Saved by the Seal-Folk: The Secret of Roan Inish in Rosendale

Fiona (Jeni Courtney) in The Secret of Roan Inish

Red Hook’s great independent filmmaker John Sayles isn’t particularly known as a creator of movies for kids, but in 1994 he did direct one of the loveliest, most lyrical family films ever made: The Secret of Roan Inish. Set on a wild, picturesque island off the northwest coast of Ireland and luminously shot by the brilliant cinematographer Haskell Wexler, it’s an adventure worth experiencing again and again. And if you or your young ones have never seen it, make sure to put Saturday afternoon, April 12 on your calendar, because The Secret of Roan Inish is returning to the big screen at the Rosendale Theatre.

Better yet, Maggie Renzi, the film’s producer and Sayles’s longtime creative and domestic partner, will be there in person to discuss the film and how it was developed from her favorite childhood book, The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry by Rosalie K Fry. Originally set in Scotland, the narrative is based on folklore of the Orkney and Shetland Islands in which many fishing and seafaring families claim descent from the Selkies or Seal-Folk: skin-changers who can dwell beneath the waves as seals or walk dry land in human form. According to these romantic tales, a human can claim a Selkie spouse by stealing his or her sealskin and keeping it carefully hidden away. Most often the captive eventually discovers the skin and returns to the sea, but not before producing a half-human child or two. There are also plenty of stories of sailors thrown overboard who were buoyed to the surface and nudged to land by friendly Selkies.

In The Secret of Roan Inish, a ten-year-old girl named Fiona (Jeni Courtney) goes to live in a small fishing village on the Donegal coast with her grandparents, who were forcibly relocated from the mysterious island of Roan Inish. During the confusion of the hasty exodus, a boat-shaped cradle containing Fiona’s baby brother Jamie was washed out to sea. Along with her family’s nostalgic memories of the isle, she overhears gossip that one of her ancestors married a Selkie, and that the skin-changing trait reemerges once every few generations. Paddling out to the abandoned island on her own, Fiona catches glimpses of a wild boy running naked, then struggles to convince the rest of her family that Jamie is still alive, having been rescued from drowning by his Selkie kin.

Catch this charming, visually stunning film at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 12, followed by a question-and-answer session with Renzi. Tickets cost $7 general admission, $5 for children and Rosendale Theatre Collective members. For more information, visit

The Secret of Roan Inish with Maggie Renzi, Saturday, April 12, 3 p.m., $7/$5, Rosendale Theatre, 408 Main Street, Rosendale; (845) 658-8989,



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