Thursday, May 5, 2022

Movie Churches European Tour: First Stop Ireland

Darby O'Gill and the Little People
Directed by Robert Stevenson

Our first stop on this month’s European Vacation is the Emerald Isle which is appropriate, as I am writing from the Emerald City, Seattle.

There's an acknowledgment in the credits of today's movie: "My thanks to King Brian of Knocknasheega and his Leprechauns, whose gracious co-operation made this picture possible. -- Walt Disney." Because this is Movie Churches, we wonder, why no thanks to the priests in the film?

Of course, many people who viewed this Disney live-action classic in their childhood might not ever remember there was a priest in the film. I know I didn’t.

I do have a distinct memory of watching this as a kid. It was made before I was born, but Disney regularly re-released their favorites, and this played at the Park Cinema in Santa Rosa, CA. I went on a Saturday afternoon, and there was a big crowd of kids, and it was raining hard. There was an announcement that the show was sold out followed immediately by an announcement that they would be showing the movie in the second theater. Apparently, they opened the second theater just for Darby, and they moved the reels from one projector to the other. This stuck with me.

What also stuck with me? The banshee, the angel of death, scared the heck out of little me. But the priest? I completely forgot about him.)

Darby O’Gill and the Little People tells of Darby O'Gill (Albert Sharpe), the elderly caretaker of a lord’s estate in a small Irish town. He is a great storyteller whose favorite topic is his adventures with the leprechauns. Darby has a grown daughter pursued by two suitors; Pony (Kieron Moore), a local bully, and Michael McBride (Sean Connery), the man sent to replace Darby as the caretaker. (It is said Connery's role in this film helped him be cast as James Bond.)

I really didn’t care too much about the love triangle as a kid. What I enjoyed back in the day was Darby’s battle of wits with Brian (Jimmy O’Dea), the legendary king of the leprechauns, for three wishes. While telling stories in the local bar, Darby recalls a time when he captured King Brian. When the king tried to wriggle out of granting Darby's wish, Darby warned him, “You give [my wishes] to me or you’ll answer to the church, I’ll have Father Murphy curse you with a blessing that will shrivel you up.” But still, Darby admits that King Brian escaped and didn’t grant his wishes.

While Darby is telling one of his stories in the local pub, Father Murphy enters. The priest apologizes for his arrival, “I didn’t want to interrupt, I just dropped in to tell you the news. My friend Father O’Leary in the town of Glencove has a new bell that was given to him by a lord. They will give the old bell to us. There will be a chapel bell in our town at last. All we have to do is go after it. Now, if I had a horse, which I haven’t, I’d go for it meself, which I won’t, but I thought that perhaps there might be someone here with a horse and cart who’d like to go for the bell.”

Pony first volunteers to get the bell, for a price. “Two pounds, ten bob,” he says. 

The priest agrees it's a fair price, just more money than he has. The priest makes a counteroffer for carrying the bell, “A chore like that might even be enough to absolve a man for using the priest and a church against the powers of darkness for his own selfish ends.”

This offer captures Darby’s attention. “I’ll do it, Father, I’ll do it for nothing." 

But Father Murphy tells him, “No, Darby, it won’t be for nothing. As a reward, you may have the music of the bell… For your seed, breed, and generation till the end of time.”

Darby does indeed find great joy in listening to the bell. When Darby captures King Brian again, on a Sunday, the king urges him to hastily make his wishes. Darby resists because of the chiming, “The bell, listen to the music of it. Father Murphy gave it to me. Would I make the wish on a Sunday with Father Murphy pulling the bell? Listen to the music.” It turns out for the best that Darby waits.

It turns out that he needs his wish when his daughter Katie is at death’s door; Father Murphy comes to read her the last rites, but because of Darby’s wish, those rites aren’t necessary.

Throughout the film, there seems to be a silent struggle between supernatural forces: the underworld of the leprechauns versus Father Murphy’s Heaven. There’s nothing really wrong with the powers the priest represents, they just aren’t as interesting (in the film, anyway) as the powers King Brian represents.

But we’ll still give Father Murphy a Three Steeple rating if just for the music of the bell.

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