Life St Patrick's Day

Thursday 28 August 2014

Heard the one about the drunk, horny leprechaun?

Darby O'Gill has a lot to answer for, says Susan Daly, as the crazy stereotypes of the stage Irish live on

Published 17/03/2009 | 00:00

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Diddly-aye: Darby O'Gill had it all – leprechauns, a crock of gold and dodgy Oirish accents

Sean Connery has never been a master of accents. His turn as an Irishman in Darby O'Gill and The Little People may, in particular, be to blame for his future propensity for playing all his characters as if they were Scottish. Better safe than sorry.

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The Irish Film Institute has seen fit to hold a special screening of the movie as its contribution to this year's St Patrick's festival, a "boisterous romp about a crock of gold, a wily Irishman and the King of the Leprechauns".

With that description in mind, would it surprise you to learn that actor Cyril Cusack and Cearbhall O Dalaigh, a man who would later be president of Ireland (as opposed to King of the Leprechauns), are said to have picketed the film's launch in 1959?

Darby O'Gill is only a bit of fun, a Disney kids' film to be sure, but it's more Oirish than Irish. When it was released in America, the voices of several of the Irish actors -- including the wonderful Jimmy O'Dea -- were dubbed over to make them easier to understand. The original poster to the film bears this testament to paddywhackery: "A touch o'blarney, a heap o'magic and a load o'laughter".

Hollywood had long been peddling a diddly-aye version of the aul sod -- in the 1910s a string of popular films in American picture houses had titles like The Lad from Old Ireland, All for Old Ireland, A Wild Irish Rose and Luck of The Irish, populated by keening Irish mammies, fiery colleens, nuns, priests, drunks and brawlers.

Fast forward past your Quiet Man (1952) and your Finian's Rainbow (1968) and there is still plenty of shamroguery on screen. A War Of Children (1972) is one that sticks out for its ham-fisted grasp of the Troubles, replete with stage Irishmen, cartoon villain cops beating republicans with blackthorn sticks, distinctly southern Irish accents and Dublin buses shooting through every second frame (it was supposed to be set in Belfast).

We could be here until Patrick's Day next year grading the hundreds of Irish-themed movies on a scale from sentimental to offensive. Special mention though to the Leprechaun series of films (the first one in 1993, starring Jennifer Aniston) about the psychotic killer leprechaun who obviously hasn't had his bowl of Lucky Charms.

The stage Irishman is not dead yet either -- nor is his unwieldy brogue. Tom 'Fine girl y'are, Shannin' Cruise is often singled out for his dubious Irish accent in Far and Away (1992).

But Julia Roberts is a serial offender, in Mary Reilly and Michael Collins, (both 1996); Brad Pitt only redeems his tongue twisting in The Devil's Own (1997) with his fighting Traveller turn in Snatch (2000).

The very excellent English creation Jeeves and Wooster gets it spot on in an episode where two of the characters, Gussie and Spode, have to play Irishmen in a village play. Gussie asks: "Why do I have to end every sentence with 'Begorrah'?" Wooster answers: "My dear Gussie, that is how people think Irish people talk."

Space is the final frontier for the stage Irishman: Star Trek Voyager featured an Irish theme park and Star Trek Next Generation saw the Enterprise rescue a colony called -- I kid you not -- the Oirish. The less said the better about the EastEnders' sojourn to Ireland in 1997 where donkeys and sheep roam the streets, and the pubs are peopled with lecherous drunks.

The small-screen stereotypes are so frequent and hilarious that they are open to parody by more knowing TV shows. Family Guy's Peter discovers his roots in McSwiggen village in Ireland, where the pub is called Wifey McBeaty's and his father is the town drunk, the most honoured position in Irish society.

We can only pray that an episode of Dead Like Me was having a laugh when it featured an Irish-American character who dies at an Irish bar, only to have the afterlife flying him over England's Cliffs of Dover, to the soundtrack of 'Scotland the Brave'.

As Wooster pointed out earlier, people who haven't been to Ireland sometimes just don't know any better. You might not get away with 'Danny Boy' or 'Irish Eyes Are Smilin' down your local, but reel them out in an Irish-American bar and there won't be a dry eye in the shebeen.

One interesting local American tourist website is giving out tips for enjoying St Patrick's Day: a top one is to make a "traditional Irish cocktail" called an Irish Car Bomb, a shot of Baileys dropped in a pint of Guinness.

Notwithstanding the most recent spate of violence in the North, that is tasteless in the extreme.

It's not the only pseudo-Irish tradition observed on Paddy's Day abroad.

A common schoolchild craze in Boston is to pinch anyone not wearing green on March 17. In Savannah, Georgia, the women wear red lipstick and plant kisses on St Patrick's Day parade participants. In Chicago, they dye the river green (a natural phenomenon in Dublin, of course, whenever the Liffey is stinky enough). In New Orleans, float riders throw spectators strings of beads, cabbages and potatoes. Now that's just a waste of good spuds.

For all these misunderstandings, which depict the Irish as a bunch of drunk, combative, horny leprechauns, there seems to be a queue of people dying to find some green in their blood. Oh how we laughed when Prince Charles spoke about getting in touch with the rhythms of the Irish soil.

But we're also quick to appropriate any famous or historical figure as our own when they are on a winning streak.

Sure, that would be the luck of the Irish that got that young fella from Offaly, Barack O'Bama, elected. Plastic paddies are alright if they are playing for our national football squad.

The greenest thing to come out of Ireland is the mint we have made from selling our identity.

Carroll's souvenir shops, flatpack Irish pub chains, O'Brien's 'shambos', John Hinde postcards: we're not afraid of a rub o' the green.

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