Walt Disney – how Ireland shaped an American icon

Walt on the set of Darby O'Gill and the Little People
Image caption,Walt Disney turned to Irish stories as inspiration for his film Darby O’Gill and the Little People

The title of Walt Disney’s definitive biography describes him as An American Original but how much do you know about his Irish roots?

The Disney name was quite common on the island of Ireland in and around the 1600s to the 1800s.

Before Walt, some relatively well-known Disneys carried the name in Ireland, including a dean of Armagh Cathedral.

In fact, remnants of Disneys from the past can still be found in some graveyards in Northern Ireland, such as St Mark’s Parish Church in Armagh.

While no known link to the American icon has been found in Armagh, just three hours drive away in Kilkenny there is a rich family history dating to the early 1600s.

Travel a little further and you can even find Ireland’s own Disney Castle.

Disney name seen on a headstone in St Mark's Parish Church in Armagh
Image caption,An old headstone in the graveyard of St Mark’s Parish Church bares the name Disney

From Kilkenny to Disneyland

“The Disney family history starts in France, with a little detour into England and then landing in Ireland,” explained Paula Sigman-Lowery, a historian who has spent her career looking into the history of the company and the life of its namesake.

Her work has culminated in Disney100: The Exhibition, a celebration of the centenary of the Walt Disney Company.

The D’Isgny name was anglicised to Disney when the family moved to England in the 11th century.

In the 1600s Walt Disney’s direct ancestors moved on to settle in Ireland, where they remained for two centuries.

Mrs Sigman-Lowery said the Disney family had a relatively comfortable life in Ireland, judging by the earliest records connected to them.

The Disney 100 Exhibition
Image caption,Paula Sigman-Lowery is one of the names behind Disney100: The Exhibition in London

A lease document for 122 acres of land from July 1792 paints a picture that sounds as if it was taken directly from one of Disney’s classic films.

“They were described as including a large and roomy house called Sweethill and a freshwater spring,” she said.

“This was in a ‘highly improved’ area of County Kilkenny.”

The winds changed for some members of the Disney family in 1834.

Walt Disney’s paternal grandparents, Mary Richardson and Kepple Elias Disney, emigrated to North America as children with their families.

Their eldest son Elias Disney, would go on to father Walt and Roy, the co-founders of the Walt Disney Company.

Claddagh rings and Dublin premieres

Both boys grew up hearing tales of the old country.

“Although Walt was born in Chicago, fully American, he was very close to his Irish roots,” said Paula Sigman-Lowery.

“[Walt] loved hearing literature and fairy stories read to him by his mother when he was a child, and the Irish stories really, really resonated with him.”

He would revisit those stories later in life.

During the 1940s and 1950s, he made a number trips to the Republic of Ireland with his family while conducting research for the film Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

Walt Disney talks to children outside a theatre in Dublin in 1959
Image caption,Walt celebrated the premiere of Darby O’Gill and the Little People in Dublin

In 1959, while in Dublin for the premiere of the movie, he and his wife took a little bit of Ireland back to the United States with them.

“[They] bought each other traditional Claddagh rings to represent their love for each other,” said Mrs Sigman-Lowery.

The ring features a heart to represent love, a crown for loyalty and two clasped hands to depict friendship.

“He wore the Claddagh ring for the rest of his life.”

Walt Disney holds a camera
Image caption,Walt Disney wore a traditional Irish Claddagh ring on his right hand

Walt Disney would go on to make more Irish-inspired movies, such as The Fighting Prince of Donegal, based on the life of Red Hugh O’Donnell.

The last live-action movie he produced, The Happiest Millionaire, opens with a young Irishman who has just arrived in America.

He sings a song called I’ll Always Be Irish, a melody which Mrs Sigman-Lowery said Disney was very fond of.

“That story of someone coming over to America, a land of opportunity, from the old country and becoming successful – it was very personal story to Walter, even though he was born in America,” she said.

“This is the story of his family.”

‘We know Mr Disney’

Coolmain Castle in County Cork
Image caption,Ireland’s Disney Castle was bought by Roy E Disney in 1989

In 1989 Ireland would get its own Disney castle.

That was when Roy E Disney bought Coolmain Castle in County Cork.

The former senior executive of the Disney Company, who was also Walt Disney’s nephew, took great interest in his family’s history.

He travelled to Ireland on numerous occasions to track down his ancestors, some of which he found in Clonmesh graveyard in Ballyloo, County Carlow.

The 18th century mansion was also used often for family holidays.

Signs pointing to Clonmesh graveyard where some of Walt Disney's ancestors are buried
Image caption,Road signs in Ballyloo, County Carlow, point tourists to Clonmesh graveyard where Walt Disney’s ancestors are buried

Kilkenny historian and tour guide Frank Kavanagh remembered Roy E Disney’s trips.

“He came to Ireland quite regularly,” he said.

“He always took part in the yacht races down there. https://elementlagu.com But we’re Irish – we don’t make a big deal of these things.

“We just said: ‘Ah yeah, we know Mr Disney. He’s a nice guy.'”

Roy E. Disney stands in an office space
Image caption,Roy E Disney was a senior executive for the Walt Disney Company, which was co-founded by his father Roy Disney

Mr Kavanagh said that despite their French origins, the Disney family were Irish through and through.

“You could just say they came from France and forget everything in between but the whole family as they are today started out in Kilkenny,” he continued.

“They went from being lords in the 14th Century, to failed invaders in England, through the various tortures that went on, becoming Irish immigrants.

“It’s a story in itself. It’s everything that you’d expect from the Disney family – creative magic.”

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