Lisa Scoggin – Grief, Myth, and Music in Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea

Director Tomm Moore achieved some fame with his first feature, The Secret of Kells, which describes a fictional story of the illustrator of the Book of Kells as a child.  His second feature, Song of the Sea (2014), uses various Irish myths – most notably that of the Selkie – in a relatively modern setting to explore ideas of family, intentions, and grief.  The family, consisting of Ben, a 10-year old boy, his sister Saoirse, a 6-year old Selkie girl, and Conor, their father, are still mourning in various ways the loss of the mother, Bronach, whom they lost when she gave birth to the girl.  As the story progresses, the characters – particularly Ben, as the protagonist of the story – must find a way to work through these emotions in order to save not only the little girl, but the spirit world as well.  As one might guess from the title, music plays a strong part in the film – not in the same way as it generally does in a Disney feature or similar cartoon, for this is not a musical in the traditional sense, but rather, as an actual part of the plot, a signifier or creator of action.  As such, the music itself, along with aspects of Irish mythology, are what allow the characters to move past the loss of the mother and continue on with their lives.

As with The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea has a strong connection to Irish folklore: in this case, focusing on the creatures known as Selkies.[1]  These are creatures of the sea, and many of the tales written about them stem from fishermen and other seagoing folk.  In the water, they appear as seals, but on land, they may remove their sealskin “coat” and change into human form.  Indeed, several stories refer to men stealing a female Selkie’s coat in order to keep her on land and marry her.  Modern versions of their tales suggest that they are by and large gentle creatures.  Although Selkies may be either male or female, Moore’s story focuses on the females, whom he notes are dark haired, beautiful, and have wonderful singing voices – perhaps suggesting the role music has to play in the movie.[2]  Several other character designs in the film are also based to a varying extent on Celtic folklore, including MacLir, Macha, and the Na Daoine Sidhe, all of which will be considered later in the article.[3]

Before the audience is aware of the role the supernatural will play in the story, however, they see the kernels of music and myth, from the very beginning.  The opening credits start with images of a beautiful woman singing, seals swimming, fairies playing instruments, and MacLir weeping, all while a woman recites a portion of W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child”:

“Come away, oh human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”[4]

The combination of this text with the instrumental version of the “Song of the Sea” that is playing quietly in the background encapsulates not only the ideas of music and myth, but also foreshadows the grief at the end of the upcoming prologue (set six years before the main portion of the plot.)

Here, we learn that the figures we have just seen are actually part of a mural that our main character, Ben, is painting on his bedroom wall with his mother, Bronach (the woman whose voice was apparently reciting the poem.)  The beautiful woman is apparently a Selkie (bearing a striking resemblance to Ben’s mom), singing so that the fairies can go home “across the sea.”  As they work on it, Bronach teaches Ben the “Song of the Sea” in Gaelic.[5]

This song plays a vital role in the film, not only as an aural thread connecting the various scenes together, but also becoming a part of the plot.  As will become evident, it works on many levels: as a surrogate voice for Saoirse, as personal connection for Ben to his mother, as an overall connection to Irish mythology, and as bearer of emotion, (and through that, healing.)[6]  (See example 1 for the full melody as heard on the soundtrack and at the climax of the film.)[7] Although the song’s music and lyrics were both written specifically for the movie, Moore has noted that he and scriptwriter Will Collins wanted the tune to sound “ancient.”[8]  As such, composer Bruno Coulais, in collaboration with the Irish band Kila, worked to achieve this in several ways.  First, the tune is in the Dorian mode, with a very strong emphasis on the 5th scale degree, to the extent that the melodic phrases land on it regularly.  Second, the melody has no chromatic alterations of any sort, making it sound more like a folk tune. Third, it has a fairly simple rhythmic and harmonic structure, relying on melodic variants and embellishment, supporting improvisation, and textural color to keep the listener’s interest.  Fourth, in its sung form, the primary language is Gaelic, with Saoirse singing in English only for the repeat.  Each of these combine to create an authentic-sounding Irish folk tune.  The tune appears regularly throughout the film, not only occasionally as part of the underscore, but also vocally and in diegetic instrumental fragments.  As such, it helps to weave the story and its underlying mythology together aurally.

