request is universal: we like to hear stories, known to be fictive or believed
to be true, and the impulse to shape out experiences or desire in narrative
form and thereby to control and share them is a fundamental human trait. Both
teller and listener must have a command of the basic rules according to which
narrative utterances can be generated and understood.1
There are many traits that are associated with “Irishness”. One common association is our unique ability
to tell stories. We are a nation of storytellers. Our fairy tales and folklore
are alive today because of the cherished stories that have been passed on from
generations. In this chapter I hope to explore the development of our national
heritage as storytellers, from the tradition of Sean chaí’s to the modern
storyteller, Neil Jordan, who brings narrative to life through contemporary
screen, specifically in his film Ondine.
Ondine (2009) is Jordan’s sixteenth feature film. The title Ondine derives from a German folktale,
also spelt Undine2.
Elements of Hans Christian Anderson’s The
Little Mermaid are also incorporated into Jordan’s canvas as well as selkie
legends from Celtic folklore. Selkies are half-human half seal that lose their
seal coat to live on land, but they must return to sea eventually.
In an interview with the New York
Times Jordan said:
I’ve done so many things in Ireland about
brutality and violence- punishing, unforgiving things… I suppose I wanted to
do something just gentle, like those early fairy tales of Yeats and Lady
Gregory, which are terribly childish, terribly romantic, quite beautiful”3
Ondine follows fisherman Syracuse played by Colin Farrell,
from Castletownbere, a small village in the south-coast of Ireland. Syracuse is
a reject and a recovering alcoholic who cares for his daughter Annie played by
Alison Barry, who is sick from kidney failure.
The film opens with Syracuse alone on the water. He pulls in his net to
find Ondine (Joanna) played by Alicja Bachleda. Ondine refuses Syracuse’s
proposal to visit a hospital, as she does not want to be seen. The mystery of
how and why she ended up in Syracuse’s care is revealed towards the end of the
film. Syracuse complies with Ondine’s wishes to remain incognito and grants her
refuge in a small cabin by the sea which belonged to his late mother, who also
once sought refuge here to avoid her racial stigma because of her gypsy
heritage. Annie finds out about her
fathers resident through stories told by him. She draws the conclusion that
Ondine is a selkie, derived from the sea, who must spend seven years on land.
Fearful that her identity will be found out, Ondine goes along with Annie’s
In the first half of the twentieth century, cinema began to evolve
through Europe and the United states. At the same time, the Irish Free State
saw an importance in the tradition of oral storytelling known as béaloideas. Fearful that this tradition of storytelling
would decline because of the rising popularity of cinema, The Department of folklore in University College Dublin set up a
commission of unpaid collectors to gather stories from their local areas. Most
of these collectors were schoolteachers, who were trusted by the locals to
share their information with them. One hundred and fifty questionnaires were
circulated and even primary school children were approached to recall stories
their grandparents had told them.4
Gathering of folktales met with special difficulties. All occasional
contributors until the middle of this century had to write down from dictation
(which decontextualized the telling and ruined the flow of the live delivery),
or to reconstruct from memory after the interview (which led inevitably to
imprecision and possible distortion).
But recording equipment appeared; in the 1930s, some full-time
collectors began to travel with cumbersome Ediphone clockwork dictation
machines, whose wax-cylinders had to be changed after some eight minutes…
Indeed the cylinders were normally pared and recycled after transcription; few
have survived, so that it is no longer possible to experience the vocal
artistry of most speakers.”5
Annie’s belief in this folktale leads us
through the film, curiously imagining a world of magic and myth. Her curiosity
is echoed with her repeated quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland “Curiouser and curiouser!”
Annie acts as representation of the
salvation of myth in modern Irish life. She researches the story of the selkies
by borrowing books from the local library in efforts to maintain and restore
her belief in this magic.
Neil Jordan’s directional debut came
during the first wave of Irish cinema with his film Angel (1982)6.
The first establishment of the Irish Film Board ran from 1981 to 1987.
During this time it financially aided ten feature films and numerous
documentaries. A minor sum was given to
partially fund the productions with the remainder of the funding coming from
Channel 4 Television and RTÉ.
In 1987 Taoiseach Charles J Haughley
ordered the abolishment of The Irish Film Board as he deemed it to have
There were returns of just 8.5%. Other funding for these productions came
mostly from Channel 4,
There was a demand for the rebuilding of the
Board because of the success of Irish films. Apart from the culture and the
arts aspect of filmmaking, it was crucial that the Board was re-established to
boost the countries economy and to ultimately create jobs.
