So, it’s March once again and we’re looking at another St. Patrick’s Day coming our way (or already here, depending on when I post this). And as both Ireland and the USA prepare to observe St. Patrick’s Day in their own ways, we are once again faced with that perennial question posed by the Irish:
“What is it with you Americans and all the bloody leprechauns?”
What started as a day to venerate a Catholic saint has since been embraced as a general “Irish Appreciation Day”, celebrated with a veritable mish-mash of Ireland adjacent things like Celtic music, beer, soda bread, more beer, corned beef and cabbage (note: corned beef is much more Irish-American than Irish) and that ubiquitous mascot for the holiday here in the U.S.: the leprechaun.
Now, don’t get me wrong, leprechauns are a part of old Irish fairy lore and all. However, they’re just one little part alongside clurichauns, pookas, changelings, banshees, etc. Yet, they've come to represent all of Irish lore for Americans. So, how did this particular bit of lore get latched onto so firmly by the Americans? Well, I have a theory.
One of the easiest ways to get Americans to warm up to the new groups that are coming onto their shores is to tell them the right story. With the Italians it was the whole Christopher Columbus thing (which is a whole subject unto itself). Now, the Irish faced a lot of trouble when they emigrated to America. So, which story may have won over the preexisting Americans?
I think it may have been Darby O’Gill and the Good People by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh.
Kavanagh was an early 20th Century writer. Her father was Irish, but she was born in the UK and was married to a couple of different men in her lifetime, one of whom was a judge from Chicago. So, she seemed to spend a fair bit of time split between the British Isles and the American continent. Her stories based on Irish lore were first published as a series in McClure’s magazine and were collected into a book in 1903.
This is a book you may have heard of or you may not have. It was made into a Disney movie under a slightly different name, albeit one of their live action ones.
This book is comprised of basically three stories. The first is aptly titled “Darby O’Gill and the Good People”. The second is “How the Fairies Came to Ireland”. The third is “Darby O’Gill and the Leprechaun”.
The first story introduces us to our hero, an average man by the name of Darby O’Gill from Tipperary, Ireland. When he discovers that one of his cows is missing, presumably taken by the fairies, he sets out to get it back. This leads him into the realm of the fairies where he makes friends with the fairy king. This eventually leads to an escape in which he tricks the fairies into giving up not just his cow but also a number of human beings they had taken over the years.
The second story features the local priest who’s travelling when his horse loses a shoe on the fairies’ hill. The king of the fairies shows up with some of his blacksmiths to help shoe the horse. While they’re working, the fairy king tells the story of where the fairies came from and how they came to Ireland.
The last story features the return of Mr. Darby O’Gill. This time, he catches sight of a leprechaun and uses the three wishes he gets to try and one-up his wife (who he seems to squabble with a fair bit) by creating a family castle and all the associated finery. Things don’t go quite to plan, though.
All three stories were pretty good. I could have done without them being written in dialect (First Uncle Remus and now this one. Why do I seem to keep finding these books lately). “Broguing” aside, they were perfectly enjoyable stories that played pretty faithfully with Irish fairy lore. There is one notable exception and it’s a story that seems to purposely rewrite the lore. That would be the second story “How the Fairies Came to Ireland”. You see, one of the older bits of lore about where fairies came from is that they’re actually fallen angels. The idea being that unlike the devil fell all the way to Hell, the fairies only fell to Earth. The result of this is that the fairies can’t pray and they can’t stand a pious word being said in their presence. So, if you say something like “Lord be with you” they cringe and snarl and act like they’ve been personally insulted. So, the story starts with Father Cassidy wondering what great sin they must have committed to get kicked out of Heaven. So, when he talks to Brain Connors the king of the fairies, he’s given a different story. Connors tells him that the fairies were actually a different race that was created and lived in Heaven. However, when the war between Lucifer and God happened, the fairies refused to choose a side. So, in punishment for sitting out the war and not helping their creator, they were cast out of Heaven and sent to Earth. Honestly, I personally like this take on the fairies’ origin. It was always hard to believe they were fallen angels because they didn’t seem quite evil enough. Yet, they also weren’t quite good. Granted it does make the “Powers That Be” seem a bit petty.
The other stories are good too. The first one plays on the lore of animals and people disappearing into the fairy realm. It doesn’t go quite as far as to do the whole changeling thing but it does do the other parts and provides a hero clever enough to figure a way out of it. The third story really focuses on the lore I mentioned at the beginning: the leprechaun. It stays pretty faithful to it. The shoemaking is there. The bit about keeping your eyes on them or else they disappear is there. The story goes with a “three wishes” prize rather than a “pot of gold” prize but I’m pretty sure both versions exist in folklore. Here though, our hero takes on a different character. If our hero mister Darby O’Gill was clever in the last story, here he’s stubborn, quarrelsome and kind of foolish.
Honestly, while I enjoyed the stories, I was a little disappointed I didn’t find more of what I was looking for. I was expecting to find more of the roots of the “Hollywood” Irish lore you see in cartoons and stuff. You know, all that cliché American Saint Patrick’s Day stuff. For example, there weren’t any banshees in the book. TV takes on Irish lore love setting up banshees as villains and leprechauns as the good guys (this is a gross oversimplification of any sort of fairy creature). Oh well, there are other Darby O’Gill books. One is The Ashes of Old Wishes and Other Darby O’Gill Tales (an out-of-print book which I can’t seem to find for less than $100) and another is Darby O’Gill and the Crocks of Gold. Maybe that stuff shows up in there.
Anyway, at least the book was pretty good.