Roamer column: From lucky rabbit to today’s 95-year-old Mickey Mouse

Today is an extremely significant date - it’s Mickey Mouse’s 95th birthday.
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On the 18th of November 1928 Walt Disney premiered a black and white cartoon film called Steamboat Willie in New York’s Colony Theatre.

Mickey was a mischievous deckhand on the boat and as the saying goes, the rest is history.

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Roamer only intended to mention the anniversary in passing on today’s page, but after discussing it with some local Mickey fans and doing a little research, it seems the birthday celebrations will continue through to next Saturday.

Mickey Mouse  in Steamboat WillieMickey Mouse  in Steamboat Willie
Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie

In terms of his place in history Mickey is a truly massive mouse, even though he famously affirmed in The Three Musketeers - released to mark his 75th birthday - “I may be small but I’ve got friends that make me ten feet tall!”

Today, 95 years ago in Steamboat Willie, Mickey was a naughty deckhand on a riverboat, an aggravation for Captain Pete but a joy for Minnie who was also making her debut. Mickey ended up peeling potatoes in the galley and the cartoon, with its new-fangled synchronized music and sound effects, was an instant hit that set Mickey off into international stardom.

He has never changed his clothes, yet Mickey is worth several hundred billion dollars today. Market research shows that he’s the world’s most famous personality, even more recognisable around the globe than Santa Claus. And he’s just as big in Northern Ireland as anywhere.

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Google him and you’ll immediately get over 238 million results; the Battle of the Boyne offers only five million results, Stormont gets a few hundred thousand and…er…Roamer has 23!

Walt Disney photographed in 1954Walt Disney photographed in 1954
Walt Disney photographed in 1954

Mickey is everywhere, whether on ice skates in Belfast’s SSE Arena this weekend or festooning clothes, cakes, cards, bouncy castles or clocks - there are very few products made by mankind since 1928 that Mickey hasn’t adorned at one time or another.

Belfast’s Primark store has a Disney café and a whole range of cartoon commodities and there’s a Disney Drag Bottomless Brunch in our capital city next Saturday.

“He popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood,” Walt Disney reminisced in 1948, but it wasn’t as simple as that. Mickey started as a lucky rabbit called Oswald in 1927. With shortened ears and some extra padding around his waist Oswald became Mortimer Mouse but Walt Disney’s wife Lillian hated the name and suggested ‘Mickey’.

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The first two Mickey test-screenings weren’t considered good enough for distribution. Then came Steamboat Willie and the rest is history.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit preceded Mickey MouseOswald the Lucky Rabbit preceded Mickey Mouse
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit preceded Mickey Mouse

And of course there’s an Irish connection. Walt Disney’s ancestors had 33 acres of land in Co Kilkenny, and according to the Disney Family Museum’s consulting historian, Paula Sigman Lowery, Walt’s great-grandfather, Arundel Elias Disney, emigrated from Ireland to North America with his family in 1834.

The name Disney is thought to be derived from the Normandy-French name D’Isigny and it is believed the family is descended from Normans who came to Ireland via England in 1691.

After Walt’s great-grandfather Arundel and family emigrated his Irish-born son Kepple married another Irish-born immigrant, Mary Richardson, and their eldest son, Elias, would become Walt’s father.

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“Walt was an American through and through,” says Lowery “but he always had a fondness for the stories of Ireland and its people…especially the little ones!”

There are over 500 ancestors of Walt Disney who are known to have lived in Ireland and there’ve been unconfirmed suggestions that Dean Brabazon William Disney, Dean of Armagh from 1851 until 1874, might also be connected.

Walt himself was born on 5 December 1901 in Marceline, Missouri, and at the age of 16 he served in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver during WWI.

His decorated his ambulance with his own cartoons and after the war worked as an advertising artist in Kansas. Around 1920 he created and marketed his first cartoon.

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By the outbreak of WWII Disney had built his own studio in Burbank, California, where he employed over 1,000 artists, animators, story-men and technicians.

Goofy, Pluto, Donald Duck and numerous other Disney celebrities followed Mickey and Minnie’s debut in Steamboat Willie, with Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi later taking the world’s cinema screens by storm. Walt Disney visited Ireland in 1946 with his wife Lillian before making Darby O’Gill and the Little People and there’ll be more of Mickey Mouse’s mirth, musings and Irish connections here next Saturday.