1993 Minister of Arts, Culture and An Gaelteacht re-established The Irish Film
board and relocated it in county Galway. The Irish Film board was given an
annual budget of one million pounds by Minister Higgins. By 2003, the annual
budget for the Irish Film board rose to an estimated at €9.153 million. It was
the re-establishment The Irish Film Board at this period that began the second
wave of Irish cinema.
Annie is first told the story of Ondine by
her father Syracuse while at her medical appointment. Annie’s inquisitive
innocents lend to Syracuse’s enchantment and belief that Ondine possesses
magical powers of luck.
The following scene shows Ondine sitting alone in the cabin singing.
Music is an important device in Irish
folklore. Many folktales have been passed on from generation to generation,
through music. Sean nós singing is an
unaccompanied, ornamented, solo style of singing. The name Sean nós directly
translates to ‘old style’. The art of sean nós singing is for the purpose of
passing on stories. There are laments telling tales of sadness and hardship.
Comedic songs that give light hearted accounts of funny events and rebel songs
that tell tales battles for freedom. Ondine’s song she sings imitates this style of
unaccompanied singing. While at sea with Syracuse, Ondine begins to sing. To
Syracuse’s surprise, his luck with catching fish begins to improve. He
convinces himself that her singing has granted him this luck and also adds to
his suspicion of her supernatural identity.
The film persistently refers to the pre-Christian
magic and mythology of Ireland. Syracuse acts as a storyteller in this
Other residences of Castletownbere often
disrespect Syracuse’s character. They call him Circus reflecting on how he is
the ‘joke’ of the town, and nothing but a clown from a circus in their eyes.
Traditionally in ancient Irish society a storyteller would be invited into the
homes of royal families. There were many
different forms of storytellers. The bard was the least respected of
storytellers in Irish society. They were seen as a jester but provided light
He maintains this link of character in his
rejection to religion mirroring our current era of agnosticism or atheism in Ireland.
Syracuse seeks support from his local priest in confession. He admits that he
only attends these confessions to seek ailment from his drink problem. He
openly refuses to attend or practise religious ceremonies. Perhaps his
attendance to these religious confessions is to be accepted by the norms of
rural Irish society. In an interview with Paul McGuirk, Neil Jordan said:
very reflective of contemporary Ireland…, the only reason Syracuse goes to
the priest is because there is no local chapter of AA in the town, and he needs
an AA counsellor. Yet you feel that the priest is just sitting there in the
church and nobody else is coming near this guy. It’s very reflective of the
place the country is in just at the moment. There is something barren about
Ireland right now. It is as if we are denuded of imagination in some strange
way, stripped of all of the traditional solaces we once had”8
Even though Ondine references various folktales and plays on the viewer’s
belief in their magic, there are visual references that give evidence that this
is nothing but a romanticised version of real life. Shots of Ondine’s legs
mirror the tale of The Little Mermaid, who
is granted a spell where her aquatic tale is replaces with human legs. In this instinct,
the reference seen in figure 1,
fetishizes the mysterious appeal of Ondine, and the looming questions of her
being. This reference is made throughout the film. We first see it when Ondine
and Syracuse are on the boat Ondine is steering, while Syracuse is out on deck.
Ondine is fearful that she has been seen, so she ducks for cover. She controls
the boat with her legs (see figure 2
and figure 3). After Syracuse
buys Ondine clothes from the local shop, there is a scene where she is
‘transforming’ into her new being as a human and puts on the clothes. There is
reference to the beginning of the film and her identity as a sea-person at
(00:31:30). The fish-net tights she tries on her hands mirror the idea of
webbed-hands, like that of a sea-creature (see figure 3)
Ondine and Annie have a bonding moment at
(00:50:49). They are out in the water and Ondine is teaching Annie how to swim.
At (00:50:53) Ondine tells Annie “… You’re
a sea creature…” . Images of Annie’s
legs as she becomes comfortable in the water mirror the earlier images of
Ondine’s legs (see figure 4). Later
in the scene, Ondine discovers something in the water, which later will reveal
her, harsh, hidden, true identity. At this moment, Annie, still obeying the
myth of the selkie’s, asks Ondine if the object she had found was her seal
coat. According to the legend of the Selkies, a Selkie much bury her seal coat
to live on land as a human for seven years.
