Darby O’Gill and the Little People

Oh singin’s no sin, and drinkin’s no crime, if you have one drink only, just one at at a time.

As an adult, The Quiet Man (full review) is my favorite Irish fantasy, but as a kid, nothing could beat Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Sean Connery with fearsome eyebrows as a young man taking over the job of Darby as groundskeeper, because the old feller sees leprechauns a little too often. Well, being a Disney movie he ain’t drunk or crazy. And for the ’50s, the effects are pretty impressive. Enough to keep our little butts planted in front of the boob tube every St. Patrick’s Day.

Darby holdin’ court at the pub

Between this and The Gnome-Mobile (based on a book by Upton Sinclair, of all people) Disney had the short people racket cornered, and we loved it. Darby O’Gill’s story is simple- we’re thrust into a picaresque Irish village, where Darby tells tall tales at the pub every night about the faerie folk while his daughter pines away for a husband. He’s getting on in years and chews the fat more than he cuts the turf, so his employer forces him into retirement, bringing in a young and sturdy replacement as the new caretaker. That’s a job wanted by mean old lady Sugrue for her bully of a son Pony Sugrue, and she begins conniving forthwith against newcomer Michael McBride.

“Marry me, and I’ll stop singing!”

That’s Sean Connery, a few years before Bond, and a perfect catch for Katie O’Gill (cutie Janet Munro, Bertie from Swiss Family Robinson, who died far too young). She’s a bit fiery and distant until she catches him singing while swinging the scythe with his manly arms. It’s almost unfortunate that this is a Disney movie, because Connery looks like he’s barely able to contain his devilish demeanor. With his expressive eyebrows and grin, we expect a shotgun wedding any moment, but he’s a perfect gentleman.

She needs a man, she’s been churnin’ that thing all day.

The story begins in earnest when Darby tells the pub how he once caught the King of the Little People, King Brian, up at the castle ruins on the hill one evening. He even got his wish of a crock of gold, before he was tricked into making a fourth, and forfeit them all. But King Brian hasn’t forgotten him- and when he learns that he’s being put out to pasture, he puts a glamor on Darby’s horse so he knocks him down a well that leads to the land of the Little People. Down there, the King tells him he must stay forever. Thus begins the best part of the story- how the 4,000-year old king of the leprechauns and clever old gaffer Darby O’Gill, as they continually trick each other.

insert Fiddler’s fart joke here

First Darby has to trick his way out to the real world again, and once he does, he needs to keep King Brian (the perfectly cast Jimmy O’Dea) from dragging him back, so they have a whiskey-drinking and rhyming contest till dawn. Once there’s daylight, the leprechaun’s powers are gone, and Darby just needs to sic the barn cat on him to get his way. From then on he’s got the king in a sack, and the battle is on to see if he can get any of his wishes before the King can make him waste them all! It’s great fun, interspersed with the chaste romance of Katie and Michael, set on the Disney backlots with some nice matte paintings reminiscent of Ireland. Having been there, the castles and ruins stood out as unlikely, but I could imagine a ring fort instead.

“I’ll not be yer fancy feast!”

Once we’ve had all our fun with a leprechaun in a sack, it’s time for Sheelah Sugrue and Pony to start their mischief, turning Katie against Michael with chicanery, so she flees on the mountain road on the night the banshee howls. That banshee scared the shamrocks out of me as a kid. Now I have my grandfather’s shillelagh and a belt of Jameson handy to protect me, but back then it was good for a nightmare or two! The story turns true to its fairy tale roots then, as the banshee haunts poor Katie, and the Death Coach comes for her. Darby’s fight for his daughter’s life could be right from the classic deal with the devil, and not even King Brian can save him from his fate- or can he?

The banshee, source of many childhood nightmares

Sure it’s cheesy Disney, but it’s one of their best live-action fantasy films. It takes a while to take off, but it’s good clean fun. The perspective effects are quite good, and when they’re not- such as when it’s an obvious doll being thrown into Darby’s gunny sack, or a hilariously fake little arm fending off the cat- it just makes it even more endearing. The glow effects for the Death Coach and the Banshee are very dated, but work in this case- they’re used sparingly and in misty darkness. And when you see the banshee’s face, it’s still creepy 50 years later. For the adults, there’ll always be John Wayne having to prove his mettle to Maureen O’Hara- a movie with nearly as idyllic a view of Ireland as this one- but for the kids, watching Darby O’Gill play his fiddle for a roomful of leprechauns is still great fun.

