Turtle Bunbury

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Above: Walt Disney walking in St. Stephens Green, while on a visit to Dublin for the
premiere of ‘Darby O'Gill and the Little People’ in 1959.


By the time of his death in 1966, Walt Disney was a household name across the world, having racked up far more Oscars than anyone else in history and established a company that now has an annual revenue of approximately U.S. $35 billion, with resorts and theme parks in the US, Japan, France, and China. It’s a classic American story from man whose ancestors emigrated to the US from Ireland in the 1830s but when it came to his Irish roots, Walt was all about the blarney.

Waterville, County Kerry, 28 November 1946. When her guests had finished their Thanksgiving dinner, Mary Huggard, proprietor of The Butler Arms, dispatched her staff out with bowls of Leprechaun Trifle and Púca Pudding with Sláinte Sauce. The Americans were then invited to sit around a turf fire as local seanchaí Tadhg Murphy unleashed his arsenal of folklore tales, translated from the Irish.[i]

Among those gathered around the fire that night was Walt Disney, probably the most famous Hollywood star in the world at the time. He was in Ireland on a two-week research assignment for a movie he was planning to base on Irish folklore. Disney’s 1946 trip came back to light in May 2015 with the emergence of a letter written by Matthew Murphy, the Irish Consul in San Francisco, to the Department of Foreign Affairs seeking to set up a meeting between Disney and the then-Taoiseach Eamon de Valera to discuss a film with the working title of ‘Little People’.[ii]

The movie mogul had set himself up for trouble by letting it be widely known that he was ‘hunting for leprechauns’, prompting every fable teller in Ireland to try and contact him in the hope they would soon be the ones sitting on a pot of gold. Shortly after his plane touched down in Dublin on 22 November, he told a press conference that there was already a pile of letters accumulating in his hotel bedroom ‘from people who claim to have nodding acquaintance with leprechauns’.[iii] As one man later said to him, ‘Begod then if I didn't see a leprechaun, Mr Disney, I saw his traces.’[iv]

Disney explained the purpose of his trip to his only sister Ruth, a stenographer in Portland. ‘We are starting a picture on the Leprechauns or 'little people' as they are called in Ireland, so we plan to spend most of our time gathering background material and learning all we can about Irish folklore.’[v]

Wasting little time, Disney made straight for the Irish Folklore Commission at University College Dublin on the day of his arrival and met with its charismatic director Séamus Ó Duilearga (James Delargy). The professor promptly organised a series of trips to Connemara, Kerry and Wicklow in which he served as ‘folklore consultant’ to a party that included Walt Disney and his wife Lilly, as well as the director/producer Peter Pearce, the screenwriter John Tucker Battle (and their wives) and production executive Larry Lansburgh.[vi]

As well as his night at the Butler Arms in Waterville (a favoured haunt of Charlie Chaplin), the Disneys enjoyed ‘window-shopping’ in Killarney, a trip to the Naas races (where a victorious Walt made ‘several remunerative visits’ to a luckless bookmaker), tea in Áras an Uachtaráin with President Sean T. O’Kelly and, perhaps most pertinently, a visit to Clonmelsh Cemetery in Carlow where some of the Cartoon King’s ancestors were buried. [vii]

‘Always remember’, Disney once said, ‘that this whole thing started with a dream and a mouse’.

From another perspective, it started with Hughes d’Isigny, a French soldier from Calvados in Normandy who moved to Lincolnshire, England, at the time of the Norman invasion in 1066. His family initially settled in a village now known as Norton Disney, south of Lincoln city.

In the 17th century a branch of the Disney family are said to have moved to Ireland and settled in either Dublin or Galway. The Galway Disneys held the posts of Mayor and “Collector of the Port” for several years in the 1740s and were reputed to be much embroiled in smuggling.[viii]

It is unclear if or how the Galway Disneys were connected to a branch that was living beside Ballyloo Castle in Co. Carlow in the 1730s. The nearby Clonmelsh cemetery is the final resting place for at least three people believed to be Walt’s ancestors, including George Disney, a Dublin baker, who died in 1736 aged 53.

Walt’s first known direct ancestor was Robert Disney (1746-1806), described as ‘a relatively prosperous Carlow farmer’, who married Mary Keppel (1750-1815).[ix] In 1795, their 20-year-old son Keppel Disney married Frances Best of Carlow with whom he lived at Sweethill House in Clone, midway between the towns of Freshford and Ballyragget in County Kilkenny.[x]

Keppel and Frances’s second son Arundel Elias Disney was Walt’s great-grandfather. Born in 1803, he married Mary Swain in 1832 and had sixteen children, the eldest of whom was another Kepple Disney, Walt’s grandfather, born in Clone on 2 November 1832.

