The creator of Mickey Mouse may have closer Ulster links than Mary Poppins

Several weeks ago the Portadown based historian Brian McKernan revealed here that he'd recently found the Russell family gravestone in St Mark's graveyard in Armagh.

Friday, 20th July 2018, 10:00 am
The first appearance of Mickey Mouse, in Steamboat Willie in 1928

The grave is the last resting place of the family of George William Russell (1867-1935), the hugely distinguished poet, painter, writer (and lots more besides!) who originally came from Lurgan.

In 1930 he was “one of the most famous men in Ireland” according to local historian and Russell-enthusiast Eric McElroy.

Russell was known as ‘The Sage of Ireland’ and “has been very favourably compared with Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley,” said Brian McKernan.

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Walt Disney photographed in 1954

Better known as ‘AE’ Russell, Brian recounted George William’s close friendship with the Australian author of Mary Poppins, Pamela Travers, during the last ten years of his life.

“They holidayed together and he helped her to develop the characters, plots and stories which became the Mary Poppins books,” Brian confirmed.

So the link is authoritatively established between Lurgan born Russell and one of Walt Disney’s most iconic film characters; just about every one of us has seen Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins singing along with Dick Van Dyke!

But another enticing snippet of information has arrived in Roamer’s mailbox – Walt Disney himself may well have direct family connections with the diocese where Brian McKernan discovered the Russell family grave.

George William 'AE' Russell with Pamela Travers in 1934

And according to the information sent to me, the creator of Mickey Mouse, Mary Poppins and a host of other children’s favourites, boasted deep Irish roots.

The suggested Disney-Armagh connection was outlined in a News Letter reader’s note about a 19th century Irish church-man called Brabazon William Disney, who some folk claim was a relative of Walt Disney.

The note stated that Brabazon Disney was born on July 13th 1797 and was an Irish dean in the Anglican Church in the mid-1800s.

He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and held several incumbencies in various Irish parishes before becoming Archdeacon of Raphoe, a post he held until he became Dean of Emly in west Tipperary.

In his spare time Brabazon Disney compiled an eight-volume collection of his sermons, and he was Dean of Armagh from 1851 until his death on December 20th 1874.

Along with a vast accumulation of information confirming Walt Disney’s Irish background the reader’s letter admitted “getting the link to Armagh may take a bit of research”.

I hope that someone may be able to find this link and will contact Roamer at the News Letter.

There are old records showing that 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 in 1691.

Historian Paula Sigman Lowery recounts Walt’s ancestors spending “a few hundred years in England” before a group of them settled in Co Kilkenny.

After Walt’s great-grandfather Arundel emigrated with his family in 1834, his Irish born son Kepple married another Irish born immigrant, Mary Richardson, and their eldest son, Elias, would become Walt’s father.

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

A professional Irish genealogist has shown that there were 512 ancestors of Walt Disney who are known to have lived in Ireland, so it could very well be that Dean Brabazon William Disney, Dean of Armagh from 1851 until 1874, was one of those.

A number of them entered the church, though in contrast it has also been alleged that some of the early Disney family were involved in big-time smuggling!

Walt Disney was born on December 5th 1901 in Marceline, Missouri and at the age of 16 he served in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver during First World War.

His decorated his ambulance with his own cartoons.

After the war he worked as an advertising artist in Kansas and around 1920 he created and marketed his first cartoon.

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

The first animated short films featuring an embryonic Mickey Mouse were ‘Plane Crazy’ and ‘The Gallopin’ Gaucho’, both silent films. They flopped!

When sound made its way into film, Disney created a short movie called ‘Steamboat Willie’ where Mickey became an instant sensation.

Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi followed onto the world’s cinema screens, and inspired by Lurgan-born George William Russell, Pamela Travers’ Mary Poppins became one of the biggest hits of them all.

It was in 1964 that Disney produced Mary Poppins, having tried to acquire the rights to the story since the 1940s.

It became the most successful Disney film of the 1960s, although Travers disliked the film intensely and regretted having sold the rights.

Over a century after his dad emigrated, Walt Disney returned to Ireland in 1946 with his wife Lillian.

Disney wanted to visit his ancestral land before he made the movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People, a picture that was close to his heart.

After the trip Walt said: “I went Irish all the way. I even crossed the ocean in an Irish airlines plane.”

He visited many family-tree locations but sadly (and ominously?) he didn’t go to Armagh.