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The Magic of Darby O'Gill

When we think of Disney memories, we most often think of those magical moments like Cinderella getting her ball gown or Lady and the Tramp sharing a kiss over a plate of spaghetti or a supposedly dead Baloo the Bear rousing to life after battling Shere Khan.

These are moments that are emotionally uplifting and fulfilling and bring a smile to our hearts and I will bet that readers of this column can think of dozens of other such scenes in Disney movies.


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However, there are darker Disney memories as well that tap into our deepest fears and haunt the back corners of our minds even decades after we were first scared.

For me, several Disney films disturbed me as an impressionable youngster in Glendale, California. I remember going to the Pickwick Drive-In in Burbank, California with my folks and literally hiding behind the passenger seat with my two brothers when the dinosaurs fought in a re-release of Fantasia and all we could hear were the roars from these prehistoric giants. (One time, watching a rerelease of Snow White, it started to rain while the Old Hag was rushing up the mountain to lever a boulder down upon the Dwarves and I wondered how Disney had arranged that special effect of my squinting through rain to see the screen and that dramatic moment. Of course, it still rained through the bright, romantic ending which kind of spoiled things.)

However, one fear that I encountered while watching a Disney film at the Pickwick Drive-In has remained with me even decades later. I trembled in terror when my family went to see Darby O'Gill and the Little People and the banshee and the Death Coach appeared on the screen in special effects that seem archaic today. I made the mistake of peeking out from behind the seat to look at the screen during a quiet moment and caught a glimpse of these horrific images.

As a kid, I knew that these horrors must be real because, of course, Walt Disney had gone to great lengths to produce a special episode of his television program, I Captured the King of the Leprechauns that convinced me that leprechauns were real. The episode (Season 5, Episode 26) first ran on Disney's television show on May 29, 1959 and was rerun several times over the years.

When Irish actor Pat O'Brien (another actor I trusted as a kid because of the films I had seen him in on our black-and-white television), tells Walt Disney stories of the "little people" (even showing Walt a family heirloom: a small leprechaun outfit). Walt is off to Ireland to talk with the king of the leprechauns himself. Walt hooks up with Darby O'Gill (actor Albert Sharpe) and finally meets with the leprechaun. I could never understand O'Brien's shock at the end of the episode when Walt shared the story of his adventure.

There on our television screen was Walt in Ireland talking to a real leprechaun. They couldn't show something like that if it wasn't true. Uncle Walt wouldn't lie to me about something like that because I knew he liked me and every time I saw him on television, he was warm and friendly and knowledgeable and passionate and honest. If leprechauns were real, then surely so were the banshee and the Death Coach and those terrors would come to get me some day when I was alone and I would have no protection. After all, my mom was born in Wales and that was pretty close to Ireland and we might have relatives there. (In the Disney television show that showcased "Ben and Me," I believed it was based on a true story because Walt showed me the small bookcase and newspaper clippings. I was a gullible kid and became a gullible, trusting adult.)

It wasn't until decades later that I learned the entire television episode had been shot in sunny Southern California perhaps an hour or more from where I lived. It was the trickery of the amazing Peter Ellenshaw that allowed things like real Leprechauns to exist.

The episode blended footage from the then-upcoming film directed by Robert Stevenson with new footage directed by Harry Keller, who among other credits handled retakes on Orson Welles' Touch of Evil so he had no challenges matching other directors' styles. This was Stevenson's first big feature film for Disney and he would go on to direct many other memorable offerings.

Walt actually meeting real leprechauns was reinforced in an excerpt from Volume IV, No. 2 (1959) issue of Walt Disney's Magazine titled "How I Met the King of the Leprechauns" by Walt Disney himself. You can catch a glimpse of the issue here.

