How Walt Disney Brought Leprechauns to America
Walt Disney’s love of European travel and culture is no secret among Disney diehards. Walt and his wife Lillian traveled Europe extensively and we even a Walt Disney World resort hotel dedicated to their love of the French and Italian Riviera. But did you know that Walt was, in fact, proudly Irish? Not only that, but Walt himself is thought to be largely responsible for imprinting leprechauns as the St. Patrick’s Day symbol we know today!
Walt Disney’s grandparents were both Irish immigrants to North America as children. Walt always claimed a great pride in his heritage and returned to Ireland with Lillian in 1946. His specific intent was to deeply research the culture and lore behind leprechauns, as he was preparing to make the movie, Darby O’Gill and the Little People.
History of Leprechauns
Leprechauns are deeply woven into Irish folklore but were not associated with St. Patrick’s Day itself in the early 1900s. It is believed they first came about in centuries-old Irish fables as pint-sized shoemakers who hid gold coins in pots at the end of rainbows. Legend has it that they were so small and so fast that they were nearly impossible to catch. If you did catch one, you were granted three wishes by the magical little person as a price for setting him free.
So how did leprechauns come to be a symbol of St. Patrick’s Day, particularly in America? Well mid-1900s pop culture, of course. And Walt Disney was no small player in American pop culture of the 1950s and 60s.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People
Fourteen years after Walt and Lillian visited Ireland, Darby O’Gill and the Little People premiered in 1960, the first Disney film to premiere outside the US. The film took place in the mountains of Ireland and featured the story of a senior Irish gentlemen and his encounters with magical leprechauns. The tale feels like something pulled straight from old Irish fables.
The film received quite a positive response from the American audience. Loosely aware of the Irish history of leprechauns, and celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at a time when parades and televised celebrations were big business in the US, Americans quickly adopted the magical little creatures as a symbol all their own. Suddenly leprechauns were a popular trend and seen everywhere in the traditional green garb used to celebrate the current holiday. So while they are borne of Irish fables, Darby O’Gill’s Irish setting, combined with some coincidental timing and other pop icons of the time, is largely credited with vaulting leprechauns to a St. Patrick’s Day icon in America.
Attention to Detail
We all know Walt Disney was nothing if not incredibly attentive to storytelling details. He was so focused on making the leprechauns of the film believable that no acting credits were ever given to those who played the roles of the Little People in the film. Additionally, an episode of Walt Disney Presents aired, telling the fictitious backstory of Walt traveling to Ireland with friend Pat O’Brien to find authentic leprechauns to start in the film.
Patrick the Leprechaun
Darby O’Gill and the Little People isn’t the only Disney affiliation with leprechauns. In 1955, Little Gold Books published “Walt Disney’s Little Man of Disneyland”. The book tells the story of Mickey, Donald and Goofy beginning the transformation of Anaheim orange groves into the Disneyland Resort. As they start removing trees, the trio encounter Patrick Begorra, a leprechaun who lives in the roots of the grove.
Patrick demands to know what is happening to his beloved forested home and eventually he lands himself on a helicopter ride back to The Walt Disney Studios to learn all about Walt’s plans for Disneyland. (There’s a nod to Walt here, as he used to travel to the Disneyland construction site by helicopter from his own Burbank home.)
Patrick Gets a Home
After some negotiations, Patrick agrees to let Disneyland construction proceed, as long as he can still have a “wee snug house” on the property to live in.
Never ones to shy away from an opportunity for hidden surprises, Imagineers built Patrick his requested tiny house, right in the heart of Disneyland. You can now find Patrick’s wee home near the entrance to the Indiana Jones Adventure ride in Adventureland. It even gets decorated for holidays just like the rest of the park. Because what would Disney be without the details?!
The original “Little Man of Disneyland”, written by Little Golden Book author Jane Werner, struck a cord with children of the 50s and 60s. It was so popular that it was reprinted in 2015 and is now widely available again. You can find it on Amazon for just $4.99!
So there you have it, friends. Walt Disney bringing leprechauns to America since 1955!
Feature Image Credit: The Irish Times
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