Death Coach for Cutie

3 out of four leaf clovers

The Pogues, with Shane, St. Patrick’s Day 2008

When I heard that The Pogues were playing in Manhattan on St. Patrick’s Day this year, I snatched up two tickets quicker than Shane on a bottle of Jameson. I had no idea that Shane MacGowan reunited with the band; I saw his solo effort with the Popes many years back when he toured for the excellent album, The Snake. That was a great and memorable concert at a crammed venue somewhere in the city that I can no longer recall. Could have been CBGBs for all I know, but I doubt it. It was so jammed full of fans that the ceiling was dripping condensation. I found an old friend, Ned Sanyour, on LinkedIn and asked him about the show. Hopefully he’ll drop in.

This time at the Roseland Ballroom there was plenty of space. They did 3 shows there, and we saw the last, on St. Paddy’s Day. To the venue’s enduring shame, the only beer they serve is Bud, Bud Light, and Beck’s. Luckily I filled up on Guinness at the nearby Old Castle Pub on 54th, a decent little place. Had the requisite Corned Beef and Cabbage as well, since the only other Irishman in my family can’t stand the stuff. You can say what you like about boiled Irish food (I much prefer a full breakfast!) but it makes a fine drinking foundation.

The opening band was called Olin and they’re a Mexican Klezmer band as far as I can tell. Lively horn section, accordions and percussion, reminiscent of klezmer and honky town Mex bands like the Texas Tornados. They were good fun and put on a solid set. I wish their album was on sale at the show!

Shane looks a lot better than in ’92 or so!

It took an hour between sets to get Shane liquored up enough to sing, apparently. He was in fine form, though. Much better than when I saw him with the Popes- back then he was hanging on the mike stand for dear life, looked like a bag of bones with a dash of stubble. He’s a big chubbier now and looks healthy enough, if prematurely aged from his hard-drinking life. They began with one of my favorites, “Streams of Whiskey.” I managed to grab video of this one, the bass is rather high but the speaker held up better this time.

One night as I slept, I dreamt I drank with Behan…
Second up was “If I Should Fall from Grace with God” and they played many classics. Only a song or two I didn’t recognized. The audience was quite active but not rowdy. We were right in front of the soundboard so my photos are far and blurry. Shane had a big top hat on, looking like the Artful Dodger after years on the Old Main Drag.

Shane and his Artful Dodger hat.

They didn’t just do their famous rockers, he also sang “Kitty,” one of their most somber. Shane took a few breaks to let other members sing- most notably “Thousands are Sailing,” one of their heartfelt, most trad-sounding songs. There was another song from “a chick flick” as the fellow in the fedora said, but I didn’t recall the title. Another one was “Tuesday Morning, Albert Bridge,” a great song I haven’t heard enough. I forget how good it is.

Sean came back for “Dirty Old Town,” among others. “Dark Streets of London,” was another. Another somber tune, the beloved “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” had us all mourning like only those of Irish blood can. Another favorite, “The Boys from the County Hell” rocked the house. They finished off with “The Irish Rover,” a great send-off for St. Patrick’s Day. “He spun five times around, and the poor old dog was drowned…. I’m the last of the Irish Rover!”

They came back for two encores. I wish I remember all the songs, but I was too excited. “Bottle of Smoke” and “Sally MacLennane” were in one. My all-time fave, “The Sick-Bed of Cuchulainn” ended encore one.

They came back and did an instrumental, a rousing long version of “Poor Paddy,” with Shane singing “poor Paddy’s workin on the railway!!” over and over, and the final song was “A Fairy Tale of New York” done in duet with a singer named Ella Finer, since Kirsty MacColl died in a tragic diving accident a few years back. They danced at the end of it, and I managed to sneak some video.

Not too drunk to dance.

The real finisher had Olin come back onstage and they all played in a long instrumental- “Fiesta,” I think. The pipe player was for some reason bashing his head with a pie plate as percussion, but hey, whatever makes you happy. I like think it was a protest against the Roseland Ballroom’s shitty beer selection. Not my favorite venue, but it’s roomy at least. Flogging Molly played the Fillmore and they had Guinness, but I think that was a smaller crowd. It’s been a great month for Irish bands for me. I’ve seen the Dropkick Murphys before, and they’re a little too punk for me these days (I like their first 2 albums best) but they’d have been a good trifecta. Or Black 47! I need to see them one of these days.

The glow of leprechaun magic.

Two Irish Fairy Tales: Once and The Quiet Man


Part of coming from an Irish family means knowing how to appreciate a sad story. Our songs are either about drinking or someone dying. We get a President, and he gets shot. 500 years of oppression, a famine caused by greed, and you’ve sure got something to drink about. Things are looking a lot better in the Emerald Isle these days, so maybe that’s why this year’s Oscar winner for best song was from Ireland, the sweet romantic drama Once.