The cover is a color photo by Ira Hoke of Walt and Darby O'Gill meeting the king of the leprechauns. Obviously, Walt didn't write the article himself but I am assuming he must have skimmed through it to approve it for publication since it was going out to the public with his name as the writer. Here is an excerpt:

"Being half Irish myself, I learned about the Leprechauns of Ireland while I was still a small boy on our farm at Marceline, Missouri. I began to believe in Leprechauns then, because some of my relatives had pretty convincing stories to tell about the magic powers of these Little People, and the tricks they could play when angry.

"So, I promised myself that one day, after I had grown up, I would go to the Land of the Leprechauns myself, and meet one in person. The opportunity finally came last year when we decided to use real Little People instead of cartoon imitations in a movie we were planning.

"Most Irish in the old country respect Leprechauns. They leave food out for them at night, to keep them happy, and are careful not to disturb old forts and other ruins these wee folk guard as their very own. They are particularly careful not to throw water across any of the tiny paths Leprechauns leave in the grass, because Little People hate water, and there is no telling what sort of mischief they will be up to if they get their feet wet.

"Anyway, once we decided on using real Leprechauns in the picture, I set out for Ireland to hire some. We needed about 150, all told, for the picture we had in mind.

"How to find a Leprechaun? That was a big question. I found it wasn't easy. It takes a man mighty knowledgeable in the ways of Leprechauns to find one to talk to. I went to a library in Dublin. It was filled with books on the habits of Leprechauns. Each book recorded an encounter someone had with the Little People. There was even a little green suit, which had been sent in to the library by a lady from County Cork. She had thrown out her wash water without looking where it was going and later found the fairy clothes hanging on a furze bush to dry. It was lucky nothing worse had come from such a careless encounter."

After a long discussion with the librarian who was an elderly scholar on the history of leprechauns and paging through engravings in books, Walt was sent to County Kerry to find Darby O'Gill, who supposedly knew more about the Little People than anyone in Ireland.

Assuring Darby that he is not after Leprechaun gold but just to talk to the king himself, Walt is taken to the ruins atop Knocknasheega where following Darby's instructions Walt is able to find the king of the leprechauns. Walt was able to convince him along with about 150 of his subjects to consent to appear in the new feature film he was making.

In fact, the leprechauns in the final film were real since they were real actors who thanks to a clever optical illusion developed by Ellenshaw allowed them to appear to be "little people" interacting with full-size actors.

By placing Darby in the foreground and the actors playing leprechauns much further back and lower, the camera perspective was fooled to think that Darby was talking and interacting with the Little People. However, the challenge was making things like stones in the background in the right proportion so that they would match with the full size stones in the foreground.

Many shots that show Darby talking to King Brian were done where there is a common wall or floor or prop (like the arm of Brian's throne) that is split in two, with the king's part actually far behind Darby's part.

These forced perspective tricks that required a great deal of advance planning and talent would result in an original negative that was free from grain, optical fuzz and similar challenges that would appear using other techniques like split screen or matte work. In fact, this technique was recently used in the Lord of the Rings films especially in the scenes in the Hobbit home with Ian McKellen and Ian Holm interacting.

All of this is very tricky. So thankfully, Stevenson had a mathematical mind and along with Ellenshaw and art director William Tuntke, they made it look seamless.

Sometimes Darby stands high above the floor on a platform to get the right illusion. Shots had to be carefully (and sometimes heavily) lit so shadows don't disappear halfway across flat floors, and all the characters have to stay in their designated areas so they don't "cross over" into another area that would destroy the illusion in the blink of an eye.

Finally, the eye-lines have to be carefully adjusted. Albert Sharpe and Jimmy O'Dea had to work hard on their "eye contact" when they are really more than fifteen feet away from each other, looking in opposite directions.

This process is even much more complicated than it sounds but it is explained very well (including diagrams so someone like me can sort of understand it) on one of the special features on the current DVD release of the film.

Walt did everything he could for audiences to accept the fact that leprechauns were real. There were publicity pictures of Walt talking with the king of the leprechauns, stories about the negotiations to get permission from the Little People to show them in the film and even the final film itself has a title card that states: "My thanks to King Brian of Knocknasheega and his leprechauns, whose gracious cooperation made this picture possible—Walt Disney."

