back into a seal. When Granny finds her, she’s understandably pissed and sends Ben and Saoirse to bed even though it’s only four o’clock and ooooookay I may be starting to feel a little sympathy for Ben here. This is twice he’s been the victim of collective punishment.
Granny throws the fur coat out where it’s fished out of the bin by three fairies, Lug (Pat Shortt), Mossy (Colm Ó Snodaigh) and Spud (Liam Hourican) who’ve come looking for Saoirse and think that it’s her Selkie cloak. Sidenote: Pat Shortt and Jon Kenny (who plays Ferry Dan) are an Irish comedy duo called D’Unbelievables and the fact that they’re both in this movie means I have an excuse to show you their reggae version of Spancill Hill:
No reason. I just think it’s a kickass song.
Anyway, Ben has finally decided that this aggression will not stand and he sneaks out the window to begin your standard perilous journey home. Saoirse follows of course and Ben tells her to go back to Granny’s but she refuses. He also starts throwing a strop when she starts playing with the sea-shell that Bronagh left him despite the fact that 1) he can’t play it and 2) he would have left it in Granny’s if Saoirse hadn’t brought it so clearly it can’t be that important to him. To keep Saoirse in line he attaches Cú’s lead to her which ends up almost getting him killed when the three fairies spirit her away to their fort in the middle of a roundabout, almost yanking Ben in front of a truck which I think we would all agree would serve the little blighter right.
So the fairies take Saoirse underground and we see that they’re home is full of fairies who’ve been turned to stone. Ben hides behind the statues while the fairies sing “Dúllaman” which, I remind you, is about seaweed. The fairies forget the final verse but Ben calls it out to them from his hiding place. IRISH FOLKLORE DIGRESSION!
This is a reference to an old folktale about a hunchback who overhears some fairies singing “Dé Luain, Dé Máirt” (“Monday, Tuesday”) over and over. The hunchback sings out “Dé Céadaoin!” (“Wednesday!”) and the fairies like the addition to their song so much that they remove his hump (hopefully with anaesthetic and sanitary surgical instruments but Christ with fairies who can say?). The normal-back goes back home to his asshole brother who is also a hunchback and when he hears his brother’s story he goes to the same place and hears the fairies singing “Dé Luain, Dé Máirt, Dé Céadaoin” and he sings out “Dé Deardaoin!” (“Thursday Day!”) and the fairies are enraged because 1) that’s tautology and 2) fuck Thursdays. So not only do they not remove his hunch but they stick his brother’s hunch onto him as well, thereby making him history’s first Bactrian hunchback. END OF IRISH FOLKLORE DIGRESSION!
The fairies ask Saoirse to sing so that they’re fellow fairies will be freed but Ben explains that the cat’s had her tongue for the last six years or so and she’s not going to be singing anytime soon. Ben tells the fairies that he knew the final verse of the song because his mother used to sing it to him. He asks if they’re really fairies and they say they prefer the name “The Good Neighbours” and that’s funny because I prefer the name “Baby-napping, crop-spoiling, little bastard extortionists”. The fairies ask Ben if he knows where Saoirse’s cloak is and he tells them that it’s back at the lighthouse. Suddenly, Macha’s owls attack and try to kidnap Saoirse. Ben and the fairies fight them off but the owls turn the three fairies into stone and Lug begs Ben to find the cloak so that Saoirse can reverse Macha’s curse.
Ben and Saoirse escape through a tunnel that leads to the surface.
The kids hop on a bus which is full of trick or treaters as well as a cameo from Aisling from Secret of Kells.
Saoirse starts playing the shell again which summons the floating lights. Saoirse uses the emergency stop to get them thrown off the bus and Ben is pretty pissed which, yeah, fair. I mean, now they have to walk the ohhhh, 270 kilometres from Dublin to Donegal and that’s if you cut straight across Northern Ireland. And this is the eighties. You do not want to cut straight across Northern Ireland.
So they follow the lights through the gorgeously rendered scenery but Ben gets spooked by a flock of crows (Crebain! From Dunland!) and tells Saoirse not to play the shell any more in case they attract attention. Okay, I’m not unfair. Ben really annoyed me at the start but he’s slowly transforming into a smarter, more capable hero oh fuck me what’s he doing now? Ben insists that his crayon map is up to the task of getting them to their island on the other side of the country and insists on going into a forest that couldn’t be more obviously dangerous if it tried.