Soon after Ben learns the song, Bronach gives him a special shell with holes in it such that it can be played like a flute.  Thus, both the music and the stories have special significance for Ben.  He treasures them as gifts just for him from his mother.  These quickly gain extra meaning: Bronach disappears soon after and is believed to be dead, and both the song and the shell signify for Ben happier times when his mother was with him.  Thus ends the prologue, and the emotional turmoil begins.

Six years later, these elements his mother taught him have not lost any of their appeal to Ben, who still knows the stories and the music, and treats the shell as a special treasure.  On the other hand, he blames his sister Saoirse for his mom’s disappearance (at least subconsciously), so he is constantly angry and frustrated with her, through no real fault of her own.  His father Conor’s attitudes toward the children only makes the situation worse.  While Conor tends to ignore Ben (possibly due to Conor’s feelings of guilt and loss), he pays special attention to Saoirse, as he seems to associate her directly with the love he had for his wife.[9]  In fact, Conor seems to cut out almost all emotion other than when dealing with Saoirse.  Thus, Ben feels particularly alone and rejected.

Only after this scene is set does the connection between this family and the fairy world become readily apparent.[10]  For on Saoirse’s sixth birthday, she sees the shell that belonged to her mother, and (unlike Ben) she can play music on it.  She is so intrigued by it that she starts to play a melody: a variant of the “Song of the Sea,” the same song that her mother taught Ben.[11]

Though playing this music on the shell has a weaker effect than her singing it later on, it still acts as a (weak) surrogate for her voice, and as such, apparently grants Saoirse her Selkie birthright, at least in part.  Thus, the music creates small floating lights known as “Sulcha.”[12] The Sulcha have special powers.  These include guiding her path, and also leading her to her Selkie coat.  (The coat is the item that allows her to become a seal; her father Conor had locked it away in a closet in order to keep her with him, along the lines of the stories of husbands and their Selkie wives.) Upon finding her coat, she puts it on, follows the Sulcha to the sea and the seals therein, and then turns into a seal herself as she goes into the water, thus bringing to the fore the relationship between the family, the world of the fairies, and Saoirse’s musical performance.

As a result of Saoirse’s foray into the ocean (the supernatural aspects of which the family was not aware), the children’s grandmother takes the children inland to Dublin away from their seemingly neglectful father, ostensibly to force the situation into something more “normal” by removing them from the situation and forcing the bottling up of emotions.[13]  Saoirse continues to play segments of the “Song of the Sea” tune, subconsciously reaching for her heritage, and drawing the attention of the Na Daoine Sidhe.  (These are more earthy fairies akin to leprechauns.)[14]  Soon after the children have run away from their Granny in order to get back to their father, the fairies grab Saoirse and take her to their fairy fort to get her to free them all and send them home to the spirit world of Tir Na Nog.  Here, we are introduced to a second song: “Duleman.” Though this traditional Irish song originally described the wooing of a woman by a man who collected seaweed for a living, scriptwriter Will Collins adapted it for the film, creating new lyrics for the song that work as expositional material:[15]

VERSE: The Selkie song is bright
To waken all who follow
Manannan will lead
And Tir Na Nog will follow

CHORUS: Do-la-mon, a-pena pwee
Do-la-mon, manuela
Do-la-mon, a-paricka
Par-a-fee a-nerin

VERSE: Saoirse the Selkie
Will sing and save the day
The day that she who rescued her
Will cheer and celebrate


VERSE: Long, long we prayed
To hear the Selkie song
And now we pray again that her
Song will never end.


While the chorus, which Moore describes as “nonsense,” comes from the original song, the verses have a deeper meaning: one of optimism and hope for the future.  They suggest that, because Saoirse is a Selkie, she will sing, thus allowing all of the fairies to return home.[16]  As the fairies sing and play the song, Saoirse plays along on the shell, suggesting that she shares their joy, and that (ostensibly never having heard the song), she intrinsically knows the melody as a member of their world.

