Mary Moloney recalls Walt Disney’s visit to Ireland in 1946
On November 22 1946, Walt Disney and his wife Lillian (Lilly) began their visit to Ireland. He had a meeting with the Irish Folklore Commission to further investigate leprechauns for a forthcoming film. Writing to his sister Ruth regarding the visit, he said:
“After the premiere of Song of the South (released earlier that month), we are flying up to New York and sailing on the Queen Elizabeth on the 14th for England and then over to Ireland. We are starting a picture on the Leprechauns or ‘Little People’ as they are called in Ireland, so we plan to spend most of our time there gathering background material and learning all we can about Irish folklore”.
Fourteen years later, the finished product, Darby O’Gill and the Little People debuted in Ireland – the first Disney film to have its premiere outside the United States. It was described in the New York Times Review as “an overpoweringly charming concoction of standard Gaelic tall stories, fantasy and romance”.
In September 1945, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera insisted ‘that cultural propaganda’ should take precedence. Publicity had to have widespread appeal. In 1946 Walt Disney seemed to answer his prayer with a project to present Ireland on the world stage.
When Disney’s idea was mooted to the Irish Government, an official from the Department of External Affairs was authorised to consult with an executive from the Disney Studios. He, in turn, located John Delargy, Director of the Irish Folklore Commission, to assist with the project. Delargy was an ardent advocate of Ireland’s ancient folklore. His colleagues had been travelling the country recording ancient stories and traditions for the newly formed Irish Folklore Commission, established in 1935 by the Irish Government for this very reason.#
Disney received a warm welcome from the Commission. However Bríd Mahon, an archivist, recalled that John Delargy was disappointed at the prospect of a film about leprechauns. She later wrote, with Delargy’s consent, “we tried to interest Disney in one or other of the great heroic sagas, … but no, nothing but leprechauns would do”.
Over time, Delargy sent many books on Irish drama, poetry, and Irish culture to the Disney officials. He also planned an itinerary for screenwriter Lawerence Watkin on his visit to Ireland in 1947, consisting of visits to elderly storytellers in Kerry, Clare, Galway, and a folklore collector Tadhg Ó Murchú.
Paramount Studios had planned a leprechaun movie of their own in 1947, and Delargy mentioned the approach to a Disney executive, who replied;
“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”. Delargy did not become involved with the Paramount feature.