It’s not a musical per se, since no one breaks into song for no reason, but it’s the story of a busker on the streets of Dublin who meets a woman who walks past him every day as he plays the guitar and sings for tourist’s coins. One night she’s walking home and hears him belting out one of his own songs instead of the standards he plays for the tourist trade, and asks him about it. They talk and he finds out that she plays the piano, and he works at a vacuum repair shop, and she needs her Hoover fixed, and things lead from there.

He’s got a song he’s working on, “Falling Slowly,” that they practice on in the music store since she can’t afford a piano. It’s not your typical romantic film. He’s coming off a bad relationship, and she’s raising her daughter with her mom at home, and while they don’t exactly struggle for pennies the story never escapes the reality of having to work for a living. There’s a bit of movie luck later in the film when they record the song at a studio and need a few grand to pay for it, but it’s all very low-key and the simple story is quite well written, with enough humor to lighten things up between tunes.

It was shot in 17 days for a pittance with two musicians without acting experience as leads. Glen Hasard from The Framers is the Guy, and Markéta Irglová is the Girl. Hasard was in The Commitments, another popular movie about an Irish band trying to break into R&B. So he has acted before, but only plays guitar players. The actors have a naturalism that makes the story utterly believable, without having an improvised or fake-reality feel. The camera is unsteady, but has none of that jerky zoom for a close-up and then pull back a notch crap. It lingers on its subjects and endears them to us. I’m not even a big fan of this kind of music, but when they’re practicing, you can’t look away.

The song deservedly won the Oscar, and it is the only thing known to man that can silence Firecracker’s living room. Both times “Falling Slowly” has played, on Oscar night and when we watched the DVD, we all shut our mouths and listened. And we are not quiet people. Thankfully it hasn’t been overplayed, but I can imagine it getting diluted and becoming one of those songs you can’t stand hearing anymore. I call it the “Runaway Train” effect. Soul Asylum got killed by its own popularity in the 90’s, and I still can’t listen to that song all the way through.

Part of what makes Once so good is that while it tells an old story- two people who aren’t looking for love but happen to find it- it does so without falling back on hackneyed character types. Female musicians and singers are often pigeon-holed as a pretty voice with some emotional flaw that the guy has to overcome, but here she is the strong and sensible one, and we never doubt it for a minute. That’s pretty amazing for an 18-year old who hasn’t acted before. Look out, Ellen Page. There is tension of course, but it’s handled with subtle panache and no one goes stomping off screaming, and there are no annoying misunderstandings that would have been averted if they’d just spoken up.

The ending is bittersweet but perfect, and actually it’s a beginning. As in that other understated, excellent romance Before Sunrise, these are two people we meet briefly and wish we could get to know better. We know the guy won’t be coming home to fix vacuum cleaners after he takes his single to London. And maybe the girl will be his producer, with her savvy sensibility. It’s a story we’ll have to finish in our heads, and that’s the best place for it. Fairy tales can’t go on too long before we question them.

The Quiet Man
John Wayne in an Irish romantic comedy with fisticuffs.

It is a truth generally accepted that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who like the Duke, and those who don’t. This is a man whose biggest promoter, John Ford, once said, “I didn’t know the big sonofabitch could act!” Much of his career depended on presence alone, but when called upon, he could act with the best of them- it’s just that his best roles are pretty unlikeable. He’s often cast as the old, violent kind of man that was needed to “tame” the west, but is no longer needed, or just another macho loner. Here he gets to play the lead in what’s essentially a romantic comedy, albeit one that plays on quaint Irish customs that were long gone when the movie was made 50 years ago. It has a deep and abiding sense of nostalgic for the Ould Country but knows when to play it tongue in cheek. Like any good Irish film the dialogue is sharp and witty.

The story begins with the Duke as Sean Thornton, a retired boxer returning to the village he grew up in but left in early childhood. He plans to buy his childhood home and settle down. he has a secret and goes to church to pray, where he meets Mary Kate Danaher, a fiery redhead who could only be played by Maureen O’Hara. They have the sort of immediate dislike that is destined to smolder into romance, and movie does not disappoint. When this becomes apparent, old Sean gets his first lesson in Irish etiquette, when her brother “Red Will” doesn’t approve of the courtship and she won’t have anything to do with him. Will is played by one of my favorite character actors, Victor McLaglen, who played alongside John Wayne in many films and won the Oscar back in ’35 for The Informer. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this film, as well. He’s an irascible force of nature, a hulking Irish brute with a wicked sense of humor, though in this film he leans toward stubborn S.O.B. instead of “lovable galoot.”

