Selkie Tales for Irish Heritage Month

Poster for the animated movie shows a large blond man, his two children, a dog, and a bunch of seals gathered close on a rock with waves splashing all around. A bright blue sky show a lighthouse in the distance.

by Kristen B.

According to President Biden and Governor Hogan, March 2022 is officially proclaimed as Irish American Heritage Month, coinciding with St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. I boast of wee bit of Irish heritage from my mother’s side of the family. We drink tea, eat soda bread, and watch The Quiet Man in March. To be fair, we drink tea year round. There are so many wonderful books and movies that show off the Emerald Isle to its best advantage – from films such as Waking Ned Devine and Dancing at Lughnasa (available via Interlibrary Loan) to authors such as Colm Toibin and Maeve Binchy.

Beyond the mainstream, I have always loved the folktales and mythology of the Celts, and of Ireland in particular. Are the Fair Folk involved? I’m in! One of my favorite traditional tales involves the selkies, the shapeshifting folk who transform into seals in the sea and humans on land. There are countless stories and songs about the Selkie Wife, wherein a fisherman (most usually) or a sailor falls in love with a selkie and hides her sealskin while she is dancing upon the shore. They are usually wonderfully, truly in love, but she is trapped living only half her life. When she finds her skin again, she leaves him and their children to reclaim her life in the waves. As with so many traditional Irish tales, it’s the sense of tragedy that makes it beautiful.

Selkie tales have also made their way into plenty of film and books. Seanan McGuire’s long-running urban fantasy series featuring changeling detective October Daye includes selkies as important characters that you can find in several of the titles. Tanya Huff’s modern fantastical Gale Girl books are a ton of fun, with a family full of odd magics and dangerous aunties. The Gale family boasted a young girl named Dorothy and her Auntie Em, once upon a time. The second book in the trilogy’s plot hinges on a supposed selkie colony off the coast of Maritime Canada being threatened by oil drilling. It’s a quick, fun read full of selkies, traditional music festivals, and the occasional dragon.

As for movies, probably my favorite selkie movie is The Secret of Roan Inish, which tells the story of a young girl, Fiona, and her determination to find and bring home her lost younger brother, Jamie, who is living among the seals. The rhythms of the movie are quintessentially Irish, and it needs very little in the way of special effects or soundtrack to keep me engrossed. Song of the Sea is an animated film that tells a slightly different version of the Selkie Wife. When lighthouse keeper Ben’s wife disappears after giving birth to their second child it leads to all sorts of family and fey drama. The creative team behind this gorgeous, lyrical tale first made The Secret of Kells, concerning the famous illustrated manuscript during the burning of the Irish monasteries by Vikings – and at a time where the old magics may still have been found in the wilderness. These movies have a particularly rich animation style of that borrows from ancient Irish art. While animated, they aren’t necessarily just for children.

I wish you a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day! Enjoy one of these suggestions … or any of the other wonderful poems, stories, music, or movies that celebrate our Irish heritage.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball (but not all at the same time).

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