Thursday, March 17, 2011

Consider the Source: The Hollow Heart of Sleive-na-mon

"Suggested by the Darby O'Gill Stories by H.T. Kavanagh"

That particular credit from Darby O'Gill and the Little People is indeed an accurate assessment.  The screenplay, written by Lawrence Edward Watkin, is not a direct adaptation of any of Kavanagh's original Darby O'Gill material.  Watkin instead combined elements from a number of the tales and used those elements and other themes to craft a wholly original story.  As we celebrate Saint Patrick's Day, let's take a moment to consider the source of one of Walt Disney's most endearing and especially underrated live action productions.

Herminie Templeton Kavanagh passed away nearly a decade before Walt Disney began to actively consider a feature film based on her Darby O'Gill tales.  She is a bit of an enigma.  Information about her is quite hard to find, and places and dates regarding her life, and most especially her two marriages, are difficult to confirm and are often contradictory. The Darby O'Gill short stories were written by Kavanagh and featured as a serial in McClure Magazine near the dawn of the 20th century.  They were later collected and published as a book in 1903 under the title Darby O'Gill and the Good People.  Two decades later, Kavanagh published a second collection that was called Ashes of Old Wishes and Other Darby O'Gill Tales.  She died in 1933 at the age of 72.

As noted, the Walt Disney-produced film was "suggested by" Kavanagh's works.  The most striking difference is in the character of Darby himself.  The literary Darby is distinctly younger than his movie counterpart.  The author portrayed him as a thirty-something Irishman with a headstrong wife named Bridget and a brood of children.  As interpreted by actor Albert Sharpe, the Disney Darby was an older widower in his sixties, his only offspring being a grown daughter named Katie.

Various plot points from the film can be traced back to the early Darby stories.  Darby's imprisonment by King Brian early in the film relates to Kavanagh's first story, Darby O'Gill and the Good People.  In that tale, Darby is confined for six months in "the hollow heart of Sleive-na-mon," the subterranean mountain home of King Brian and his subjects.  Similar to events in the film, he manages to escape by wits and trickery.  The overriding storyline of King Brian granting Darby wishes takes its inspiration from Kavanagh's second story, Darby O'Gill and the Leprechaun.  The movie's climactic moments involving the Banshee and the Death Coach were derived from the story The Banshee's Comb.

It is interesting to note that a sequence in the Disneyland television episode I Captured the King of the Leprechauns was adapted from the Kavanagh story How the Fairies Came to Ireland.  The episode depicts Walt Disney traveling to Ireland at the suggestion of actor Pat O'Brien in an attempt to recruit a real live leprechaun to star in his upcoming motion picture.  In his search, Walt visits a library where ancient texts reveal how the leprechauns had fallen from heaven at the same time Satan was exiled.  The narrative is taken almost directly from Kavanagh's story.

But, as we consider the source of these Disney endeavors, it is also important to consider the source of the Kavanagh stories as well.  According to the author:
This history sets forth the only true account of the adventures of a daring tipperary man named Darby O'Gill among the fairies of Sleive-na-mon. These adventures were first related to me by Mr. Jerry Murtaugh, a reliable car-driver, who goes between Kilcuny and Ballinderg. He is a first cousin of Darby O'Gill's own mother.
By all accounts, it was a tongue-in-cheek statement on Kavanagh's part.  And Walt Disney employed a similar "true story" strategy when he "visited" Ireland in I Captured the King of the Leprechauns and then went so far as to acknowledge King Brian and his Leprechauns " . . . whose gracious co-operation made this picture possible."


Snow White Archive said...

May the luck of the Irish be with you. Happy Saint Patrick's Day :)

Amanda said...

Great post! Happy St. Patty's Day!

Paula said...

A lovely post. I especially enjoyed learning more about the original book source for one of my favorite films.