Bizarre Love Triangle

Eventually Red gives in and the courtship is allowed to commence. Duke wants to pull up in front of her cottage and honk the buggy horn like he’s back in the States, but he learns that courtship is done with a chaperone, under whose watchful eye, it is assured no “pattyfingers” will ensue.

No patty-fingers, if you please. The proprieties at all times.

Of course they get away and the pattyfingers commence. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, they get caught in the rain in a graveyard and weather the storm. Thankfully this lets them speed past the other stages of courtship and be married early into the picture, but don’t let that trick you into thinking it’s all sunshine and roses. On their wedding day we learn that her brother was tricked into giving her hand in marriage because the whole town told him that his sweetheart Sarah wanted to marry him. When he arrogantly asks for her hand in marriage at the party, without the proper courtship, he’s spurned and humiliated. He assumes that Sean put the town up to it, so he withholds his sister’s dowry, knocking the coins to the floor. And sucker-punches Sean out cold.

Now here’s where the two cultures clash and the film gets credit for using the “misunderstanding” plot device in a way that actually works. She demands that the dowry be paid for the principle of the thing, and to force Sean to confront her brother and be respected by him. But he, being American, thinks it is shameful to beg for money that they don’t need, and he doesn’t want to fight anymore, because he killed a man in the ring. As each holds stubbornly to their principles, they ignore the wedge in their marriage. She even withholds her “Irish Rose” if you know what I mean.

If you don’t know what I mean, on her wedding night she locks the bedroom door, so he kicks it down and kisses her before retiring to the parlor in his sleeping bag. For a moment I’d thought they’d go the Rhett Butler route, but he’s a gentleman in this picture. He just throws her on the bed and breaks it, to give us the subtle-as-a-hammer “this marriage has a broken bed!” symbolism.

“There’ll be no locks or bolts between us, Mary Kate…
except those in your own mercenary little heart!”

In typical Roman Catholic fashion, Mary Kate goes to Father Lonergan for help, but he’s more interested in catching salmon than helping her and her husband spawn. So, unable to comprehend his stubbornness, she leaves home to take the train out of town one day. This leads to the infamous “Where’s my tay!” when he wakes up and finds the teapot empty. He hasn’t been getting any “tay” since the wedding night, either. His fiery redhead wife finally found a way to get him to look past his own customs and follow hers. In a particularly delightful scene for us men, he grabs her off the train and drags her to her brother, to throw her back unless he gives up her dowry. The whole town is excited that the American finally gets it, and follow them on their way.

“Here’s a fine stick to beat the lovely lady with!”

Oh, those Irish and their strange ways! By tossing her back at his feet, he gains her brother’s respect. He gives them the dowry, which they immediately toss in a nearby fire to show him it was the principle of the thing. Will tries for another sucker-punch, but the Duke socks him in the gut. Satisfied that her husband is not a pussy, Mary Kate heads home to put supper on the table. And we assume, to fix that bed.

If you are a pussy, you do not get pussy.

Unlike Maureen O’Hara, we know the Duke is no pussy. He fights her brother all across town and into and out of the local pub, bets are placed, the excitement rouses a codger from his deathbed, even the priests come to watch. Then he drags him home to dinner so he has to accept their marriage. All’s well that ends well, and the dopey big galoot ends up on the chaperone’s wagon with his sweetheart so he won’t be lonely without his sister to cook for him.

I love this movie beyond all reason, probably because John Wayne kicks Maureen O’Hara in the ass and drags her across a field. Even though it’s played for laughs, the first time you see it you can’t believe it. Then a little old lady comes up and offers him a stick to “beat the lovely lady with.” John Ford was a movie-making genius and knows when to go over the top, and he does so here. This is like the Irish version of “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” in some ways, where only an Irish-American director could get away with the jokes he makes here. Michaleen the chaperone is a sly wee leprechaun of a fellow with the immortal line, “when I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey. And when I drink water, I drink water!” when asked if he wants whiskey and water. And when he chases the lovers in his horsecart, the steed halts in front of the pub, since it knows that’s the only place its master would hurry to.

Technicolor was made for Maureen O’Hara and this is no exception.

The “gift of gab” isn’t given short shrift here, and everyone gets in on the act. Even Red Will, in his nearly thankless role as the ornery brother, says “he’ll regret to his dying day. If he lives that long!” So while you might watch Darby O’Gill and the Little People on St. Paddy’s day, or perhaps The Secret of Roan Inish, or The Wind That Shakes the Barley or My Left Foot if you’re in an arty and somber mood, I highly recommend you reach for this classic and give the Duke a chance whether you like him or not. He wasn’t always the stolid drawling tough guy, and this is one of his best roles.

