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Mixing holidays was nothing new for Rankin/Bass by 1981. Ten years earlier they had done Here Comes Peter Cottontail, which was about the Easter Bunny traveling to every major holiday (and some minor ones) throughout the year. Two years earlier they had made Jack Frost, which covered both Christmas and Groundhog Day. This time, while not as blatant as those two, Rankin/Bass would add a bit of a St. Patricks Day flavor to Christmas.
"The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold"
December 19th, 1981
The special opens with a brief introduction to an old leprechaun named Blarney Kilakilarney, our narrator for this tale. As with most of Rankin/Bass’s holiday specials, he is voiced by a celebrity; In this case, Art Carney, best known as Ed Norton in The Honeymooners. This would, in fact, be the final Rankin/Bass special with a celebrity narrator.
Blarney recalls the tale of Dinty Doyle (Ken Jennings), a young cabin boy aboard the ship Belle of Erin. One day at sea, his captain points out that the holidays are approaching and the ship lacks a Christmas tree. As luck would have it, however, the ship is just then passing by a small island with a lone pine tree on the shore, and the captain requests that Dinty take down the tree and bring it back to the ship.
The cabin boy reaches the island and begins to pull the small tree up, roots and all when he sees a group of leprechauns watching him, curious at the sight of the first human to arrive on the island in over 200 years. But their curiosity turns to horror as they realize what he’s doing, and before they can stop him, Dinty yanks the tree out and they run away. As it turns out, the tree was in fact the only thing sealing away an old and evil banshee. With her freedom regained, she unleashes a storm which leaves Dinty stranded on the island.
Eventually, the storm subsides and a rainbow appears, to Dinty’s amazement. The rainbow reaches down and touches a grove of four-leaf clovers atop a rock, which opens to reveal a massive stash of gold inside. It’s here that he meets Blarney Kilakilarney, who mistakes him for a thief at first. He quickly apologizes and admits that Dinty is his first guest in a century, ever since he parted ways with his family (the leprechauns Dinty saw at the shore), and he invites him in for tea.
He tells Dinty his life’s story, about how he comes from the clan of Kilakilarneys, a line of gold miners, and he married a leprechaun woman named Faye (Peggy Cass) from the O’Clogjigger clan, who specialized in making shoes. As the years passed and they eventually grew to be the oldest leprechauns in Ireland, Blarney became the de facto leader of the gold mining leprechauns, who deposited all their findings within a large rock underneath a grove of four-leaf clovers.
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But the leprechaun gold would draw in rainbows, which attracted the attention of Old Mag the Hag (Christine Mitchell), a evil screaming banshee. As they are created from tears, banshees will return to a puddle of tears and die unless they obtain Christmas gold by the end of the year. They also mustn’t steal the gold, only willingly, or else it doesn’t count.
One year, four days before Christmas, the desperate banshee shapeshifted into a beautiful fairy princess and, knowing the Kilakilarneys would never give her gold, she approached the O’Clogjiggers. Under this disguise, Old Mag convinced Faye that the gold would eventually corrupt her husband and the rest of the Kilakilarneys, and that it would be best for them to give all the gold to the fairy. That evening, an argument erupted between Blarney and Faye, with Blarney seeing through the banshee’s trick, but his wife unconvinced. This ended with Blarney being kicked out of the house and leaving his family.
Within the gold mines, Blarney was confronted by the banshee, who threatened him and his family if he didn’t surrender all the gold. Just then, a massive earthquake shook the area, which broke the leprechaun’s homeland off from the rest of Ireland and sent it drifting away as its own island. With Old Mag threatening to drown the island, Blarney enlisted the help of the pope-like Lord of the Leprechauns (Bob McFadden). The Lord of the Leprechauns requested an audience with Old Mag, where he offered to give her gold in exchange for showing him how a banshee becomes tears. Old Mag agreed and became a torrent of tears inside a small hole on the beach; At that moment, Blarney took a pinecone fallen from a tree grown by Saint Patrick and planted it in the hole, which trapped the banshee inside. The Lord of Leprechauns then used magic to grow the tree, where she would be sealed underneath so long as the tree stood.
Having heard Blarney’s story to the end, Dinty confessed that he had dug up the tree and accidentally released the banshee from her containment. With a mixture of anger and distress, Blarney took a sip of his tea, which unbeknownst to him had been tampered with moments earlier by Old Mag with a potion of generosity, making him unable to resist giving his gold away. However, at the last moment, he fights the potion’s effects enough to give all his gold not to the banshee, but to Dinty, with the promise that he will not let her have any of it.
That evening on the beach, Dinty finds a young lady named Colleen washed ashore. Around a campfire, Dinty tells her about the island and the gold, which she seems particularly fascinated about. She offers to take the gold off his hands to help pay the leprechauns to build a ship for them, which Dinty finds to be a wonderful idea, and relinquishes the gold to her. However (to no surprise of eagle-eyed viewers who may have noticed the constant tears down Colleen’s face), she reveals herself to be the banshee, elated at having finally been given the gold. She puts Dinty under a sleep spell for “a hundred Christmases”.
The leprechauns find the cabin boy the next day trapped in a coma, and Blarney and Faye finally reconcile about their argument all those years ago. The Lord of Leprechauns, watching the two leprechauns from above, creates a rainbow from their love and revives Dinty from his slumber. The rainbow guides Old Mag to the gold stash but, before she can touch the gold, sees the Christmas morning sunrise and realizes she’s too late, melting into a puddle and washing away forever. As for the other end of the rainbow, it brings with it the Belle of Erin, Dinty’s ship. Loading the ship up with gold and shoes, all the leprechauns leave with Dinty and his captain to finally rejoin the country of Ireland.
“The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold” first aired on December 19th, 1981 at 8:30 pm on ABC. According to Arthur Rankin, the special’s debut was originally planned to include a contest where kids could find real treasure buried around the country, but this was scrapped due to safety concerns.
Running under 25 minutes, the special is densely packed with plot while also making sure to squeeze in its quota of musical numbers written by Julian P. Gardner and Maury Laws. In almost a throwback to the days when Rankin/Bass would base specials around pre-existing songs, the special also uses the song “Christmas in Killarney”, a 1950 holiday hit sung by many artists, including Dennis Day (who appeared in two Rankin/Bass specials).
Behind the scenes, however, the studio was shifting its focus in an attempt to adapt to a changing media climate, expanding its attention toward films and attempting to enter the soon-to-be booming world of syndicated cartoons. With over a dozen Christmas specials to their name, it was becoming more profitable to simply rerun the old favorites rather than create new ones. So, for the first time in a decade, Rankin/Bass didn’t produce a new Christmas special for the 1982 season, or the 1983 season, or the 1984 season.
It would be four years until the next Animagic offering from Rankin/Bass, one which would ultimately be their last.