Walt had always had a fascination with the folklore of small, supposedly imaginary creatures interacting with full-sized human beings. During the war years, he struggled with developing Roald Dahl's book "The Gremlins" into a feature film. The film would have showcased animated versions of these mythic creatures of the air who harassed live action pilots and planes with all sorts of devilment.

One of the reasons for Walt abandoning the project was when he met with R.A.F. pilots, they treated the legends as a big joke. Walt felt that if the pilots themselves didn't truly believe in these creatures, then audiences wouldn't.

The leprechaun stories of H.T. Kavanaugh had captured Walt's fancy even as early as the mid-1940s, but it wasn't until Walt himself was convinced that the Irish truly believed in the wee folk that he started to actively work on the film that originally would have had animated leprechauns with live actors.

Born Herminie McGibney in 1876 in Ireland, the author published Darby O'Gill and the Good People under her married name, Herminie Templeton, in 1903. The book, which had first appeared in serial form in McClure Magazine, was published by McClure, Philips. A second edition of the book was issued in 1932 under the author's new name, Herminie T. Kavanagh.

She married her second husband, Marcus Kavanagh, a Cook County (Illinois) judge in 1905. Mrs. Kavanagh wrote one other book of Darby O'Gill stories, Ashes of Old Wishes and Other Darby O'Gill Tales (1926) before her death in 1933. Apparently, there was some controversy at the time similar to recent complaints about the "Harry Potter" series of books about the "fantasy" aspects of the Darby O'Gill stories, especially since they included a Catholic priest who would have discussions with King Brian about heaven and Satan. Apparently some later editions were "edited" so that juvenile minds would not be corrupted.

In the author's preface, Mrs. Kavanagh claims that the Darby O'Gill stories were told to her by Jerry Murtaugh, a car-driver whose mother was Darby's first cousin. Set in Ireland during the turn of the century, it is a story of staunch Irish Catholics who believe in fairies, leprechauns, banshees and similar spirits. The stories are told in a thick Irish dialect.

Darby O'Gill is a storyteller, a family man and small farmer, who prefers telling stories to working. All of these stories, even though dealing with sad topics like a couple who desperately want to have a child are told with great humor.

In the summer of 1946, Walt Disney invited his friend, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper of the famous hats to the Disney Studio to get her excited about new projects being developed at the Studio after the war years.

He was especially excited about combining live action and animation as he had done on Song of the South. In fact he told Hedda Hopper that he was planning a film version of Alice in Wonderland that would feature Luana Patten who had appeared in Song of the South in an animated Wonderland.

Hopper also wrote that on that visit in June 1946 that Walt told her about "sending a team of artists this summer to Ireland to gather material for yet another feature. It's called tentatively The Little People and will deal with all the leprechauns, banshees, and other supernaturals that Irish fantasy has created."

In 1947, Walt hired Lawrence Watkin to develop the script for the film. Former English professor Lawrence Edward Watkin, who had written the popular book and play On Borrowed Time, made two research trips to Ireland to get background material before writing the screenplay. On one of those trips, Watkins spent three months going through Dublin's library collection of Gaelic folklore as well as many hours with professional Irish storytellers known as "Shanachies".

Walt Disney visited Ireland in December 1948 to publicly announce that production would soon begin on a film entitled The Little People based on the Darby O'Gill stories but like many projects including the animated versions of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, it kept getting postponed.

Finally, Hedda Hopper's column for October 28, 1957 announced:

"Walt Disney's plan to make the Irish story to end all such has taken shape in 'The Wishes of Darby O'Gill.' Walt hopes to star Barry Fitzgerald in the dual role of Darby, a feisty old gent (as well as) Brian, king of the little people, an etheral and treacherous mite. (O'Gill tricks King Brian) into granting him three wishes. What Darby does with them makes fascinating adventure."

