Walt Disney and the Little People

Walt Disney and Pat O’Brien are relaxing in the lounge of a California bungalow. It is 1959. The lounge is neatly modern and its generous proportions speak of American wealth. Walt is in enthusiastic mode. He is going to make a film about leprechauns. Pat O’Brien – a.k.a. ‘Hollywood’s Irishman in Residence’, regular sidekick to Jimmy Cagney and a reliable portrayer of celluloid priests – sucks thoughtfully on a pipe. They discuss Ireland: a wonderful place, they agree, though ‘awfully poor’. It has no iron or coal, nothing to export but its people: ‘fine upstanding men, and women too’. Pat shows Walt his collection of shillelaghs. He sings an Irish song and reads a story about a banshee. Walt in turn describes his plans to film in Ireland, with actors playing the little people. Pat scoffs: no actor could capture a leprechaun. Then I will go to Ireland, says Walt, and I will find them and put them in my movie. ‘Don’t be meddling with the leprechauns, they’re not the seven dwarves,’ says Pat. This is the best line in the whole piece. But Walt is determined to go.

‘What can I lose?’ he says.

‘Nothing but your heart,’ says Pat O’Brien.

This, obviously, is the worst line.

The exchange was staged for Walt Disney Presents – a blend of entertainment and marketing that aired weekly on ABC television, inviting viewers behind the scenes of the Disney magic and flagging the studio’s upcoming features. The programme had quickly made Walt Disney a familiar figure in the American home: an avuncular magician in slacks and sweater, a wonderful Oz in reverse. This episode, ‘I Captured the King of the Leprechauns’, promoted his new live-action musical, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It was a movie that had had a long and tortuous development history – Disney made his first research trip to Ireland in 1946 – but the TV show packaged a brisk drama of Walt travelling to Ireland to find the king of the leprechauns and bring him back to Hollywood. Its ‘Irish’ segments were filmed on the movie’s Burbank set. Disney sits at the fireside of the storyteller Darby O’Gill (played by Albert Sharpe) to listen to tales about the little people. He watches the reactions of the locals to O’Gill’s stories with childlike enjoyment and a hint of shrewd business sense. The persona he projects is folksy and genial, but also that of a man capable of directing in minute detail the business of his entertainment factory. And of course he finally tracks down the leprechaun king, Brian Connors (played by a miniaturized Jimmy O’Dea). Come to America, Disney says, and we will make a film together. The leprechaun agrees.

Nearly thirty years earlier, the man who would play the King of the Leprechauns had protested when the managers of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire outfitted theatre attendants at his revue, Irish Smiles, with knee breeches, caubeens and clay pipes.[1] But the summer of 1958 saw Jimmy O’Dea filming in Hollywood in green breeches and curly red beard, and if that left him with a sense of unease it was perhaps cathartic to write letters home to Ireland of California’s ‘cromium [sic] plated savages’.[2] From the Bel-Air Palms Motel he wrote regularly to his sister Rita with news from mass (‘our talk was on St Francis Xavier’) and of visits to Irish friends. When he called to the singer Ella Logan, he noted that she was a divorcée ‘but’ she had shrines to St Therese of Lisieux and St Francis of Assisi in her garden, as well as the usual Hollywood swimming pool. He asked Rita to send the woman a Catholic Stage Guild prayer book. Far from being a land of opportunity, America seemed to raise in him an expectation of professional disappointment: ‘Jimmy O’Dea will get plenty publicity in England and Ireland but believe it or not, they are selling me over here as Brian Connors, King of the Leprechauns. … They really believe in “The Little People”.[3]

Walt Disney did believe in leprechauns, or at least that was what he told the press at the Irish premiere of Darby O’Gill at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. The Irish had believed in them too, he said, before they got too busy thinking about other things. They were ‘testy little men’ who spent their time ‘drinking Irish whiskey, dancing and watching horse-races’. If there was enchantment still to be found in this place, his smile implied, Disney was the man to find it. He rounded off his trip by taking tea in the Áras with the diminutive president, Sean T. O’Kelly. The veteran politician himself ‘looked like the popular idea of a leprechaun,’ Anthony Cronin would note, ‘with spectacles hung on the bridge of his nose’.[4]