In 1834, Arundel and his eldest brother Robert boarded a ship in Liverpool with their young families and sailed for North America, seemingly lured by tales of the riches to be found in the New World. One of Arundel and Mary’s children died on the voyage. From New York, Arundel and his family made their way to Canada, settling in Goderich Township on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, Ontario, where he set up business as a corn and timber merchant. In the late 1840s, his younger brothers Keppel and Henry also emigrated although they appear to have remained in New York.

Arundel was one of the beneficiaries when, following his fathers’ death aged 82 in 1857, the family sold Sweethill with 170 acres. [xi] During the sale, Arundel was represented by Robert Mease, a solicitor based at 9 Eustace Street in Temple Bar, Dublin. [xii] The income must have helped when Walt’s grandfather Keppel was married in 1858 to fellow Irish immigrant Mary Richardson from Aghaboe, Co. Laois.

Keppel and Mary had eleven children, the eldest of whom was Walt’s father Elias, born in 1859. After attempts to establish oil drilling and salt mining enterprises, Keppel bought 80 hectares in Kansas from the Union Pacific Railroad and began farming in 1878 with his two eldest sons Elias and Robert. Two years later his Kilkenny-born father Arundel died in Mount Alton, Pennsylvania. [xiii]

Following Keppel’s death in 1891, Elias, a stern man with a wandering soul, worked on various farms, railroads and building sites, as well as a stretch as a professional fiddler in Denver. He married Flora Call, a patient, understanding Anglo-German, with whom he had four sons and a daughter. Elias was working as a contract carpenter in Chicago when their youngest son Walter Elias, aka Walt, was born on December 5, 1901.

Walt was five years old when his parents moved to a prairie farm near Marceline, Missouri. That’s where he learned how to draw, copying cartoons from the socialist newspapers his father subscribed to.[xiv] He later honed his skills at the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago.[xv]

When the US entered World War One in 1917, Walt was rejected by both the Army and Navy because of his age. Instead he drove a Red Cross ambulance in France, decorating its sides with cartoons. He subsequently worked as a cartoonist for an advertising firm in Kansas. By 1920 he was marking his first animated fairy tales and three years later he moved to his uncle Robert Disney’s home in Hollywood with $40 cash and a head full of ideas. His secretary was a woman called Lilly Bound who proved so helpful that he married her. [xvi]

Mickey Mouse first appeared on screen in ‘Steamboat Willie’ in 1928, voiced by Walt himself. Disney went on to become arguably the greatest star in Hollwood history, establishing Walt Disney Productions with his older brother Roy. Nobody has come close to touching his tally of 26 Academy Awards, as well as seven Emmy Awards.

Asked whether he believed in fairies, Disney replied, ‘Why wouldn’t I? They’ve done alright by me.’ His passion for little people was evident in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, his first classic animated feature film, which won him an Honorary Oscar for innovation in 1937. That same year, Walt and his brothers Roy, Raymond and Herbert gifted their parents a new home in North Hollywood for their golden wedding anniversary.[xvii] Elias and Flora duly upped sticks after 17 years in Portland but tragedy struck the following year when a gas leakage at the Hollywood home suffocated Flora. Elias, who narrowly survived the fumes, died three years later.[xviii]

Following his two-week trip to post-war Ireland in 1946, Disney had promised that his leprechaun film would feature ‘plenty of green’ with ‘dashes of orange’. Over twelve long years would pass before the results of his research hit the screen. [xix] In the meantime, he produced his first live-action film, "Treasure Island" in 1950, won a record four Oscars in 1954 and opened the first Disneyland theme park in 1955.

In 1959, Disney’s folklore film was finally released as 'Darby O'Gill and the Little People'. Walt Disney returned to Ireland for its premiere in June, with a police escort and six pipe bands to greet him at Dublin Airport. To the dismay of the Folklore Commission, the movie drew little from Disney’s extensive consultation with Prof. Ó Duilearga and was instead a good-natured fantasy film based upon a collection of short stories published in 1903. The author was Herminie Templeton Kavanagh, the Chicago-born daughter of a Longford soldier and the wife of an Irish-American judge.

'Darby O'Gill’ has hints of the folklore tradition as recorded by W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, with leprechauns, banshees and fairies from the Otherworld, but it was also perhaps the ultimate stage-Oirish movie, complete with brogue accents, Disneyfied Blarney slapstick and a seanchaí based on Tadhg Murphy of Waterville.

Nonetheless, the film was hailed for its visual effects and production techniques, and has since become something of a cult classic, not least because it starred a then unknown Sean Connery alongside Irish actors Albert Sharpe and Jimmy O’Dea.

When challenged about the existence of leprechauns, Disney scoffed: ‘Of course they still exist! They are testy little men . . . Leprechauns spend their time drinking Irish whiskey, dancing and watching horse races – very good pastimes … The Irish people no longer see them because they are thinking about other things.’[xx]

In 1966 Disney released another film of Irish interest, ‘The Fighting Prince of Donegal’, a squeaky clean and poorly received adaptation of the life of Red Hugh O’Donnell. One month after its release, the chain-smoking Disney succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 65. He was survived by Lilly, who died aged 98 in 2009, and their two daughters, Dianne Miller and Sharon Mae Brown. ‘The Jungle Book’, the last film he worked on, was released the following year.

