How 'Darby O'Gill' captured an Ireland rapidly fading

CULTURE SHOCK : There is more to the film ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’ than meets the eye and, 50 years on, it is still…

CULTURE SHOCK: There is more to the film 'Darby O'Gill and the Little People' than meets the eye and, 50 years on, it is still oddly relevant

THE LEADING American independent film director John Sayles recalled, of the making of his Irish movie Roan Inish, that “My casting director in Ireland would have the word ‘DOG’ next to certain actors’ names. I asked her what that was about and she said it stood for ‘Darby O’Gill’ – meaning that that actor tended towards a stage-Irish character, especially when an American is looking at them.”

Fifty years after its premiere (an occasion marked by an open-air screening in Temple Bar in Dublin this week), the Walt Disney film Darby O'Gill and The Little Peopleremains the touchstone for Paddywhackery in all its forms.

For what is essentially a light-hearted and good-natured fantasy, Darby O'Gillinduces a strange unease in Irish culture. As the casting director's code suggests, it lingers in the mind but is held at a knowing distance. We like to think of it as having nothing to do with us beyond those who play up to the American gaze.


In that other great storehouse of fantasy and folklore, Wikipedia, for example, it is stated as fact that “actor Cyril Cusack and Chief Justice (later president) Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh picketed this film’s launch in Dublin due to what they felt was ridiculous stereotyping of the Irish people.”

This is highly improbable. High Court judges (as Ó Dálaigh was then) don’t picket films. Cyril Cusack was a guest at the reception after the screening, and attended with his children. The premiere, at Dublin’s Theatre Royal, was a charity event for disadvantaged children. I can find no contemporary account of the alleged protest.

That it has entered folklore suggests a kind of wish-fulfillment. We would like to think that we kicked up a fuss about Darby O'Gill, that we found it deeply offensive. I don't think we did. A Dublin workshop for people with disabilities, in an early example of merchandising, churned out Darby O'Gill dolls. When Jimmy O'Dea, one of the film's stars and an immensely popular figure, got married later in 1959, he had, on top of his three-tiered wedding cake, a little Darby O'Gill leprechaun. There's not much evidence that Irish people regarded him as a traitor to the race.

The truth is that Darby O'Gill and The Little Peoplecan't simply be dismissed as Paddywhackery. It does not come out of an innocent notion of Ireland as the land that time forgot. Walt Disney, in Dublin for that premiere, explained his own position rather subtly. On the one hand, he insisted that he still believed in leprechauns: "Of course they still exist. They are testy little men. . . Leprechauns spend their time drinking Irish whiskey, dancing and watching horse races – very good pastimes."

On the other hand, he added that “The Irish people no longer see them because they are thinking about other things.”

Disney was an Irish-American. He put a great deal of effort into reading about Ireland and Irish folklore when he was planning Darby O'Gill. When he claimed to believe in leprechauns, he was not being merely disingenuous. His belief was not literal, but he did believe in the idea of an Ireland saturated in fantasy. That belief, as his comments suggested, belonged to Irish-America, not to an Ireland that was beginning the First Programme of Economic Expansion as the film was released.

In a sense, Disney was anticipating a famous Time Magazinecover of July 1963. Attempting a visual image of Ireland's industrial revolution, it has a straight portrait of Sean Lemass. Behind him is a shamrock-spattered curtain opening onto a scene of industrial buildings.

But, in a bizarre incongruity, the curtain is being held open by a leprechaun. If the image seems surreal, it is also an answer to Irish-American anxieties. If the imagined Ireland of rural romance is disappearing because the Irish have their minds on “other things”, there is only fantasy left. The leprechaun offers a kind of reassurance, but his presence is also elegiac.

There's nothing contemptible about this. Disney didn't present Darby O'Gillas a slice of social realism. He made it entirely, and quite appropriately, in California – it is a diaspora dream that acknowledges its own lack of connection to a contemporary Ireland. In this it is true to the spirit of Herminie Templeton Kavanagh, the daughter of a Longford man, married to an Irish-American judge, on whose work the film is based.

The blurb for the 1915 American edition of Kavanagh's collection of fantastic tales, Darby O'Gill and The Good People, makes a point of noting that while "a great deal of amusing fairy-lore is introduced", "there is no caricature of things Irish". There is certainly no more caricature than in the folk tales of her contemporaries Lady Gregory and WB Yeats. Just as Gregory and Yeats constructed fantasy versions of the other-worldly Irish peasantry for Protestants, Kavanagh (and Disney) constructed them for Irish-Americans.

Kavanagh even used a version of vernacular Irish English similar to Gregory’s.

In neither case were the fantasies devoid of a real connection to Irish culture. Darby O’Gill’s leprechauns and banshees may be a highly reductive version of Irish folk belief, but where else was that belief to go? The fact is that, until about two generations ago, very many Irish people retained a sublimely ambivalent connection to pre-Christian beliefs. As Catholics, they could not acknowledge those beliefs, but they were very careful to respect them. That ambivalence is part of the richness of Irish culture, its sense of having many layers beneath the surface.

That richness was stripped away by the hard practicalities of American exile. It was being killed off for good in Ireland in 1959 when Darby O'Gillhad its premiere. That Irish people, as well as Irish-Americans, found some consolation and comfort in Disney's film does not mean that they mistook it for any kind of reality. On the contrary, they may have enjoyed it as an acknowledgement that the fantasy was all that remained of a culture that was rapidly fading.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer