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Breathing new Irish life into old Irish stories


Sea songs: Director Tomm Moore with singer Nolwenn Leroy, who sings two songs in the movie, at the French premiere in Paris last November

Sea songs: Director Tomm Moore with singer Nolwenn Leroy, who sings two songs in the movie, at the French premiere in Paris last November

French Select/Getty Images

Sea songs: Director Tomm Moore with singer Nolwenn Leroy, who sings two songs in the movie, at the French premiere in Paris last November

When the waiter delivers the coffee he does so as Gaeilge, "bainne", "siúcra" and a jug he removes because it's "folamh." Folamh, a word that clambers out of distant memory and tells me it means "empty." I mutter a "Go raibh maith agat" and wonder aloud why I am so sheepish about speaking Irish. Paul Young, producer of Song of the Sea, the reason we're all drinking coffee in Dingle Dangain, says he feels the same, "It's because you're afraid to make a mistake in Irish." And although his Irish is impressive sounding to my ear, Tomm Moore, director of the film, says he too lacks gaeilgoir confidence. "Because my wife is fluent and my son is fluent I feel a bit sheepish. Basically I suppose you feel OK not being perfect speaking French but you feel embarrassed not having Irish."

Up until recently the attitude to all things Irish was slightly sacred. Yet ironically the arguments over purism in language and the sanitisation of history and mythology possibly contributed to their decline. It was as if there was some kind of morality attached to Irish, you should know it, and you should know it the right way. Having had his son go through the Gaelscoil system and seen the kids use Irish not only correctly and daily but integrating it into their real lives made Tomm think. "They'd say things like 'Cadever' and 'Tá mé gonna getcha' and 'Tá sé awesome' and it was great to see it so alive and thriving."

This notion of breathing new life into Irish heritage permeates much of the work done by Cartoon Saloon, the animation company that Tomm and Paul run with their other partner Nora Twomey. It is particularly evident in their latest, loveliest production, Song of the Sea. Cartoon Saloon was born in Ballyfermot Senior College in the late 1990s when the two men were students there. Don Bluth and Jimmy Murakami had animation studios in Dublin, they were making American stories with Irish talent which encouraged the idea that there was a future in animation, but Tomm and Paul were keen to make Irish stories. Tomm describes how in 1999 he had already had the idea for their first film, The Secret of Kells, which was also nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar. He had been a member of Young Irish Film-makers (YIF) in his native Kilkenny, "Paul and I had been pooling resources doing freelance work in college, illustration and cd roms and animations, and all the posse of friends from college, about ten of us, came down to Kilkenny. The YIF gave us free studio space for a year and as the company grew we moved into the premises we're in now."

Despite Tomm's clear vision of what he wanted to make, he says, "I was naïve about how long it would take - it took about ten years!" Along the way, at the Galway Film Fleadh, Paul had met Brendan Gleeson. "I showed him the bible, the pitch book I was carrying round, and he loved the character. He told me to talk to his agent and I did. A few months later Brendan rang me up at seven in the morning and asked 'What happened that film?' I said 'Oh, I didn't hear from you...' and he said 'Ah, I'm going to Italy now to shoot Gangs of New York and I won't be back for ages.' I asked him to do a recording for the trailer we were making to pitch in Berlin and he said 'Come on up, so.' and we recorded it in his house in Malahide. It was four years later before we were finally ready to get him into Ardmore for the voices and he walked in and said, 'Well done, fair play in getting the money and getting it made.'"

The amount of time it took to get the project off the ground made Tomm consider a career change, "I thought I might go and get a real job but then the Oscar nomination was kind of an endorsement by the Academy and my peers to keep going and make another one which was great because I already had the idea for Song of the Sea." When I met Paul and Tomm it was back in March at Animation Dingle, part of the annual Dingle International Film Festival and an appropriate setting because it was there that Tomm had had the original idea for Song of the Sea nine years ago. He was on the beach with his son who called his attention to something that he thought looked like an alien head. "It was actually a decomposing seal's head. Then I realised there were dead seals all along the beach and it was kind of disturbing and I didn't want my son to see it." He asked a local woman about it and she explained that local fishermen were taking out their frustrations at dwindling catches on the seals. "She told me that people used to believe that seals could have the souls of people who were lost at sea. That was a superstition that protected the seals when people were a bit more connected by the folklore and superstition around here. I thought that it was sad that all of that was being lost." He read a book called The People of the Sea (David Thomson's 1950s collection of Scottish and Irish folklore) and Song of the Sea was born.

The film is about a family in the west of Ireland left broken when the mother (Lisa Hannigan) disappears the same night her daughter Saoirse (Lucy O'Connell) is born. Eldest child Ben (David Rawle) resents the silent sister he believes responsible for his mother's disappearance and their father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) exists in despair. When it becomes apparent that Saoirse is a selkie, half seal half human, her Granny (Fionnuala Flanagan) takes the children to the city for safety. But there the magic only increases. The film is beautifully animated and although advances in technology have speeded up the process, it is still largely hand-drawn. Tomm explains, "We used to scan the images in, now we only paint the backgrounds on paper and draw the rest directly on the screen with special pens." The effect is not only very visually distinct from CGI but they've been told by lots of parents that many children, as distinct from after seeing a computer-generated cartoon, will go home and start to draw.

Confident that Brendan Gleeson would take the part of Conor, they designed the character around him. Tomm explains that Gleeson also brought a lot to the character. "It was straight after Calvary but he came prepared. I had the character drinking, Granny taking pills and Dad drinking like they were putting their emotions in jars, but Brendan didn't like that, he felt it was a bit clichéd so we changed it." Both Tomm and Paul feel the film is better for the change and were impressed that both Gleeson and Fionnuala Flanagan could do the voices in the Irish dub of the film.

The Oscar nomination, for Best Animated Feature, opens all kinds of doors for film-makers, and both Paul and Tomm were out in LA to make the most of the opportunity. Tomm says, "I found that the part leading up to it was the best part, there are different parties and events," and although they didn't win they've secured investment for their next film and distribution deals for their Puffin Rock TV series. The film opened in the US in December and has had a hugely positive reaction. Paul feels his fellow Boyle native, Chris O'Dowd "legitimised the Irish accent in Bridesmaids," and foreign audiences have had no problem at all with the pure Irishness of the film.

But it's Irish audiences that they are keenest to impress. Tomm laughs that he feels it's a success that the film made me cry, "We cracked your stone cold critic's heart!" It is also funny, and Paul adds that he hopes that it will make all generations laugh. "We're kind of hoping for a very damp July so people will want to go to the cinema with their kids. And go twice!"

'Song of the Sea' opens on July 10

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