Darby O'Gill and the Good People
Many see Harry Potter novels as a fun, exciting introduction for children into fantasy literature. Others are alarmed by Potter’s darker side. Because the series presents the world of witchcraft and sorcery in a positive light, critics decry the books as the next step in our cultural corrosion.
Catholic parents are rightly concerned about the influence of Harry Potter on their children. As novelist Michael O’Brien says, “In Potter-world the characters are engaged in activities which in real life corrupt us, weaken the will, darken the mind, and pull the practitioner down into spiritual bondage.”
Isn’t there something better to engage our children’s imagination?
Indeed there is. Darby O’Gill and the Good People by Herminie Kavanagh (One Faithful Harp Publishing Co., 182 pages, $13.95) is the Catholic answer to Harry Potter. What a rare and marvelous gem! Long out of print, Darby is once again available in a beautiful paperback edition (a lovely green, of course.)
Set at the turn-of-the-century in thoroughly Catholic Ireland, this is the collection of tales on which the wonderful Disney movie was based. Told in the grand Irish story-telling tradition, Darby O’Gill features fairies and leprechauns (also known as the Good People), ghosts, a headless coachman, a death coach, a banshee (a wailing, witch-like omen of death), and the local townspeople of Tipperary, Ireland. These include Darby himself, his wife, Bridget, and their six children, and Father Cassidy, the parish priest.
Respecting the Moral Order of the Universe
Clearly, not all books containing witches, wizards and magic should be condemned. To do so would eliminate some of our greatest literature, including The Chronicles of Narnia, The Tempest, Lord of the Rings, L’Morte D’Arthur, and many others. While employing supernatural elements, at their heart these works contain an image of humanity that incorporates the all-encompassing Biblical perspective on human existence, with its instinctive insight based on knowledge of man’s creation, fall, and redemption. This carries with it an understanding of the essential goodness of life, the dignity – but also the limitations – of mankind, and man’s ever present capacity for courage and charity through an awakened moral conscience.
Put another way, the issue is whether the moral order of the universe is respected. Harry Potter appears to fail this test; Darby O’Gill does not.
Consider how Darby contends with the supernatural in the story “The Banshee’s Halloween.” On one particularly nasty Halloween, with “pelting rain and lashing wind,” Bridget asks Darby a special favor: to take a pinch of black tea to Mrs. McCarthy, who was “flaming with fever.” To get there, Darby, who has an “unreasonable fear of ghosts,” must walk the lonely high road and pass the graveyard where fifty ghouls await. Fearing to go, Darby’s courage receives a boost:
“Oh, ain’t ye the foolish darlin’ to be afeared,” smiled Bridget. “Don’t you know that when one goes on an errant of marcy a score of God’s white angels with swords in their hands march before an’ beside an’ afther him, keeping his path free from danger?” With that she pulled his face down to hers, and kissed him as she used in the old courting days.
There’s nothing puts so much high courage and clear, steadfast purpose in a man’s heart, if it be properly given, as a kiss from the woman he loves. So, with the warmth of that kiss to cheer him, Darby set his face against the storm.
Arriving at the McCarthy’s, Darby delivers the tea after witnessing a touching scene between the deathly-ill Eileen McCarthy and her husband. Homeward bound, Darby finds the Banshee’s enchanted golden comb. Soon, a spy for the fairies arrives to retrieve it. Our quick-thinking hero negotiates for three wishes or else he’ll “carry the comb straight to Father Cassidy.” The fairy woman promises him three favors from the Banshee.
“First an’ foremost,” Darby says, “I’ll want her never to put her spell on me or any of my kith or kin.” Then, his “second wish is that the black spell be taken from Eileen McCarthy.” Third, “You must find me my brier pipe,” which Darby lost during the night’s adventures. The fairy laughed. “’Tis stuck in the band of your hat, where you put it when you left your own house the night,” she says.
The wishes granted, Darby lifts his hat and bows. “Thank you kindly, Mistress Banshee,” he says, “I’ll always say this for you – you’re a woman of your worrud.”
Harry & Darby: Worlds Apart
Darby’s characters are full of humor, kindness, and occasional mischief. Yet, there’s an undeniable beauty about the simple, honest lives led by the Tipperary peasants. Their entire existence is infused by their Catholic faith — it is as much a part of their lives as the air they breathe and the blood in their veins. Anyone who wants to know the heart of the Irish can find it here.
Harry Potter and Darby O’Gill live in worlds apart: it is the difference between a universe controlled by cruel pagan deities and one ruled by a loving God. For Potter, like the ancient Gnostic heretics, man’s redemption comes through using secret knowledge and power to dominate others. In Darby’s Ireland, on the other hand, no one — not even the leprechauns — doubts that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that all who believe in Him might have eternal life.
Darby O'Gill and the Good People takes its place alongside C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows as among the twentieth century's greatest works of moral imagination. There's more poetry and magic here than in all the new fiction that will be released this year.
Note: Darby O’Gill and the Good People is available through www.amazon.com, Sophia Institute’s The Catholic Reader, or from the publisher at 417 Moltke Ave., Scranton, PA 18505; www.onefaithfulharp.com.)
James Bemis is a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News, and has been published in many other Catholic and secular publications.
(Copyright 2001 Catholic Exchange)