Most people will be familiar with Darby O’Gill through the 1959 Disney movie of similar name. While the movie is vastly underrated and very similar in tone, any fan of fantasy -- or someone who just likes a good story -- would benefit from reading this most charming book. The copy I read is a reprint from One Faithful Harp Publishers in Scranton, Pennsylvania. When I say they are a small publisher, I mean very small. Darby O’Gill is their only published work to date. But it’s a good thing for readers that they have that one; the cheapest copy I could find of an earlier edition of Darby O’Gill was $95.00.
In the author’s preface, Mrs. Kavanagh asserts that the Darby O’Gill stories were told to her by Jerry Murtaugh, a car-driver whose mother was Darby’s first cousin. While I presume this to be a bit of fun, I would also imagine that these stories do indeed have a basis in the folk legend and tales of Ireland. There is also an introduction by Father Cassidy, one of the characters in the story. In this introduction, Father discusses the likelihood of King Brian Connors ever going to heaven -- he thinks it’s quite possible.
This short and amusing introduction is indicative of the tone of the book. Set in Ireland during the turn of the century, it is a story of a people very immersed in the Catholic faith. This does not mean for one instant that they do not believe in fairies, leprechauns, Banshees and the like. The two are just not mutually exclusive -- even for a priest. In fact, some of the funniest dialogue in the book occurs when Father Cassidy and King Brian Connors discuss theology. When accused of being a friend of Satan, who tempted mankind’s first parents, King Brian replies, "What has mankind iver done for him except to lay the blame of every mane, cowardly thrick of its own on his chowlders." When Father Cassidy accuses Satan of tempting man’s first parents, King Brian is ready. "Didn’t your first parent turn quane’s evidence agin his own wife? Answer me that!" -- a neat turn of Irish perspective under British rule.
A modern reader of the book is of course immediately struck by the dialect used in the text. It is thick; sometimes it requires a bit of sounding out to even translate. Yet I never got the feeling that the author was in any way looking down at or scoffing at her characters. They are clever, witty and amusing, if poor and uneducated. The village priest, Father Cassidy, is the most educated and erudite character in the stories, but his dialect is presented as being only slightly less broad than Darby’s own. The tone of the book reminds me somewhat of The Irish RM stories by Somerville and Ross. Though wealthier and of a different social class than some of the characters mentioned in their series of books (about an English magistrate in Ireland), Somerville and Ross write of impoverished rural Ireland with a great deal of sympathy and fondness.
The tone of Darby O’Gill is one of humor -- not just connected with faeries, but with everyday events in a rural society -- losing a prized cow, being caught in the rain, even the sadness of the childless wanting a child, are treated with humor as well as sympathy. Darby O’Gill is a storyteller, a family man and small farmer -- in many ways the pre-industrial everyman. What Darby is not is a man afflicted with a work ethic. Indeed, after he comes back from staying with King Brian, the adulation Darby receives from his fellow villagers affects him so that he "lost every ounce of liking he ever had for hard work." Darby’s false pride and laziness manifests itself in an argument with his wife that is one of the funniest depictions of marital strife I’ve ever read. It was written almost a hundred years ago, but I'll bet it rings true for most readers today. Darby refuses to do some work because it’s too demeaning for him; of course he immediately regrets this statement and wishes he could take it back. Too late. Bridget, his wife, allows him to stew for a moment then lets him have it by "carelessly mentioning a few of Darby’s best known weaknesses. After that she took up some of them not so well known, being ones Darby himself had serious doubts about having at all." She continues for some time and "even in his misery poor Darby couldn’t but marvel at her wonderful memory."
My favorite story is "Chapter Five, the Adventures of King Brian." This is the story of the "Couple without Childer." Its very subject is sad, and the author makes you feel the couple’s sadness -- but you also see their foolishness and pride. Like all the stories, this one is filled with fun; the variety of indignities suffered by King Brian while waiting for his powers to return at sundown made me laugh out loud. This story truly shows the author’s skill at creating in a few short pages very funny, fallible, human characters -- despite some of them being faeries. The King takes refuge with the family of Tom Mulligan the ballad-maker and has a wonderful time eating, singing and dancing. When night comes and all problems are sorted out, he gives Tom a reward, but not the gold he’d expected, because "if you make a jaynious rich you take all the songs out of him and you spile him." Tom is given what enhances his talents and truly makes him a happy man; gold and happiness are not the same things.
It was very difficult to find any information about the author, and what I did find was scanty. At The Shamrock Isle Web site I found the following:
"Born Herminie McGibney in 1876 in Ireland, the author published Darby O'Gill and the Good People under her married name, Herminie Templeton, in 1903. The book, which had first appeared in serial form in McClure Magazine, was published by McClure, Philips. A second edition of the book was issued in 1932 under the author's new name, Herminie T. Kavanagh; she married her second husband, Marcus Kavanagh, a Cook County (Illinois) judge in 1905. Mrs. Kavanagh wrote one other book, the Ashes of Old Wishes (1926) before her death in 1933."
Here I found "Mrs. Herminie Templeton Kavanagh" listed as the author of "The Color Sergeant, 1903" and "Swift-Wing of the Cherokee," but no further information about these plays, not even on the Library of Congress’ Web site.
The publisher’s Web site contains several sentiments I found rather surprising coming from a business whose sole publication is one of fantasy. For example, "Many Christians, Catholic and Protestant, shy away from literature because they fear the imagination. Parents, in particular, fear giving their children the wrong kind of books to read. This is a legitimate fear: all literature and film is not good. Works of the imagination can hurt a child (or an adult for that matter)." The publishers go on to say that they have "slightly revised the text." According to the Web site, the revision is of spelling and one point of theology that is inconsistent with The Ashes of Old Wishes, Mrs. Kavanagh's later work. I presume this is true, though the publishers' stated fear of "fantasy" makes me wonder just how much was changed. The site also contains a list of recommended books and links to other sites. Both the One Faithful Harp site and some of its links use very convoluted and, in my opinion, flawed logic to promote "good" fantasy and condemn "bad" fantasy. I can understand them recommending the works of C. S. Lewis, but why The Lord of the Rings is admired and the Harry Potter series condemned, when neither mentions organized religion and both contain wizards and magic is beyond me.
Many stories written almost a hundred years ago lose something of their humor when read by
later audiences. The language and turn of phrase in Darby O’Gill remain as witty, and its stories as interesting, as they doubtless were to the Edwardians. Mrs. Kavanagh doesn’t dodge the poverty and unhappiness in her character’s lives, but brings to mind the fun and gladness that mix into the lives of us all. It is this mix that makes poor rural folk of more than a hundred years ago strike a chord with twenty-first century urban dwellers today. I feel that these stories transcend their time and subject to appeal to a broad range of readers and interests.