Darby O’Gill and the Little People is a 1959 Walt Disney Productions feature film starring Albert Sharpe, Janet Munro, Sean Connery and Jimmy O’Dea, in a tale about a wily Irishman and his battle of wits with leprechauns. The film was directed by Robert Stevenson and its screenplay written by Lawrence Edward Watkin after the books of Herminie Templeton Kavanagh.
The film’s title is a slight modification of one of the two Kavanagh books, Darby O’Gill and the Good People. This book and her other book, The Ashes of Old Wishes And Other Darby O’Gill Tales, were the sources for this movie.
Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) is the aging caretaker of Lord Fitzpatrick’s (Walter Fitzgerald) estate in the small Irish town of Rathcullen, where he lives in the gatehouse with his lovely, almost grown, daughter Katie (Janet Munro). Darby spends most of his time in the town pub, regaling his friends with tales of his attempts to catch the leprechauns, in particular, their king, Brian Connors (Jimmy O’Dea).
Darby is past his prime as a laborer, so Lord Fitzpatrick decides to retire him on half pay and give him and Katie another cottage to live in, rent-free, and give his job to a young Dubliner named Michael McBride (Sean Connery). Darby begs Michael not to tell Katie that he is being replaced, to which Michael reluctantly agrees. That very night, Darby is captured by the leprechauns while chasing Fitzpatrick’s runaway horse Cleopatra (revealed to be a Pooka), on top of the fairy mountain Knocknasheega. Darby learns that King Brian has brought him into the mountain so he could avoid the shameful admission to Katie about losing his job, but this would mean that Darby would not be allowed to return to Rathcullen and must remain with the leprechauns permanently.
However, Darby tricks the leprechauns into embarking on a fox hunt by playing a rousing fiddle tune called “The Fox Chase” for them on a Stradivarius violin, loaned to him by King Brian. The leprechauns leave on horseback through a large crack in the mountainside wall, from which Darby also escapes. Expecting Brian to track him down once realizing he escaped, Darby produces a jug of poitín and tricks the leprechaun into a drinking game to trap him at sunrise (when the leprechaun’s powers no longer have any effect). Having captured a leprechaun, Darby receives three wishes. Darby uses his first wish to have Brian remain at his side for two weeks or until he makes his remaining two wishes. Meanwhile, despite a rocky beginning between them, (Katie is under the impression that Michael is merely seasonal help), the two begin to show signs of growing affection. Brian stirs the two more in the direction after tricking Darby into making his second wish, warning Darby that his kin might resort to targeting Katie to get him back. Later, the town bully Pony Sugrue (Kieron Moore), who has his eyes on both Katie and the caretaker job, learns of Michael’s position and attempts to get him fired with his meddlesome mother Sheila (Estelle Winwood) revealing the truth to Katie.
A livid Katie, after lashing out at her father and Michael with the intent to leave early, chases Cleopatra to Knocknasheega at nightfall. By the time Darby finds his daughter, Katie is gravely injured with a fever as a hideous banshee appears. Despite Darby getting Katie back to Rathcullen while attempting to drive the apparition away, the banshee summons the Dullahan, Gan Ceann (the death coach) to carry Katie’s soul off to the land of the dead. Desperate, Darby elects to use his final wish to go in his daughter’s place, which a saddened King Brian reluctantly grants. But while accompanying Darby on his way to the next world, King Brian tricks Darby into making a fourth wish (“wishing” that his friend could join him in the afterlife). Because he is only allowed three wishes, this negates all the previous wishes which yanks Darby from the grasp of the Banshee, saving his life.
Katie’s fever lifts and she and Michael reveal their love for each other. Michael later confronts Pony at the pub for his attempt to get him fired, knocking him out and making him appear an incompetent drunkard. Finally, Darby and Michael depart arm-in-arm, joining Katie outside in the wagon for a happy ending, with Michael and Katie singing a final duet together of “Pretty Irish Girl.”