Fubar gets fubared

The scary thing is that the day before this happened I wrote about the Crane Bar in Ireland, and then on the next day a crane falls on a bar on an Irish holiday. Creepy. Check the photos for orbs, dude.

Two blocks from where we began the murph guide pub crawl, a crane in manhattan collapsed and demolished one of the bars on the crawl.
Didn’t see it happen but arrived a few minutes after. Got photos of the wreckage but its top story on the new york times right now. 2 confirmed dead, but it demolished a 5 story building and damaged nearby apartments, so hopefully no one else died.
Maybe bloomberg cut too many jobs in the inspection departments? Or its been an unlucky year for construction companies squeezed by the economy taking a dump.

According to the New York Times, 4 people are confirmed dead, all construction workers on the crane. A piece of metal fell and sheared off a girder supporting the crane as they were trying to raise the boom. I have some photos of the street shortly after the collapse, smoke still in the air, that I’ll add here today. Apparently the FuBar was closed and getting ready to open, if they’d started early like the other spots on the crawl, there would have been many, many deaths. A few blocks away at T.G. Whitney’s where it began, the place had over a hundred people inside at 2pm.

Here are my photos from the scene:

Some kilted onlookers see the crane boom on the crushed building.

Crowd of drinkers looking at the dust from the demolished building.

Close-up of apartment building damage.

Close-up of the revelers noticing the destruction.

The Crane Bar in Galway

A random gathering of folks playing traditional instruments.
In honor of the St. Patrick’s Day weekend I’m going to share some videos and photos of my visit to Galway last year. Despite being a tourist town it ended up being a very nice place. The area is stunningly beautiful, nestled between the wilds of Connemara and the rocky Burren area to the south. Close to Shannon airport, it makes for the perfect tourist destination and gets a lot of visitors, and it can be hard to find a seat at the pubs some nights. The Lonely Planet guide sent me out to the Salthill section for a bed & breakfast and also a pub called The Crane Bar that has traditional (aka trad) and modern bands playing nightly. What I liked best was that people would just show up with instruments and join in. Very friendly and cozy.

The beautiful coast near Galway.

Using Google Maps on my phone I walked there from the B&B one night, along the Salthill shore with its amusement park and typical seaside eateries, eerily reminiscent of the Jersey shore despite swapping chip shops for funnel cake. My friend Sonny from Denmark was arriving that night, so the Crane Bar was a landmark he could put in his GPS and drive to, and I could sit and ingest Guinness.
The locals were friendly and a fellow named Brent bought me a drink and we talked about what I planned to see and atuff. The second question out of everyone’s mouth is always “why the hell did you guys elect that idiot?”

Roundstone’s Bodhran maker.

When Sonny showed up the place was closing, but I managed to nab us some bacon pizza (Irish bacon is more like thinly sliced pork loin). The next night after a long day of seeing Galway’s sights and driving up the coast to Roundstone to see a bodhran (drum) maker, we returned to the bar.

The hanging wall in Galway.

We sat with a group of folks from Dublin and talked about the country, why we elected Bush, and thankfully books. We had a love of detective novels in common and we talked about what authors we liked. They liked a Swedish fellow whose name I can’t recall. They told us of their favorite spots to visit along the coast, which would eventually send us to some of the most beautiful spots in Ireland that I remember. The Beara peninsula, a remote finger of land south of Kerry, was their favorite. They told us of a pub called O’Neil’s that they loved, and we eventually found it days later. Ireland is so small that even a remote spot like that is only a few hours away, but we made so many stops along the way- visiting the Skellig Islands where monastery villages from the 5th century remain, the Cliffs of Moher, caves, the Aran Islands, and Kilkenny, which is more modern than Galway but still has much to see.

The players.

Sonny is a much more seasoned drinker than I am. Those Danes know how to hold their ale. In fact when he lived in Cambridge, the Brits there were amazed at his capacity for ale and called him “Horny Helmet” in honor of his Viking heritage, and gave him a horned Viking helmet when he left… myself, I’m a cheap date and you’ll see from the cheerful, red-faced photo at the end that I’m no match for him in a drinking contest.

A man singing a capella in honor of a patron’s birthday.

And by the end of the night I looked like this!

We only managed to explore perhaps a quarter of the Irish coastline and I’m eager to go back and see more of the country, like the Giant’s Causeway, and of course Dublin. We got close to Dublin when I visited the old family home in Bray, but the traffic getting into to town was so bad we just hauled back toward Shannon. I’ll blog about the rest of the trip over the weekend if I have time. In the meanwhile, the photos are all at here in my Ireland album, which is rather neurotically ordered by County.