Although Saoirse knows the melody, and the lyrics are related specifically to her, the song itself is associated even more strongly with Ben, as it was one of the treasured songs that his mother taught him. It takes a while, however, for Ben to move past the skepticism and join in, thus sharing the lyrics to this song.  (Because of its association for him to his mother, he is perhaps reticent to share it with anyone else – even those who already know most of it.)  But Ben’s musical connections to the world of the fairies through his mother turns out to be fortuitous.  Both here and again later, when Ben meets the Great Seanachie (the ultimate fairy storyteller), Ben provides the forgotten lyrics to the song, thereby endearing him to the fairies, who would otherwise dismiss him as merely a “human child.”[17]  The fairies, in turn, help him to relate to his sister and understand his family’s past (despite his hesitancy to share the song.)  In this first instance, the Na Daoine Sidhe show him both that the fairy world is real and then indicate that his sister is a Selkie, which Ben corroborates on the bus back heading back home.

Meanwhile, Saoirse’s performances on the shell continue to influence the fairy world, and in turn, her own family, especially regarding their emotions.  Although Saoirse is not able to send the Na Daoine Sidhe home because she doesn’t yet have her voice, she is still able to counteract Macha’s ability to take away emotions and thus turn creatures to stone, at least to some extent.  Hence, when the owls (who are Macha’s servants) do her bidding, coming to get Saoirse and also turning the fairies into stone, Saoirse is still able to impede their ability to do so using her surrogate voice – in other words, through playing her shell.  By playing a few measures of the “Song of the Sea” as loudly as possible, she drives off the owls and de-petrifies the fairies’ heads, so they can tell her and Ben how to escape.

After the two leave the fairy fort, they attempt to get back home.  Several things get in the way, however: first, Macha is attempting to get Saoirse and turn her into stone, presumably because she (like Saoirse’s Granny) “knows what’s best for her” and believes that getting rid of all of her emotions by bottling them up (and hence turning her to stone) is appropriate.  Second, Saoirse becomes more and more sick as the day continues.[18]  Adding to these difficulties are Ben’s reticence to follow the Sulcha and Saoirse’s insistence on following them – so much so that she gives Ben back the beloved shell and goes down a holy well.  With this act, she both shows her affection for Ben and separates herself from him (eventually getting captured by Macha.)

After Saoirse goes down the well voluntarily, Ben is forcefully (through the actions of his dog Cu) pulled into the water as well, leading him to the Great Seanachie.[19]  Here, as with the Na Daoine Sidhe, Ben is able to come up with a portion of “Dulemann,” thereby convincing the storyteller to listen to him.  In turn, the Great Seanachie explains to him the story of Manannan MacLir (whose real-life counterpart is, appropriately enough, Ben’s father Conor.)  MacLir, sea god and guardian of the gateway to Tir Na Nog, was in such grief that he literally cried an ocean.  Rather than seeing him so upset, his mother, Macha, turned him to stone to rid him of his emotions.  From then on, she continued to use this power on others, especially the fairy folk, including, to some extent, herself.  (A selkie’s song, as we heard in the newly revised lyrics to “Duleman,” reverses this process.)  While Ben already knows this story from his mother, it allows the audience to see both the motive behind Macha’s actions and the emotional connection between MacLir and his counterpart (thus offering a window into Conor’s soul.)  Perhaps more importantly to Ben’s journey, however, the Great Seanachie sends Ben to where the owl witch Macha is keeping Saoirse, and in doing so, shows him the true story of why his mother left him and his father.[20]

By the time that Ben finds Macha in order to save Saoirse, he has made not only quite a physical journey, but also an emotional one.  His connection through song to the various Celtic fairies and folklore has helped him understand his past and realize his love for his sister.  But he still hasn’t dealt entirely with his anger and sadness regarding his loss, and so Macha attempts to use this to turn Ben into stone as well.  Fortunately, with his dog Cu’s help, Ben is able to run away from Macha toward Saoirse to try to save his sister.  The children and Cu become trapped in Macha’s attic, with the only possible means of escape being to destroy all of the literally bottled up emotions stored there through the use of the music from the shell.  Ben, however, cannot make a sound on it, and Saoirse, half turned to stone already by Macha, doesn’t have the energy to play.  Only at this point does Ben acknowledge that his anger and hostility toward Saoirse has never been her fault.  In fact, he sings to her the “Song of the Sea,” thus sharing his last treasure that he received from their mother.  Whether it is through Ben’s apology or his singing to her, Saoirse finds the strength to play the tune, destroying all of the bottles, driving away the owls, and giving Macha back all of her emotions.  This allows Macha to realize that what she did to Saoirse did more harm than good.  As a result, she does what she can to send the three of them back home, so that Saoirse can find her Selkie coat, sing, and live.

