We Love… 25 Years of Irish Film – The Secret of Kells

Illustration: Adeline Pericart

So Film Ireland magazine is 25 years old. Over those years Ireland has produced some great films which have been successful both here and abroad – not to mention nabbing a few Oscars® along the way. And so over the next couple of weeks Film Ireland‘s army of cinema dwellers look back over the last 25 years and recall their favourite Irish films in the latest installment of…

We Love…

25 Years of Irish Film

The Secret of Kells

(Tomm Moore, 2009)

‘… a sumptuously animated feast for the eyes…’

Cathy Butler

The Secret of Kells, Tomm Moore’s richly visual interpretation of the mythology surrounding The Book of Kells, centres much around the theme of ‘turning darkness into light’. Ireland, in a literal sense, can often be a dark and gloomy place thanks to our Atlantic climate. Perhaps Irish animators are turning this ‘darkness into light’ through means of their multitude and diverse works. Irish animation has been gaining in strength over the past ten or twenty years. Short animated films such as Fifty Percent Grey and Give Up Yer Aul Sins have demonstrated how Irish animation has resonance on the international platform, both works gaining Academy Award nominations. The Secret of Kells is another addition to this growing legacy, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, and winning the Audience Award at both Dublin and Edinburgh film festivals.

Ireland’s transition from Paganism to Christianity is so far back in our history as to be shrouded in darkness; it is this darkness that Moore manages to illuminate in this intensely visual fictional account of one of Ireland’s literary landmarks. The story begins with Brendan, a young boy living in a monastery under the authority of his uncle, the Abbot Cellach. The threat of the imminent arrival of viking invaders causes the Abbot to relentlessly pursue the building of a wall around the monastery to protect them. The monks of the scriptorium are more concerned with their writing and illumination than building the wall, much to the irritation of the Abbot. With the arrival of ‘master illuminator’ Brother Aidan and his enlisting of Brendan’s help to complete the most magnificent page of ‘The Book of Iona’, Brendan’s crossed loyalties to both Aidan and the Abbot bring him on some perilous adventures.


 Wait until you see the rest of my forest

What ensues is a sumptuously animated feast for the eyes. The lush, mysterious forest that surrounds the monastery is richly depicted, while the shadowy, threatening figures of the horned ‘northmen’ are vividly rendered. The sheer extent of the detail makes the film a true feat of artistic and technical endeavour. The animation draws off various tropes of ancient Irish art, such as concentric circles and serpentine patterns, and reworks them into this more contemporary manifestation. Refreshingly, the film’s use of such aspects of ancient Irish culture and mythology does not stray into twee stage-irishness, as it could so easily do.

The narrative retains the fun and frolics of a children’s film while managing to tackle larger, universal themes. Brendan’s journey back and forth from the monastery to the forest is one that echoes of the journey from innocence to experience. The organised world of the monastery, emblematic of Christianity, is contrasted with the beauty of the natural world, that more aligned with Paganism. In another sense, the schism within the monastery between working on the wall and working on illumination suggests on a basic level the pursuit of art in the face of more practical concerns. For cinematic visuals, engaging story, and insightful themes, The Secret of Kells ticks all boxes.

Cathy Butler



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