In the forest, Ben is overjoyed to find Cú, who’s traipsed halfway across the country to find them. He tells Cú to lead them back home but Saoirse starts getting weak and keels over. Ben notices that her hair is starting to turn white and WAIT JUST A DAMN MINUTE HERE…
With Saoirse getting weaker and rain coming on, the children find shelter in a holy well. These are wells in the Irish countryside with historic associations with various saints and I am not kidding, we probably more of them than we do petrol stations. Of course, as I explained in the Secret of Kells review, Saint Patrick didn’t so much convert the Irish to Christianity as take the existing pagan religion, file off the serials numbers and give it a new paint job.
So it won’t surprise you to learn that a lot of these wells were holy sites long before the coming of Christianity and were often considered portals to the otherworld because honestly it would be quicker to make a list of things in the Irish countryside that weren’t portals to the otherworld.
Saoirse plays the shell again which summons the floating lights which go down the well and she dives in after them. Ben freaks out because he can’t overcome his fear of water and dive after her so Cú jumps in, pulling Ben after him. The lead breaks and Ben finds himself in a cave full of stone fairies and one very hairy one, the Great Seanachaí (Jon Kenny.)
The Great Seanachaí is another figure created for the film, rather than an actual mythological character. In real life a seanachaí was a story-teller who had to memorize vast reams of stories, songs and poetry because the only method of writing back then was carving little lines into massive pillars of rock which is not exactly conducive to reading on the bus. Basically, they were a combination human library and jukebox and had a very high and respected position in ancient Irish society. Moore reimagines the Seanachaí as an old man with miles and miles of hair, each hair containing a story, that comprises his beard.
Dear God, I hope it’s his beard.
The character design is awesome and with his white hair and way of moving I feel like the Seanachaí is probably a relation of Aisling’s. The Seanachaí shows Ben the story of Mac Lír, and explains that he was so distraught by a terrible loss that his tears threatened to drown the earth, and so Macha sent her owls to take away his poem and turn him to stone. And damn, this may be the first movie I’ve reviewed where the villain actually saved the world. Ben asks the Seanachaí for help finding Saoirse but he says it’s none of business and retreats into the hair.
Back in the present, a teary eyed Ben climbs climbs out of the cave, emerging through a hole in a tree, and sees Macha’s cottage in the distance.
Macha is in fact a perfectly pleasant old lady who claims that she simply got a bad rep in the old stories. She says that all she does is take away people’s pain and offers to to the same for Ben. Ben almost succumbs to the temptation but at the last minute he changes his mind and tells Macha that she isn’t helping anyone by taking away their pain.
Sorry about that. Where was I?
Ben hears Cú barking upstairs and runs up the attic and locks the door behind him. Ben finds himself in a room full of the jars containing the captured emotions of the fairy folk (so like, 80% spite and malice, 20% love of potatoes and making shoes). Saoirse is also there, weak and grey-haired. As Macha tries to break through the door, Ben pleads with Saoirse to play the shell and free the emotions but she’s too weak. Ben tells her that he’s sorry he wasn’t a better brother to her, and says that it was never her fault. He then sings her Amhrán na Farraige. Saoirse plays the shell and the jars crack open. Macha is overcome by the power of centuries of her repressed emotions and collapses weeping at the bottom of the stairs. She tearily asks Ben to forgive her, saying “I have been lost for so long.” Ben begs her to help Saoirse, whose hair has now gone completely white. Macha tells Ben that he has to get her back to her cloak before she dies. She then summons the spirits of two wolfhounds IRISH FOLKLORE DIGRESSION:
These are probably Brann and Sceólánn who were the hounds of the hero Fionn MacCumhaill and also his cousins because they were born to his aunt from that time she got turned into a dog.
END OF IRISH FOLKLORE DIGRESSION.
So these two hound spirits give Cú super speed and he raises back to Donegal with Ben and Saoirse on his back. Back in Dublin, Granny wakes to find the children are missing and she gets in her car and starts burning rubber back to the lighthouse.
The kids reach the lighthouse and Ben yells at Con to tell him where Saoirse’s cloak is. Seeing Saoirse’s condition, Con puts her in a boat and starts rowing for the mainland, saying she needs a hospital. Ben demands to know where the cloak is and Con roars that he threw it in the ocean like he should have done years ago. And Con, c’mon. I know you’re pissed that your wife was a selkie but it’s really your own stupid fault for not seeing the signs.
*This statement is not intended to confer the rights and privileges of Irish citizenship. Foreign nationals wishing to become Irish should in the first instance contact the Irish Nationalisation and Immigration Services or their local Irish embassy.