The three of them do get home, but the story isn’t quite over.  Ben has just about completed his emotional transformation, but his father Conor has only started the process, and because of Saoirse’s still poor health, Ben is in danger of losing what he has gained.  With his father’s help, Ben has recovered the Selkie coat that her father had thrown into the ocean earlier, but Saoirse has not gotten better.  It is up to Ben to complete the connection between Saoirse and her mother through song, by getting Saoirse to imitate (and hence learn to sing) the “Song of the Sea” – in Gaelic, as his mother sang it.  Though he has shared the music with her already, this time, he is consciously giving Saoirse a part of her Celtic heritage, and is finally sharing his mother with her as well.  (Conor, in watching this, is once again able to connect Ben with both Bronach and Saoirse.  This helps him close the emotional gap between him and the children, beginning the process of removing his metaphorical “stone prison.”)  Though Ben only teaches Saoirse the beginning of the song, she continues with the full work, bringing to the fore of her conscious mind not only the melody and words, but her part in the fairy world as a Selkie.  As such, she is able to bring all of the spirit world back to life, with considerable joy.  Soon into the song, as its influence spreads around the country, we hear faintly another voice providing harmony to Saoirse’s: her mother, according to Moore, thus cementing musically the connection between the two as well as between the mortal and spirit worlds.  In turn, the fairy musicians appear to join in Saoirse’s song, using Celtic folk instruments and performing heterophonically, yet complimentarily, in a way that sounds like a spontaneous expression of deep-seated happiness.  As the other instruments join the throng, the music rises up, aurally representing the fairies as they float up and join together harmoniously, creating a beautiful aurora.  Saoirse’s performative power is such that she is even able to help Macha with her emotional healing regarding her son MacLir.  Macha is thus able to get past her grieving process that started with the return of emotions resulting from Saoirse’s earlier shell performance, and instead go to her son and reverse her previous action to turn him to stone.  He is then able to open the gate to Tir Na Nog, the spirit world; and the fairies, having been released from their stone prisons via Saoirse’s song, are free to go home.[21]

The song even brings Bronach back, however briefly.  She is joining the mass exodus of the fairy world (for that is what is happening, making the event bittersweet) and has come to take Saoirse with her.  Indeed, in order to get Saoirse to follow, Bronach sings wordlessly the same tune that Saoirse has just finished, thus solidifying the connection between mother and daughter.  This allows Ben to get his mother’s attention, so that he and his father can say a final goodbye to her, and help convince her to let Saoirse stay (as she wishes to do).[22]  Conor, having seen and heard the beauty of the Selkie song and its resulting fairy exodus, has been moved enough emotionally that he can now express his love for his wife and say goodbye, moving past the grieving stage.  Bronach can (and does) express her love for him and for Ben, implicitly letting them know that it is not their fault.[23]

As a result of this entire journey, starting with Saoirse’s birthday musical discoveries and culminating in the freeing of the fairies via song, despite Bronach’s need to leave again, the rest of the family is able to move on from the unhappy “sleep” that they had been living for the past six years to a new phase in their lives.  Conor is able to apologize to his son, Ben reconciles with his dad and sister, and Granny realizes that the family will be “all right now.”  Indeed, as the closing credits start, the audience hears a different tune: a quietly hopeful (albeit wordless) song that accompanies Ben and Conor adding to the mural that Ben and Bronach had been painting at the beginning of the film.  The story has come full circle, and while the memories have not been erased, new memories and music are there to be made.[24]

Appendix 1:

A shorter version of this paper was originally given at the Music and the Moving Image Conference, May 26-28, 2017.



Academy of American Poets. n.d. The Stolen Child. W.B. Yeats – 1865-1939. Available from: [15August2019].

Barber, N. (2014). “The Way They Never Were: Nationalism, Landscape, and Myth in Irish Identity Construction.” Thesis, Georgia State University.


Jones, T. (2018). “Seaweed, Selkies, and Sacred Wells: Braiding Celtic-Christian Folklore and Art in Song of the Sea.” Unpublished paper. Presented at the Society of Animation Studies Conference, Montreal, July 2018.

Moore, T n.d. Mythological and Folkloric References in Song of the Sea. Film Centralen. Available from: <> [30 March 2016].