Academy Award winning actor Barry Fitzgerald whose appearances in films like Going My Way and The Quiet Man had put him in the public's mind as the ultimate authentic Irishman turned down the offer because he felt he was too old. He was 69 years old and in bad health. He would pass away in January 1961.

Walt had remembered seeing actor Albert Sharpe perform the title role on Broadway in Finian's Rainbow. Albert Sharpe, a onetime magician's assistant and a famous Irish stage actor who was three years older than Fitzgerald, had retired from acting and was living in a working class neighborhood of Belfast when Walt Disney persuaded him to come out of retirement and to star in the film but just as Darby. Sharpe did not know how to play the fiddle, so two professional musicians were hired: one to do the bowing and the other to handle the frets while Sharpe kept his hands hidden in closeups.

Walt cast Jimmy O'Dea as King Brian. O'Dea was a popular Irish comedian from Dublin who often performed in Gaelic theatre productions. Neither actor worked very often in films, preferring the stage, and after Darby O'Gill, they both only made one more film.

The feature film tells the story of Darby O'Gill, a caretaker of an Irish estate who has "retired" without telling anyone, and his daughter Katie and their interactions with leprechauns and the new caretaker played by Sean Connery in his American film debut.

When Producer Albert Broccoli's wife, Dana, saw the finished film she told her husband, "Well, that is James Bond" which is one of the reasons Connery got the role of the famous secret agent in Dr. No almost two years later.

The female lead was an actress I always like named Janet Munro who was also making her American film debut after a successful career in British television. In 1958, Janet became the first actress to be placed on a five movie contract by Walt Disney and she made Darby O'Gill and the Little People in Hollywood, then in 1959 Third Man On The Mountain in Zermatt, Switzerland and Swiss Family Robinson in Tobago. Her Disney career ended in 1960 with The Horsemasters, a movie made for TV in the USA but shown in theaters in other parts of the world.

There is some mystery surrounding the early termination of her contract with Disney although it may be related to an expression used at the Disney Studio that "her skirts were frequently higher than her knees" and that she was a "live one". Also contributing to the situation in later years sadly was a developing alcoholic problem that was the result of two failed marriages, two miscarriages and difficulty in her career opportunities. She passed away at the age of thirty-eight from chronic heart disease that was aggravated by her alcoholism.

Connery and Munro was personally chosen by Walt during an extensive casting tour of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Overall, there were more than three hundred actors and actresses seriously considered. In fact, Janet Munro was competing against fifty other girls for the part of Katie O'Gill when she received a call early on a Saturday morning that she had been selected.

Although entertainment trade magazines announced in February 1958 that Walt would be shooting Darby O'Gill in Ireland for a variety of reasons including budgets and the need for a controlled special effects stage, that never happened.

As authentic as the film looks, all the filming was done on two huge soundstages at the Burbank Disney Studio and at the Albertson and Rowland Lee Ranches in Southern California. The immense sets actually required the construction of a new soundstage at Disney.

The Disney production magicians built an entire village including a thirteen-foot Celtic cross in the town square. Many of the scenes of the village of Rathcullen were filmed on the lot, while all of the sequences set in the abandoned abbey were shot out at the Albertson Ranch.

There was Second unit footage from Ireland, combined with matte paintings by Peter Ellenshaw that helped create the illusion of 19th century Ireland.

Darby O'Gill And the Little People was released to theaters on June 26, 1959. However, it had its official premiere in Dublin, Ireland on June 24, 1959.

When their plane landed in Dublin, Walt and Lillian were greeted by six pipe bands. The next morning, Disney met with Sean T. O'Kelly, the president of Ireland, who joined Walt at a special early morning screening of Darby O'Gill which was attended by hundreds of under-privileged children who had been brought from Dublin-area hospitals & orphanages.

Despite the affection for Walt himself and the excitement of having a Disney film premiere, actor Cyril Cusack and Chief Justice (later president) Cearbhall î D‡laigh picketed this film's launch in Dublin due to what they felt was stereotyping of the Irish people.