What neither man would have publicly acknowledged was that Disney’s idea for a movie rooted in Irish folklore had put him at cross purposes with official Ireland for over a decade. When the idea was first communicated to the government, in 1946, officials sprang into action. Relations between Ireland and the US had been strained during the war years, when the American ambassador, David Gray, took a dim view of Irish neutrality. In September 1945, Éamon de Valera made clear to his Heads of Missions that cultural propaganda should now be a priority – not only to protect Ireland’s independence, he said, but to correct false ideas about the Irish people that had been disseminated worldwide to justify British mistreatment of the country. An official later handed the propaganda brief looked grimly on the prospect of university exchanges and badly-attended lectures; he dreaded the interference of provosts and museum directors. There were better ways, he advised, ‘to “put Ireland over” on the plain American people (and British people and even continental peoples)’.[5] Publicity had to have a popular appeal – like the movies of the Rank Organisation, which had brought so much prestige to Britain. Disney’s Irish project must, in this context, have seemed a magical opportunity. The native film industry was tiny to the point of invisibility, and now the most successful animator in the world wanted to present Ireland on the global stage.

An official from the Department of External Affairs was scrambled to consult with a Disney executive, and he quickly put the director of the Irish Folklore Commission at their disposal. James Delargy was a brilliant promoter of Ireland’s sagas, folktales and traditions. Since the 1930s his field workers had been travelling through the Irish countryside recording stories and songs, much as Alan Lomax was doing in America for the Library of Congress. When Walt Disney arrived in Ireland in November 1946, he received an enthusiastic welcome at the Commission, though the archivist Bríd Mahon remembered that Delargy was dismayed at the prospect of a film about leprechauns. Following his directions, she later wrote, ‘we tried to interest Disney in one or other of the great heroic sagas: The ‘Tain’ or ‘The Well at the World’s End’… but no; nothing but leprechauns would do…’.[6]

The film historian Tony Tracy has illuminated Delargy’s long and friendly correspondence with the Disney officials. The folklorist sent many books to California – drama, poetry, fiction, translations from Irish, and nonfiction works on Irish culture – but it is difficult to tell how much attention Disney or his lieutenants paid to them.[7] When the screenwriter Lawrence Watkin was sent on a visit to Ireland in 1947, Delargy designed an itinerary that took him to Kerry, Clare and Galway, and provided local contacts with elderly storytellers, scholarly experts and the folklore collector Tadhg Ó Murchú. His thoroughness and hospitality showed an extraordinary enthusiasm – or perhaps a deep anxiety.

The leprechaun is a fairly peripheral figure in a folk tradition stocked with fairies, banshees, hags and spirits. Sean O’Sullivan’s monumental Handbook of Irish Folklore, a compendium of questions created for field collectors, has just one page devoted to the leprechaun. There are, by comparison, fifteen on fairies, three on water-animals (water-cows, water-dogs, water-horses and monster eels), and seven on ‘individual supernatural personages’. But the leprechaun has a long pedigree. His oldest ancestors are the water-sprites, or lúchorpáin, of an eighth-century saga who tried to drag a sleeping Ulster king into the sea and were forced to grant him three wishes. Over time he became something very different: an old, wizened and solitary figure. The name comes from his trade – leath bhrogan, shoe-maker – or perhaps it happened the other way round, with storytellers confusing the sounds of leath bhrogan and lúchorpáin. He has a close cousin in the cluricaun, a little man living in wine-cellars or always seen carrying a pitcher of beer. Some supposed, W.B. Yeats noted in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), that the cluricaun was just ‘the Lepracaun on a spree’.

The leprechaun was also a trickster: a testy, solitary little old man with a hidden purse of money. In a folk universe where money was scarce, the leprechaun was a get rich-quick-scheme that always fell flat. If captured, he has to barter his riches or grant three wishes for his freedom. But he is wily enough that his purse is never found, or his captor is tricked into making a fourth wish that annuls all the others. The leprechaun belongs to fables of things easily won and easily lost, morality tales of greed and avarice. The disappointments his ‘malignity’ created, the novelist Lady Morgan wrote in 1814, made him a very unpopular fairy: ‘his name is never applied but as a term of contempt.’[8]

But that solitary, cross, busy little figure on the periphery of the Irish fairy world did not survive intact into the twentieth century. He seemed to disappear, instead, into a series of stereotypes of the Irish, becoming irascible, drunken and childlike as he did so. In Victorian Britain, Ireland was represented by a shorthand of symbols instantly recognisable in John Tenniel’s cartoons or Thomas Nast’s sketches for Harper’s Weekly. There was beautiful Erin, the harp and the shamrock, but also the pig, the wild peasant, the simian-jawed Fenian and the wayward child of the empire. The iconography of Ireland was fraught with contradiction, and that would be true of the leprechaun too.

