Faith & Family Media Blog

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Mar 16, 2021
| by | Kate O'Hare

'The Secret of Kells': Faith and Fantasy for a Truly Irish St. Patrick's Day

The relationship between the Irish and Catholicism is deep and enduring. Also, in Facebook-speak, "It's complicated." That's seldom more true than in my choice for St. Patrick's Day family viewing, The Secret of Kells.

In his 2010 review of the 2009 animated film, the late great Roger Ebert wrote:

When I went to Ireland to visit the set of "Ryan's Daughter," the studio sent a car to ferry me and my cohort McHugh to the Dingle Peninsula. As we drove along, we crossed an old bridge and the driver said, "Leprechauns made their home under this bridge." We stopped for petrol, and I quietly said to McHugh, "He doesn't know you're Irish and is giving us the tourist treatment." "Ebert," said McHugh, "he means it."

Did he mean it? Did McHugh believe that he meant it? With the Irish, the answer is yes and no.

Years ago, I took a course at my local community college in Irish history and folklore. The teacher, who hailed from County Clare, the home county of my grandfather's people, started her history lesson with, "In the beginning, there were giants." She was serious. I dutifully wrote it in my notebook.

In Irish storytelling, the line between folklore and history, between the tale and the truth, between this world and the next (or the other world out the corner of your eye) is often lost in a mist.

Because of the evangelizing efforts of the 4th-Century Catholic bishop St. Patrick (more on him here), whose feast day we celebrate on March 17, the remaining pagans of Ireland were peacefully Christianized ... or maybe it was also a wee bit the other way around.

Make no mistake, the Irish became thoroughly Christian, but an Irish ear might still be cocked for the wail of a banshee, or an Irish eye might look into the liquid gaze of a seal and wonder if it was really a shape-shifting selkie.

Stunningly animated (and not with computers, either) under the aegis of Irish studio Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny, The Secret of Kells is a mythologized telling of the creation of the gorgeously illuminated set of Gospels called the Book of Kells -- and especially its most famous page, the Chi Ro, depicting the first two letters of Christ's name in Ancient Greek.

Set during the 9th Century, when pagan Vikings regularly raided and terrorized Catholic Ireland, the film focuses on 12-year-old redheaded orphan Brendan, voiced by Evan McGuire (many now believe the Vikings brought red hair to Ireland, so there may be an irony here).

Brendan, dressed in a brown habit, lives with a multicultural band of monks (which nicely, if possibly inaccurately for the time, reflects the universality of the Church) in the Irish Abbey of Kells, which is overseen by his stern uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson).

Seized by a completely rational (and, as it turns out, well-founded) fear of marauding Vikings, Cellach is determined to wall off the abbey and the villagers it protects.

Then, Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), a celebrated creator of illuminated manuscripts, arrives with his pet cat, Pangur Bán, and an unfinished book, which he says "turns darkness into light" (the book, not the cat, which is inspired by one immortalized in an ancient Irish poem written by an unknown monk scribe).

Brother Aidan enlists Brendan to help, which entails the sheltered boy venturing for the first time into the wolf-haunted forest in search of oak galls to make ink.

That's where things take a fantastical turn. Brendan meets a fairy called Aisling (Christen Mooney), who leads him on a visually dazzling (OK, the whole film is visually dazzling) climb up an oak tree and essentially into Ireland's mystical past.

Brendan must survive both human and supernatural enemies to help Aidan finish the book and illuminate the darkness.

The "Secret" of the film may be that the Book of Kells is the Gospels. This is never said out loud, but that's by design.

In an interview at TheFilmStage.com, the film's director, animator Tomm Moore, said:

[For the film] we were kind of encouraged to keep it quite universal and not get too specific about Catholicism, and I think that was probably the right move because it kind of opened up the idea. Where people may have been turned off if they thought there was some kind of overtly Catholic or Christian allegory, which it’s not. It is intended to be universal.

I'm not one given to big emotional reactions to movies -- and maybe it's because (according to 23andMe), I got the motherlode of Irish genes from my ancestors -- but near the end, I was reduced to tears.

So, for parents, I have an entreaty, an encouragement and a word of warning.

The entreaty is to remember the Irish predilection for mixing faith and fantasy. Also, the portrayal of the monks is endearing and quite positive (can't say the same for the Vikings).

I encourage sitting down with the kids to watch and then discussing the difference between fact and folktales, and what darkness really means in the context of the film. It plays with themes of fear, loss, faith, creativity and hope and could spark some in-depth debate (nothing more Irish than debate).

As for the warning, things turn dark at points in the film, and the imagery -- though highly stylized and not graphic -- is still intense and could spark nightmares in more sensitive littles.

Here's a peek:

 

I watched the film on Amazon Prime Video; click HERE to find other ways to see it.

The Secret of Kells may not be perfectly Catholic, but it's abundantly Irish and definitely better than the several, mostly lame, videos about St. Patrick I had to watch today.

In the not-lame category, here's one from Catholic Central, a Family Theater Productions online series (yes, I'm biased, but it's good):

 

This is the best of the rest, the life of Patrick as told by an Irish child in the 1960s, with original animation (we must forgive little Mary for confusing France for Britain).

 

Image: GKIDS

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

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