Brian McManus: From Kavanagh to Disney: Darby O’Gill and the construction of Irish identity

I research Irish identity in early-20th century Irish-American children’s literature, drawing particular attention to the hugely influential, yet largely ignored Herminie Templeton Kavanagh (1861-1933). In 1901, Kavanagh created a new Irish character for a lucrative literary market of diasporic readers in the US: the wily Tipperary farmer Darby O’Gill, who inhabited a fairy-tale version of the Irish homeland, alongside a variety of phenomena and creatures from Irish lore, including King Brian Connors and the Good People.

Kavanagh wrote sixteen literary fairy tales over a career spanning 25 years, in which she explored the richness, wildness and particularity of Irish folk tales and beliefs, and ruminated upon nationalist politics and the social issues affecting the Irish diaspora in the US. Ultimately, Kavanagh celebrated what she saw as the indomitable and unique spirit of the Irish people during a period of lingering racial hostility towards the Irish in America.

While Kavanagh languishes in absolute obscurity, her eponymous, roguish hero Darby O’Gill is both a household name and a contentious character (especially here in Ireland), largely due to Walt Disney’s 'Darby O’Gill and the Little People'. My research re-evaluates O’Gill’s reputation as a by-word for negative racial stereotyping of the Irish people, and promotor of Americanised inauthentic Irishness. I want to discover the complexities and contradictions behind this 115-year-old Irish icon, who originally emerged, like many cultural icons, from children’s fairy stories.