Yeats called these creatures ‘sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms’. And it was sluttish, slouching, jeering and – not mischievous, but brutish and threatening – Irishmen that were then regularly spread across the pages of the British satirical magazines Punch and Judy. It was no accident that as political instability and rising immigration were stirring anti-Irish feeling in Britain, the Irish Literary Revival deliberately infused the folk tradition with a sense of nobility. In 1905, when the Irish political cartoonist Thomas Fitzpatrick launched his own satirical magazine with the aim of giving the Irishman more dignified treatment in his own country, he called it The Lepracaun. As a symbol it seemed the leprechaun could be the local answer to the British Mr Punch, the archetypal trickster and lord of misrule. In The Crock of Gold (1912), the revivalist-cum-modernist James Stephens cast the leprechauns of Gort na Cloca Mora as more courtly and dignified individuals, even if they steal children and have an almost amoral self-interest. Stephens wrote that the leprechaun was more valuable to the earth than a prime minister or a stockbrocker, because he dances and makes merry. He was restoring the pagan and careless spirit that had become wrapped in a Christian morality tale when the Celtic fairy was co-opted to the story of Satan’s fall from heaven.

After independence, in a somewhat different political climate, the Folklore Commission was working to return Irish folklore to its popular roots. It was scrupulous in its undertaking: a storyteller’s every word and turn of phrase was to be carefully recorded and transcribed. That was a sign of a new professionalism in folkloric research, but it also had a telling symbolism. There was to be no interference, there would be no mediators. The people’s stories were their own.

The Disney corporation was not unaware of Irish sensitivities regarding the folk tradition. In 1947 Paramount Studios sent a hint to the Folklore Commission about a leprechaun movie of their own, and Delargy mentioned the approach to a Disney executive, who replied gravely that ‘the Irish leprechaun and fairy theme is a very delicate subject and unless it is handled well, might tend to ridicule the tradition that your Folklore Commission has been trying so hard to preserve.’[9] Indeed, Delargy might have responded, it would. He did not get involved with the Paramount project, which became an animated short, Leprechaun’s Gold (1949). Its star is Paddy, a spud-eating leprechaun, and in what the opening voiceover calls ‘the land of legend, of romance and ruins, of Shamrock and Shannon, of banshee and Blarney Stone’, he rescues a mother and child from eviction from their small thatched cottage. The cartoon was coy and sentimental: the Celtic Twilight crossed with the Seven Dwarfs and leavened with a gombeen landlord.

Meanwhile, the Disney project stalled, and in 1954 the Folklore Commission closed its Disney file. When Walt Disney returned to Dublin in 1959, it was with a film that bore no trace of Delargy’s efforts, and drew heavily on a single source: Herminie Templeton Kavanagh’s Darby O’Gill and the Good People, a collection of stories published in Chicago in 1903. Templeton Kavanagh had heard these tales, she wrote, from Jerry Murtaugh, a car-driver between Kilcuny and Ballinderg, and a first cousin of Darby O’Gill’s mother. It was a claim to truth that came with a knowing wink to places that had never existed. The stories themselves were unabashed blarney, though faithful at least to the lore according to which leprechauns were angels banished from heaven for refusing to take part in the battle with Satan. That might have had resonance for an audience aware of Ireland’s recent war record, but it also neatly reconciled the leprechaun’s pagan roots with the Christian tradition. Templeton Kavanagh’s stories made Irish Catholicism unthreateningly comic (a priest who befriends King Brian Connors is guiltily uncertain whether ‘twas a vaynial sin or a mortial sin he’d committed’ by drinking with a friend of ‘Ould Nick’); and the workshy Darby O’Gill brought a touch of the stage-Irish buffoon to the tales. It was a familiar formula.

Although Walt Disney had ignored the material brought to his attention by Irish folklorists, he cannily incorporated them into his origin myth of the Darby O’Gill film. In ‘I Captured the King of the Leprechauns’, we see him beginning his Irish odyssey by consulting a folklore expert in an old Dublin library. The folklorist shows him a tiny suit of clothes sent in by a woman in Co. Cork, and tells Disney about the battle with Satan, and that the leprechauns decided to go to Ireland because ‘that place is most like heaven’. They know that the people there are poor and merry, which suits the leprechauns just fine: ‘we like to have them poor for when a man gets rich there’s no fun in him at all’.

This was, in the end, an American tale. It was only from a distance that the poverty of the old country could be imagined with such fond nostalgia. And it was perhaps in the American imagination that the leprechaun had found his proper home. Arguably, the creature reimagined and popularized in Victorian Britain was so easily exported there because he was in fact a fairy for a capitalist age. After all, the crock of gold promises riches, even if they never quite materialize. The leprechaun legend could be one of aspiration, as much as disappointment.