Orkneyjar n.d. The Selkie-folk. Available from: <> [22 April 2016].

Song of the Sea (2015). Cartoon Saloon/Universal Studios, Universal City, CA.

Stilwell, R. (2020). “Girls’ Voices, Boys’ Stories, and Self-Determination in Animated Films since 2012,”  in Voicing the Cinema: Film Music and the Integrated Soundtrack, edited by James Buhler and Hannah Lewis. University of Illinois Press.

Thomson, D 2000, The People of the Sea, Counterpoint, Washington, DC.


[1] For more information on Selkies, see Thomson (2000), especially chapter 8, and also Orkneyjar (n.d.)

[2] See Moore (n.d.), “Mythological and Folkloric References in Song of the Sea” for further information.

[3] See Jones (2018) and Moore (n.d.) for more information on the links between Celtic mythology and the film.

[4] For the full poem, see

[5] The instrumental version of this song underneath the opening credits is quiet enough and subtle enough that many listeners may not catch the connection.  Nevertheless, if the audience hears the instrumental song, the way that the combination of the images, the meaning of the poem, and the music in the credits then points to the images, plot, and vocal song in the prologue foreshadows the rest of the story.

[6] See Stillwell (2020) for more on the role of the voice in Song of the Sea and other animated films featuring girls and young women.

[7] Melody transcribed by the author.

[8] See the commentary on the movie by Tomm Moore (Song of the Sea, 2015).

[9] This may in fact be the reason that Conor has kept Saoirse’s Selkie coat, rather than toss it into the ocean as he does later in the film.

[10] As noted previously, an aural and visual connection between the family and the fairy world can be made during the opening credits and the prologue, but it is not as obvious as the connection will become.

[11] Based on the plot, Saoirse seems to know this melody innately, as Ben has not yet shared it with her.

[12] These Sulcha also connect Saoirse to her mother, as the audience first sees them in the prologue outside of the window as Bronach is teaching “Song of the Sea” to Ben.

[13] The parallels here between Granny and Macha are evident not only in their actions, but in their looks; Macha is in many ways an exaggerated, fantastical representation of Granny.  (As with books like The Wizard of Oz, several of the real-life characters have mythological counterparts.)

[14] For more information on the etymology of the term Sidhe, see Natalie Barber (2014), “The Way They Never Were: Nationalism, Landscape, and Myth in Irish Identity Construction,” thesis, Georgia State University, 4.

[15] See the commentary on the movie by Tomm Moore (Song of the Sea, 2015).

[16] See 33:02-34:34 for this particular scene.  (The timing listed here and throughout this paper comes from the version of the film as downloaded from iTunes.)

[17] The phrase “human child,” which both the Na Daoine Sidhe and the Great Seanachie use to refer to Ben, is apparently a reference to the W.B. Yeats poem “The Stolen Child,” which, as noted earlier in the paper, is also quoted at the beginning of the film.  As such, Moore continues to strengthen the connection between Irish culture, Celtic mythology, and grief by using the phrase multiple times throughout the film.  Noted in Jones (2018).

[18] Tomm Moore suggests in the movie that she needs her Selkie coat to survive, but in other literature, he’s noted that Selkies may become ill or faint if away from the sea for any length of time. (See Moore (n.d.) for further information.)

[19] The Great Seanachie also has a real-world counterpart in the real world: the ferryman.

[20] By holding onto the hair that tells the story of Bronach’s departure and Saoirse’s birth, Ben is able to literally see and hear that his mom had no choice but to leave, and that Saoirse washed up from the ocean as soon as Bronach went into it.  Thus, he realizes that neither he nor his sister had anything to do with his mom leaving, though he may not be completely ready to admit it.

[21] See 1:18:18-1:23:16 for this scene.

[22] Aside from Ben’s name, the words “I want to stay” are the first words that Saoirse has spoken, making the moment even more poignant.  See Stillwell (2020) for more on this moment.

[23] Bronach also tells Ben to remember her in his stories and songs, further strengthening the connection between music and Celtic folklore in the film.

[24] While “Song of the Sea” (the song) does come back later in the credits, I do not see this as a way to further the storyline, but rather, as supporting the overall film, especially given that all of the narrative is complete by this point.