In a letter from Walt Disney to his little sister, Ruth, on December 6, 1959, he wrote: "When we were in Ireland this summer for the premiere of 'Darby O'Gill', the Irishers presented me with a pony which they shipped over here. The little fellow—who, incidentally, was named 'Darby O'Gill' -- is being broken and fattened up and will eventually make a marvelous pony for the grandchildren. They already show a great interest in ponies."

The film was not well received. The New York Times reviewer said "a large, restless contingent of small fry at yesterday's initial showing of the picture...seemed more entranced by the cavortings of Donald Duck and Pluto in an old short called 'Beach Picnic' than in the adventures of Darby and his ilk."

Walt supposedly felt that one of the problems was that if Barry Fitzgerald had appeared in the film, it would have excited audiences more. He also felt that the heavy Irish accents proved inaccessible for American audiences and had the film redubbed for reissue.

The original soundtrack also contains some dialogue in Irish Gaelic, especially from King Brian and the leprechauns, which was subsequently changed in the overdubbed version to English alternatives. The song, "A Pretty Irish Girl", may at one time been actually sung by Sean Connery and Janet Munro. However, there is evidence that the vocals on the recording were dubbed by Irish singers, Brendan O'Dowda and Ruby Murray.

Now here is a Disney leprechaun story about Disneyland that I would love to believe is true but I have never seen any photos or found any sources I trust to confirm this story. Let's start with the true basis and then share what many authorities including Disney archivist Dave Smith consider a "Disney Urban Legend".

In 1955, Walt Disney's Little Man of Disneyland was published by Little Golden Books as just one of several children's books designed to advertise the new Disneyland theme park.

Patrick Begorra, a leprechaun, awakens to find several "big" people including Donald, Mickey and Goofy with shovels in his orange grove. They were building Disneyland. Goofy eventually takes the leprechaun by helicopter to the Disney Studios in Burbank where Mickey Mouse shows Patrick a room full of drawings for the future Disneyland, including a massive roller coaster and a giant Ferris wheel!

Patrick agrees not to cause any trouble if he will be allowed a "wee snug house" of his own in a private place at Disneyland that was "out of sight, hidden away" but children were encouraged to look for it.

Now, according to legend, after reading the story, a child wrote to Walt Disney asking where Patrick's house was. The child was frustrated because he had looked and looked and just couldn't find it. Walt was taken by surprise and confused at first until he was told about the children's book.

Supposedly, Walt had a tree trunk in Adventureland near the Jungle Cruise partly hollowed out with a small open doorway where guests could peak in and see Patrick's home with miniaturized furnishings.

The book didn't retain its popularity over the years and the purpose of the small home lost its meaning and later guests who visited the park discovered only a cement-filled knot about six inches across in the tree nearest the Jungle Cruise entrance. The tree remained there until September 2001 when it was eventually removed.

I would love to believe this story is real especially because of Walt's love of miniatures, but over the years of trying to confirm it, I have found nothing that I could use as an authoritative reference nor have I seen any photos of the tree house on the several "old family photo" Disneyland sites out there.

The film left to the viewer to decide whether Darby's leprechauns were real or just a figment of his colorful imagination. As a kid, I knew those leprechauns were real, as real as the banshee and the Death Coach. 

One of my treasures from childhood still exists in my comic book collection: A much loved copy of the Dell Four-Color 1024 comic book filled with beautiful Alex Toth artwork recounting the story of the movie (you can see a copy of the cover at CoverBrowser.com). Somehow, the banshee and the Death Coach are a little less frightening on the printed page. The only question is that when I watch my DVD on St. Patrick's Day whether I will fast forward through those discomforting scenes or hide behind the overstuffed pillows on my couch. By the way, there was also a Darby O'Gill Sunday comic strip illustrated by Jesse March that appeared in newspapers from May 3, 1959 through Aug. 30, 1959. Wouldn't it be nice if Disney decided to reprint some of its classic newspaper comic strips?



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(Send an email to Wade Sampson)

Wade Sampson grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Wade describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.