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Yip Harburg
Yip Harburg c. 1950

But for Yip Harburg, the leprechaun was the capitalist’s bogeyman. It was Harburg’s hit Broadway musical, Finian’s Rainbow, that had made a star of the music hall veteran Albert Sharpe at the age of 62, winning him a role in Disney’s movie. Harburg’s leprechaun was far closer to in spirit to the folk world than Walt Disney’s. In the old stories, the leprechaun’s crock of gold was always out of reach – again and again in those tales, the desire for impossible wealth turned to selfishness and delusion. And Harburg carried that insight to his fantasia on the American Dream. He had learned political theatre from Sean O’Casey and George Bernard Shaw, and reading Stephens’ The Crock of Gold had suggested to him a way to expose American racism and capitalist greed in all their absurdity. ‘I wanted to show how gold turns to dross,’ Harburg said of Finian’s Rainbow, ‘and all that’s left is the rainbow that leads to the crock of gold.’[10]

The kernel of its story is simple: Finian, an Irish immigrant, comes to America to find wealth. He schemes to plant a stolen crock of gold in ‘Missitucky’ and watch it grow. (Americans are rich because they plant gold in Fort Knox, he believes; he will be rich too.) But that is only one part of a dizzying Shavian plot that features romance, union politics, an angry leprechaun and a racist Southern senator, Billboard Rawkins. The senator cheats black sharecroppers out of the land where Finian’s gold is buried. But a wish made while standing on the leprechaun’s buried crock turns Billboard black, and he learns what it’s like to live under his own oppressive laws. The villainous Billboard Rawkins was a version of the Southern politicians Senator John Bilbo and House Representative John Rankin, who were loudly resisting postwar calls to end segregation. But racial equality held good on Yip Harburg’s stage at least. When Finian’s Rainbow opened in 1947 it had the first integrated chorus line on Broadway.

This satire of capitalism, political corruption and racial bigotry was as far from Disneyfication as the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals was from the Communist Manifesto. So perhaps it is unsurprising that Walt Disney, a co-founder of the MPA, would be a friendly witness at the Committee for Un-American Activities that later blacklisted Yip Harburg, like so many other writers. Like the original folktales, Finian’s Rainbow is fantasy with teeth. Those stories had dealt with desire and frustration; in a sense, they were fables against dreaming. And that was a theme which obsessed Harburg. ‘They used to tell me I was building a dream/ And so I followed the mob,’ he had written during the Depression. ‘Once I built a tower, now it’s done/ Brother, can you spare a dime?’ That anthem had faced the suffering of the Depression head-on, with none of the escapist yearning that he put into the lyrics he later wrote for ‘Over the Rainbow’. But then, in The Wizard of Oz even Dorothy finally realizes that escape is an illusion. Postwar America brought a more optimistic mood to Broadway, but Finian’s Rainbow still carried the shadow of those years. Yip Harburg’s lyrics now offered a compromise between reality and dreaming. ‘Look, look, look to the rainbow,’ Finian sings as he leaves the stage without his crock of gold, now vanished into thin air. ‘Follow it over the hill and the stream/ Look, look, look to the rainbow/ Follow the fellow who follows a dream.’ The dream falls apart, and the dreamer carries on.

In March 2010, two years into the crash that transformed Ireland’s economy from the wunderkind of the global financial system to a basket case requiring a bailout, a leprechaun museum opened in Dublin. At the time, I was underemployed and paid by the hour, always looking for work and sick of the looking. A friend in a similar position emailed to say we should start a cult, or write a script for a detective show set in a retirement home. One morning she told me she had just applied to be a leprechaun at the new museum. This was very good news. Now we had an excuse to get out of the house.

We went on a reconnaissance trip. The leprechaun museum is located just north of the river Liffey, in an anonymous red-brick building formerly tenanted by FÁS, the national training and employment authority. At the time, apart from a small sign – and confused Scandinavian tourists standing out front – there was no way to tell what was inside. But in Irish folklore, the entrance to the fairy world or the otherworld is found in the most ordinary of places: at a turn in the road, through a hedge, in an empty cottage. In The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien puts it in a rural police station. The point is that the otherworld is always at hand, which might simply be the Irish way of apprehending that death is at every corner, the afterlife only a misstep away.