His nephew, Roy E. Disney, founder of Shamrock Holdings Inc and the last member of the family to be involved in the Disney Company, also passed away in 2009. During the 1980s he bought Coolmain Castle near Kilbrittain, County Cork, as a holiday home and he participated in the Royal Cork Yacht Club’s biannual sailing regatta on three occasions. He also visited Carlow several times where, like Walt, he paid his respects to his Irish ancestors.

With many thanks to Maria O’Brien, Roger Nowlan, Michael Purcell, Susie Warren and Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh (Archivist, National Folklore Collection / Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann - www.ucd.ie/folklore)


Tony Tracy, 'When Disney Met Delargy: Darby O'Gill and the Irish Folklore Commission', Béaloideas: Journal of the Irish Folklore Society 78 (2010): 50-59.

Hugh Disney, “Disneys of Stabannon: : a review of an Anglo-Irish family from the time of Cromwel” (Basingstoke Press Ltd., Oxford 1995)

William L. Bradley, ‘Walt Disney’s Ireland’ in Donald McNamara, ‘Which Direction Ireland? Proceedings of the 2006 ACIS Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference’ (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), p. 49-65.


[i] Irish Independent, 6 December 1946. Marie O’Reilly, ‘I Sketch Your World.’

[ii] According to Brian Byrne in the Irish Independent (26/05/2015 ), “The letter, dated September 18, 1946, says that "Mr Walt Disney and a party of six, including himself, will sail from New York on November 14 on the SS Queen Elizabeth for Southampton, and will go directly from there to Dublin. "The party intends to tour Ireland on a research mission, with the intention of making cartoon motion pictures dealing with Irish life and folklore." The author says Mr Disney wanted to meet "parties such as the president of the Irish Tourist Association. Mr Disney would also like to meet An Taoiseach."

[iii] Times Pictorial, Saturday, November 30, 1946, p. 2.

[iv] FolkWorld Exploring the Written World of Music - FolkWorld; Published 8/2001 at http://www.folkworld.de/19/e/toms.html

[v] Irish Independent (26/05/2015

[vi] Tony Tracy, 'When Disney Met Delargy: Darby O'Gill and the Irish Folklore Commission', Béaloideas: Journal of the Irish Folklore Society 78 (2010p. 48.

[vii] Irish Independent, 6 December 1946. Marie O’Reilly, ‘I Sketch Your World.’ In Kerry he is believed to have been with his wife, Mrs. John D. Battle and Mrs. Pierce. Naas races reference in The Irish Times, ‘An Irishman’s Diary’, Wednesday, November 27, 1946, p. 5.

[viii] ‘The Kilkenny People … reports that the Disney family is believed to come from Galway after 1740. In Galway they had been a powerful political force where they had controlled the Mayorship and the post of “Collector of the Port” for several years.’
It has also been alleged that they were involved in smuggling through the control they welded at the port. One James Disney is alleged to have been heavily involved in smuggling. One of his accomplices was Caption Smith, the commander of a navy frigate who policed the bay.

[ix] Hugh Disney, “Disneys of Stabannon: : a review of an Anglo-Irish family from the time of Cromwel” (Basingstoke Press Ltd., Oxford 1995). Keppel is sometimes spelled as Keppel.

[x] The house appears to have been leased shortly after their marriage. Evening Post, Disney Family re Incumbered Estate-Dublin, Sat 9 Aug 1856.

[xi] Evening Post, Disney Family re Incumbered Estate-Dublin, Sat 9 Aug 1856.

[xii] Evening Post, Disney Family re Incumbered Estate-Dublin, Sat 9 Aug 1856.

[xiii] http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=60693337

[xiv] Seattle Daily Times, Wednesday-21 Dec 1966. ‘But I wanted to draw’.

[xv] Plain Dealer, Fri 16 Dec 1966. ‘Walt Disney is dead.’

[xvi] Plain Dealer, Fri 16 Dec 1966. ‘Walt Disney is dead.’

[xvii] Riverside Daily Press-Sat 1 Jan1938. ‘Walt Disney joins his brothers in buying a home for parents’.

[xviii] Sunday Oregonian, Sun 27 Nov 1938. ‘Tragic death of Mrs Flora Disney’; Sunday Oregonian, Sun 14 Sep 1941, ‘Death of Elias Disney’.

[xix] The Irish Times, 23 November 1846, via https://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/archive/1946/1123/Pg003.html#Ar00323:8E775A96978B8A8A938DCAAD87275A8DB78B879A93893AAD893A9389EAAD
[xx] ’Darby O’Gill Premier’, Irish Times, 29 June 1959; The Irish Times, Sat, Jun 27, 2009. How 'Darby O'Gill' captured an Ireland rapidly fading’ by Fintan O'Toole.