Annie questions whether Ondine is going to bury her seal coat, replacing
her old life with the new one she has found with Syracuse on land. Again,
complying with Annie’s misinformed beliefs, Ondine goes along with the magic
and agrees to bury it, which will too leave behind a past that is far from
Folklore and mythology are very important in our heritage and our
national identity. Neil Jordan plays a lot with different forms of stories that
come from different national backgrounds, and inserts them into rural Irish
life. These whimsical tales are very suiting to the background of natural the
natural Irish landscape of Castletownbere. The conspiracies that the characters fall into
surrounding the Identity of the outsider, give light relief to the harsh
reality that is Joanna’s existence. Tales that gave entertainment relieve to
life in the times of the oral traditions of storytelling are mirrored
poetically in this piece by Neil Jordan.
It is a change from the harsh realities of Irish life and history that Jordan
depicts in his films such as The Crying
The stories and theories leave a looming question for the audience and
suspense for the true identity of the character.
On the one hand, as Neil Jordan put it in relation to the tales of Yeats
and Lady Gregory; They’re “Terribly
and that is perhaps why these myths are mostly led by Annie in this
instance. I believe that it is a reminder to express oneself in a child like
manner, because life can get too serious otherwise.
Ireland has, in
more recent years become a hub for foreign production companies to film. This
is due to many factors. The obvious one is that we are lucky to have ancient
natural landscapes. Many productions like Game
of Thrones (2011)12
and Vikings (2013) have created worlds set in picturesque locations in
The film relief
scheme was set up as an incentive for foreign film production companies to use
Irish talent in their films and to film in locations around the country.
the host of this fantasy world is a true to life location on the Beara
Peninsula. “Landscape has tended to play a leading role in Irish cinema”13.
It contributes hugely to the visual
quality of the film. Castletownbere
embraces all of the stereotypical depictions of Irish society; the drunk, the
“small-town-narrow-mindedness” and the beautiful landscapes of rural Ireland.
Castletownbere seems so depict a timeless Ireland, vacant of busy city life.
The characters in the village live a
simple life living off the natural recourses
aaracters in the village live a
simple life living off the natural resourses, fishing.
1 The Irish Storyteller,
Zimmerman, George D., 2001 p.9
2 Ondine, De la Motte
Fouqué, Friedrich., 1811
3 Terence Rafferty, ‘Neil Jordan’s possible World of the impossible’,
The New York Times Online, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/movies/30jordan.html?pagewanted=all
, last accessed on 20 January 2018
4 O’Connell Di?o?g. New
Irish Storytellers: Narrative Strategies in Film. Intellect, 2010. P23
5 The Irish Storyteller,
Zimmerman, George D. 2001 p388-389
6 Angel, Jordan Neil Bórd
Scannán na hÉireann, Channel Four Films, Motion Picture Company of Ireland 1982
7 Barton, Ruth. Irish National Cinema. Routledge, 2005.
8 Cf. Paul McGuirk “Ondine: Reworking a Foreign Fable: An Interview
with Neil Jordan”, cineaste, Vol.XXXV, 2003, https://www.cineaste.com/summer2010/ondine-reworking-a-foreign-fable-an-interview-with-neil-jordan/
9 Jordan, Neil, director. The Crying Game. Miramax Films, 1992.
10 Jordan, Neil, director. Michael Collins. Warner Bros, 1996.
11 Terence Rafferty, ‘Neil Jordan’s possible World of the impossible’,
The New York Times Online, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/movies/30jordan.html?pagewanted=all
, last accessed on 20 January 2018
12 HBO Entertainment ; co-executive
producers, George R.R. Martin, Vince Gerardis, Ralph Vicinanza, Guymon Casady,
Carolyn Strauss ; producers, Mark Huffam, Frank Doelger ; executive producers
David Benioff, D.B. Weiss ; created by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss ;
Television 360 ; Grok! Television ; Generator Entertainment ; Bighead
Littlehead. Game Of Thrones. The Complete First Season. New York :HBO Home
Entertainment, 2012. Print.
Rockett, Emer, and Kevin Rockett. Neil Jordan: Exploring Boundaries.
Liffey Press, 2003. P1ving off the natural resourses aaracters
in the village live a simple life living off the natural resourses, fishing.