Walt Disney and the Kilkenny connection

This is no Mickey Mouse story.

This is no Mickey Mouse story.

It seems that the man who built a global empire on cartoon characters known to us all has Kilkenny connections.

Walt Disney, a man with Cat connections, became famous when he brought Mickey Mouse to life on the big screen and various other household favourites like Dumbo, Bambi and Snow White.

Tracing Kilkenny ancestry has preoccupied many of us in 2011. From George Clooney to Barack Obama, the Kilkenny connections have been well researched and now another famous figure – deceased yet arguably one of the most famous people of all time, has strong links to this county.

The man who brought the world Mickey Mouse – Walt Disney – came from a large family making it difficult for genealogists to pin point which town in Ireland he descended from, but most experts agree he has Kilkenny roots.

A Galway genealogist, William Henry, recently traced Walt Disney’s roots to Gowran, a town more famous for the animated crowds at the races than cartoons.

Kilkenny genealogist Pat Nolan said he was aware of persistent rumours that Walt Disney was descended from people around the Carlow Kilkenny area. Mr Nolan said that pinpointing the townland where Walt Disney came from was another issue. “There’s an old story of two towns vying to claim Walt Disney’s heritage. They called in a genealogist to trace the family. After two months study the genealogist had narrowed it down to six towns!” said Mr Nolan.

The problem according to Mr Nolan is that there are 512 ancestors of Walt Disney known to have lived in Ireland. Mr Nolan said that the most persistent and credible claim seems to come from between Freshford and Ballyragget.

An online genealogy website findmypast.ie has some documents proving a link to Disney for Rathbeagh, Co Kilkenny. A blog on their website states that Walt Disney’s great-grandfather Arundel Elias Disney was born in Kilkenny c.1801. In 1832 Arundel Elias married Maria Swan, who gave birth to their son Kepple Disney, Walt Disney’s grandfather, on November 2 of the same year.

Arundel and Maria Kepple would go on to have 16 children, including Kepple. The website includes a number of records from Griffiths Valuation, the Landed Estate Court Rentals and also the Tithe Deafulters which include listings of the Disney family of Clone and Rathbeagh, Co Kilkenny.

It is not clear when the Disney family put their roots down in Kilkenny, but it is believed that they came from Galway sometime after 1740. The Disney family had been a powerful political force in Galway where they had controlled the Mayorship and the post of “Collector of the Port” for a number of years. It is alleged that the family were involved in smuggling through their control of the port. A James Disney was alleged to have been heavily involved in smuggling with an accomplice. One of his accomplices was a Captain Smith, who was commander of a navy frigate, The Spy, which policed the bay and between the two of them they amassed vast quantity of money.

The Disney family had originally descended from Normans and are believed to have come to Ireland following the Jacobite – Williamite war, which ended in surrender for Galway in 1691. The name Disney is an anglicised version of the old Norman name D’Isigny. Even before cartoons that family was making an impact on world events. Robert d’Isigny, a French knight accompanied William the Conqueror to England and fought at the battle of Hastings in 1066. The family first settled in a village now known as Norton Disney, south of the Lincoln city in Lincolnshire.

The family ended up farming in Marceline, Missouri where young Walt Disney was born on December 5 1901. By the age of 16 Walt Disney was serving in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver during World War One. He drove a distinctive ambulance that he had decorated himself with cartoons. When he returned to America after the War, Walt Disney stayed in Kansas and worked as an advertising cartoonist. He had much bigger ambitions and in 1920 he created and marketed his first original animated cartoons.

In 1923 Walt Disney left Kansas city with $40 in his pocket and set out for Hollywood. It was five years later when Disney’s most famous character, Mickey Mouse, first appeared on screens. Steamboat Willie was Mickey’s first outing in what was the world’s first fully synchronised sound cartoon, as sound had only just hit the motion picture screen. The film premiered at the Colony Theatre in New York on November 18, 1928.

With in 12 years at the outbreak of World War II Walt Disney had built his own studio in Burbank , California and he employed over 1,000 artists, animators, story-men and technicians. The studio had already produced some of its biggest hits which included Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi.