Ghosts of Ireland: A Film Travelogue



by Megan McNelis

I’m motivated to travel by the images I see in movies. I have to admit, I’m not great at remembering plots. I’ll be discussing a movie with someone and they’ll say, “How about that ending?!” I’ll find my mind blank, eyes wide while I nod and search my memory.

But images often run through my mind before I fall asleep or while I have a spare few moments during the day. This is when my wanderlust kicks in, goading me to see these images for myself and enhance what is only currently a two-dimensional dream.

On a recent trip to Ireland, my sister and I drove in a semicircle south to north, from Cobh to Belfast. At every stop, I found myself sharing my enthusiasm with locals about movies that had been filmed there. Films are always a great way to unite with people and show that I’ve done a little more in-depth research into their hometowns than just the cost of a tour-bus ticket.

Cobh: The Eclipse
This little-known movie is an odd mixture of genres: horror and romance. It’s a bittersweet film about a down-to-earth widower whose grief gives him the ability to see ghosts. When his seaside town is host to an international literary festival, he seeks advice from a horror novelist who claims to have had ghostly experiences of her own. The Eclipse (2009) adds humor with culture clashes between the writers attending the conference (yes, there are some Ugly American jokes) while supernatural frights draw the unlikely couple closer together.megan1The Elipse (2009)

megan2Ciaran Hinds and Iben Hjejle

Today’s Cobh is just as charming and the people as straightforward as Ciarán Hinds’ character suggests. Its winding streets allow you to explore local architecture such as the great St. Colman’s Cathedral or the “Deck of Cards”–a row of tiny houses descending a steep hill, where local children believed they could roll down the hill through the basements of each house.

megan3The “Deck of Cards”

Cobh’s waterfront is home to a memorial to the Lusitania, which was sunk nearby in 1915. There is also a museum dedicated to the Titanic, which made its last stop just outside Cobh’s port. After a day of studying these nautical tragedies, you can lift your spirits in a wealth of bars full of friendly people, live music and craic (fun).

megan4Kelly’s Bar, Cobh

Aran Islands: Man of Aran
Robert Flaherty is famous for the daring feats captured in his early film documentaries, filmed without safety precautions. His most well-known scene is probably from Nanook of the North (1922), where an Inuit fisherman must navigate fast-moving ice floes to stay afloat. Man of Aran (1934) delivers the same breathtaking cinematography in dangerous scenes portraying island life. Although he made an artistic effort to re-create historic conditions, Flaherty’s scene of Irish fishermen wrestling with a whale shark on the end of their lines is nevertheless thrilling. He describes the harsh island existence where residents hoping to farm the land had to clear tons of rock and create their own soil from kelp on the island.

megan5Man of Aran (1934)

Riding the Aran Islands ferry from Galway today, you can talk to fisherman heading out for their daily catch. I peppered one with unanswered questions from the movie: What are pampooties? And are there still sharks in the island waters? (yes).

megan6Inishmore, Aran Islands

With few cars on the islands, it’s easy to rent a bike and pedal to the ruins of forts and churches, some built around as early as 1100 BCE. Island residents are proud of their heritage–there is a theater on Inishmore dedicated to playing Man of Aran every day.

megan7Dun Aonghasa Fort

County Donegal: The Secret of Roan Inish
Recently popularized in the Irish animated film Song of the Sea (2014), the Selkie legend has roots in in Ireland, Scotland and the Faroe Islands. Selkies are believed to be half human, half seal–living in the sea, but shedding their skin to visit and sometimes marry humans on land.

megan8The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

With The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), writer/director John Sayles turned from his usual political commentary films to deliver an ethereal Irish fairy tale. As a young girl, Fiona is sent to live with her grandparents on the remote northwest coast of Ireland. Her baby brother, Jamie, had disappeared there years earlier, when his cradle washed out to sea. Fiona has never lost faith in finding Jamie, and links her hope for his survival to local tales of her family’s rumored selkie ancestry. Her stoic vigil and pure belief heartens her grandparents, who long for their home on the island where Jamie was lost.

megan10The Silver Strand, County Donegal

megan9Sliabh Liag, County Donegal

It’s easy to romanticize County Donegal’s landscape, where tiny country roads and proud adherence to custom lend a sense of being far-removed from modern life. Trains don’t run to this rugged region, but it is well worth the drive to discover dazzling cliffs and friendly villages along the way. Even on summer evenings, you can smell the peat burning to heat people’s homes. Donegal is the region where my ancestors lived before the long journey to America. Gazing out over the sea, I could imagine that my sister and I were, like Fiona, searching for a faded link to our past.

Giant’s Causeway: Cremaster 3
Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle is an accomplished marathon of grotesque and fascinating visions. Cremaster 3: The Order (2002) weaves Irish legend into its fabric, beginning and ending with the tale of Irish giant Finn McCool and his Scottish counterpart, Fingal. Legend has it that in order to meet for battle, the two built a pathway–the Giant’s Causeway–from Ireland to Fingal’s cave in Scotland.

megan11Cremaster 3

Today Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a volcanic rock formation in which lava cooled into geometric shapes that fit together in a giant puzzle. I agreed to go see it without really knowing what I was in for. My sister showed me the cover of her guidebook, which had a picture that didn’t convey much about the site. As we approached a bend in the road to the Causeway, I was still seeing the wild Irish coastline that had accompanied us all along. But as soon as we rounded the bend, I was amazed. People were climbing on the interlocking columns, and indeed there was something very satisfying about stepping from one perfectly fitted stone to the next–like clearing board after board in a game of Tetris.

megan13 megan14

Belfast: Hunger
Driving north from Donegal, two former Catholic sisters crossed the border on the most loyalist of Ulster holidays: the Twelfth of July. The Twelfth commemorates William of Orange’s 1690 victory at the Battle of the Boyne, with huge parades showcasing Orangemen in their sashes and badges. Driving through Coleraine we almost got stuck in the parade route with thousands of cheering revelers.

megan15Coleraine Orangeman

In Belfast, we took one of the famous Black Taxi tours otherwise known as “doom and gloom” tours to locals. For 30 Ulster pounds, a cabbie who lived through the Troubles will take you to the still segregated Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods to view the murals celebrating martyrs of the IRA and Ulster Defence Association.megan16 megan17 megan18

Seeing this mural celebrating the closing of the Maze Prison in 2000, our guide recounted the strikes and uprisings in this controversial prison, hated by Catholic and Protestant prisoners alike. He was egalitarian about crediting the Catholic hunger strikes as creating benefits for Protestant prisoners as well. At this moment, I remembered watching Hunger (2008), in which Michael Fassbender depicts Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike. I asked our guide if it was the same prison. “Oh yeah,” he said. “You’ll see his mural over on the Catholic side.”

megan19Hunger (2008)

Megan McNelis is an occasional Scarecrow Video employee and celebrated world traveller. She speaks like 100 languages. 


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