We bought two tickets and waited in a lobby that was a shrine to the leprechaun. Walt Disney was there, and a poster that showed Fred Astaire dancing in Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Finian’s Rainbow. There was a Lucky Charms advertisement and a cover of Time magazine from 1963 featuring the Taoiseach, Seán Lemass. The illustrator’s portrait had him wearing an uneasy smile which said he was a serious man, a man of hard experience with a vision for the future. Thanks to Time’s design team, Lemass was sharing that vision with a jigging leprechaun who leered over his left shoulder as industrial chimneys soared in the background. The article inside was a paean to a modernizing Taoiseach, but it gave a comforting assurance to the local readership: ‘However far the Irish may go, they retain a deep sense of their past and the myths and memories that crowd their wild, lonely land.’

My friend and I journeyed through the museum’s otherworld and out to the gift shop at the other side, where we sat at child-sized tables and drew pictures of leprechauns because it was raining outside and we were in no hurry to leave. On a weekday morning in early September there were no children visiting the museum anyway, only a group of middle-aged women from the north of England. We had all listened to the enthusiastic guides telling stories about Irish folklore and sagas, the little people and the sídhe, and we all sat down and drew our leprechauns with red hair and funny hats and a little crock of gold in the corner of the page anyway. By now my friend had decided that she did not want to be a leprechaun. As it turned out, it didn’t really matter. The job was not really for a leprechaun but a storyteller, she said, and all the storytellers here seemed to be graduate students with degrees in Irish folklore. We couldn’t compete.

When the museum had first opened, the head of marketing at the Irish tourist board, Fáilte Ireland, told Time that the leprechaun was ‘a derogatory symbol’ that they would not be inclined to use in promotion. The museum’s founder, Tom O’Rahilly, told the same journalist that in the first ten minutes of his meetings with prospective Irish funders he had always had to get their laughter out of the way before getting down to business. But he had still managed to open his new attraction in the middle of a crippling recession. Coincidentally, just months earlier the businessman Dermot Desmond had told the Global Irish Economic Forum that it was time for us to monetize our culture. And the leprechaun provided a metaphor for our current troubles. Celtic Tiger Ireland had been tempted with riches that, in the end, manifested themselves only as sinkhole banks and negative equity.

No wonder it took a brilliant entrepreneur like Walt Disney to capture the king of the leprechauns. On his TV show, when he finally meets the tiny Jimmy O’Dea playing the role of King Brian Connors, Disney smilingly tells him that he is half-Irish. (It was true. Disney’s paternal grandparents, Kepple Disney and Mary Richardson, were Irish immigrants.) And it soon becomes clear on that Burbank lot, in the Californian dream of Ireland, that Disney will have the upper hand. The king of the leprechauns is amazed when Walt refuses his crock of gold in favour of three wishes: ‘I never heard of a mortal man refusing our gold.’ Walt Disney smiles. He knows as well as we do that he does not need it.

But to outwit a leprechaun runs against the grain. The old folktales are really stories about defeat. A leprechaun is caught, he leads his captor to his gold, and with a moment’s inattention – or through clever sleight of hand – he slips away and it is lost. Such stories seem more true than the Disney dream, or at least more useful. It matters that at the end of Finian’s Rainbow Yip Harburg sends his hero away with nothing. All that gold, the capitalist fantasy, has been exposed as an illusion. But Finian still walks off singing about rainbows. It is sentimental, but it stings. This could be America in the 1930s, Ireland in 2008, Greece in 2015. This is the song to sing, Finian’s father had told him, ‘whenever/ The world falls apart’.

This essay was first published in The Dublin Review (Winter 2015-16).

[1] Philip B. Ryan, Jimmy O’Dea: The Pride of the Coombe (Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 1990), p. 79.

[2] Letter to Rita O’Dea (16 June 1958), Irish Theatre Archive 131/9/01B.

[3] Letter to Rita O’Dea (29 June 1958), ITA/131/9/01C.

[4] Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien (London: Grafton, 1989), p. 96.

[5] Minute from Michael Rynne to Cornelius C. Cremin (25 June 1947), Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Vol. 8, 1945-1948 (Dublin: RIA, 2012), p. 396.

[6] Qted in Tony Tracy, ‘When Disney met Delargy: Darby O’Gill and the Irish Folklore Commission’, Béaloideas 78 (2010), p. 48.

[7] Ibid., pp. 50-1.

[8] Qted in Thomas Crofton Croker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (London: William Tegg, 1862), p. 139.

[9] Letter from Larry Lansburg to Delargy (January 1947) qted in Tracy, p. 51.

[10] Qted in Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg, Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz?: Yip Harburg, Lyricist (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), p. 222.

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