So boasts the publicity poster for that cinematic ‘classic’ Darby O’Gill and the Little People, released by Walt Disney Productions in 1959, and detailing the adventures of a wily Irishman as he tries to outwit a local band of leprechauns.
Long recognised as a quintessential representation of stage ‘Oirishness’ it starred Albert Sharpe as the roguish titular character, Janet Munro as his beguiling daughter Katie, Jimmy O’Dea as the irreverent King Brian, and a rugged young Sean Connery as Michael McBride (before he donned his 007 tuxedo three years later in 1962).
Such was the power of cinema at the time of its release that it fueled, alongside the likes of The Luck of the Irish (1948) and The Quiet Man (1952), a lasting impression of Ireland as a romantic site of pastoral simplicity and charm, forever to be associated with green fields and thatched cottages, banshees and fairies, leprechauns and charming ‘coleens’.
However, what many people might not know is that Darby’s fate could have been very different, if the Irish Folklore Commission had had its way….
Founded in 1935 with the mission to collect and preserve the oral tradition of Ireland, encompassing its social history and oral literature, the Irish Folklore Commission’s work was hailed internationally for its cultural significance and historical value. It is little wonder then that the Commission’s experienced staff and its materials were sought out by Disney when he and his writers began exploring the idea of a film that would centre on ‘the little people’ in 1946.
Pieces of interest include travelling itineraries created by Commission staff for visiting writers and producers on research trips to Ireland. Photographs also exist of Walt Disney’s own visit to Ireland in November 1946, when Commission director Séamus Ó Duilearga brought him to Kerry to experience Irish traditional life first-hand. Interestingly, in her memoir, While Green Grass Grows: Memoirs of a Folklorist, Commission archivist Bríd Mahon speaks of the Commission staff, alongside the Department of External Affairs, as being..
“dismayed that he [Disney] had come to Ireland with the intention of making a film about leprechauns… Following directions from our Director, we tried to interest Disney in one or other of the great heroic sagas: The Táin or The Well at the World’s End… but no; nothing but leprechauns would do the man who had set his heart on meeting one and had travelled across the Atlantic in the hope that his wish might come true.”
This fascinating collection also includes numerous book receipts from booksellers across Dublin; detailing titles bought by Ó Duilearga and posted to his American counterparts as the film’s arc developed. The richness of material sent encompasses titles on Irish folktales, customs, literature, music, history, and ethnology.
However, despite the Commission’s best efforts to showcase Irish folklore as being a rich repository of social history as well as a source of traditional popular tales, it seems that Disney was, by the end of 1947, steadfast in his desire to focus on leprechauns for his project. And thus he decided to adapt the work of Herminie Templeton Kavanagh, author of Darby O’Gill and the Good People, for the silver screen.
Subsequently delayed, Darby O’Gill and the Little People finally went into the latter stages of development in 1957 and was released in 1959, taking 13 years in total from first conception to final release.
Commission staff were all invited to the Irish premiere, which was held in Dublin’s Mansion House on 24 June 1959, and given copies of Mr Disney’s schedule for the day so that they might find time to make his acquaintance again. Archivist Brid Mahon speaks of delighting in a post-war feast of “creamy soup, prawn cocktails, beef wellington, crepes suzettes and chocolate soufflés” at the evening reception.
Arah begorrah! What a different film we might have had if Disney had availed himself fully of the rich treasures of the Irish oral tradition…