Mary Poppins – the Irish connection

An Irishman’s Diary: Yeats praised poetic work of magical nanny creator

‘Walt Disney had wanted to adapt the book from as early as 1944, however, it was not until 1961 that Travers finally released the film rights’. Above, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) shows Disneyland to Mary Poppins author PL Travers (Emma Thompson) in Disney’s Saving Mr Banks. Photograph: Disney Enterprises

‘Walt Disney had wanted to adapt the book from as early as 1944, however, it was not until 1961 that Travers finally released the film rights’. Above, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) shows Disneyland to Mary Poppins author PL Travers (Emma Thompson) in Disney’s Saving Mr Banks. Photograph: Disney Enterprises

Sat, Nov 23, 2013, 01:00

While the relationship of the Mary Poppins author with movie mogul Walt Disney is the focus of the new film, Saving Mr Banks, her connections with Ireland are perhaps less well known.

The writer of the Mary Poppins books was born in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia in 1899, to Margaret and Travers Goff, and christened Helen Lyndon Goff. Later changing her name to Pamela Lyndon Travers, she was more commonly known to her readers as PL Travers. Travers’s consciousness of Ireland was awakened at an early age. Her father used to tell her that he was born in Ireland, even though he was born in London. Her mother was of Irish and Scottish descent.

Travers’s creative abilities shone through from an early age. At age 10 she appeared in a professional production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and as a teenager she toured New South Wales as a dancer and actor with a Shakespearean company. In 1924, Travers sailed from Australia to see relatives in England. She had already been writing stories and poetry for some time when she contacted the poet, George William Russell (known as AE), who was editor of the Irish Statesman, the leading literary journal of the nascent Irish Free State. Travers had known of AE for some time as she had read his poems when she was growing up in Australia.

She sent a poem of hers to AE, with a stamped addressed envelope, to see what he would make of it and he straight away published it in his journal. Her stamped addressed envelope was posted back to her containing a cheque for two guineas. The accompanying letter said that if she was ever in Ireland to call to see him at his office in Plunkett House on Merrion Square or at his home on Rathgar Avenue. AE also said in the letter that he had shown some of Travers’s verses to WB Yeats and that Yeats thought they had “poetic merit”. “That means a good deal from him”, AE told Travers. Her poem The Dark Fortnight was published in the Irish Statesman on January 29th, 1927 and another of her poems, Coming Towards Meadows, was published on November 17th, 1928.

Among other things, AE was a mystic and a founder member of the Theosophical Society of Ireland. His paintings, which often depict fairies, angels and saintly beings, have a magical, dreamlike quality. Travers, who was fascinated by myth and mysticism, was drawn to this side of AE’s character. For Travers and many other young writers and artists who flocked around him, AE acted as a mentor and teacher. They attended the weekly Sunday salon at his Rathgar home where they met the leading figures on the artistic and literary stage. Travers remained close to AE for the rest of his life. She was at his bedside, along with Oliver St John Gogarty and Con Curran,
when he died in a Bournemouth nursing home in
1935.

Another of Travers’s connections to Ireland comes through her adopted child. When Camillus Hone was six months old, Travers adopted him from his parents Nathaniel and Biddy Hone. Camillus was a twin, but Travers did not want twins and therefore separated the two boys. She brought him up on her own, living in London and also spending some time in America.

Years later, when he learned he was adopted, Camillus resented having been separated from his twin and blamed Travers. Critics have been quick to draw parallels between the characters of Travers’ books and the characters of her own life story. Travers once said that the source of inspiration for her writing came from bringing up in herself a painful memory. There’s no question that she was inspired by events in her own life, but it is hard to say to what extent.

Travers wrote several Mary Poppins books, the first of which was published in 1934. The film that was released recently, Saving Mr Banks, tells the story of how Travers’ Mary Poppins was translated into a Disney movie.

Walt Disney had wanted to adapt the book from as early as 1944, however, it was not until 1961 that Travers finally released the film rights to Disney. Two relatively unknowns at the time: Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews, starred in the 1964 musical film based on Travers’s book. The film was a huge success and brought the magical nanny to a new and wider audience, winning five gold coloured statuettes at the Academy Awards in the process.

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