Part of Con McGrath’s Role of the Irish in WWII Series


A pioneer of the American animation industry, Walt Disney introduced several developments in the production of cartoons; and as a film producer, he holds the record for most Academy Awards earned and nominations by an individual, having won 22 Oscars from 59 nominations.

Yet as highlighted in the delightful song ‘The Disney Gravestone’ by renowned Carlow born singer and entertainer Richie Kavanagh, the Disney family have direct ancestral connections with counties Carlow and Kilkenny.
In 1801, Arundel Elias Disney, great-grandfather of Walt Disney, was born in Gowran, Co. Kilkenny. In 1834 he emigrated with his family to North America. His Irish-born son, Kepple, married another Irish-born immigrant, Mary Richardson, and their eldest son, Elias, would become Walt’s father.

On December 5, 1901 the famed Walt Disney was born in a small house on North Tripp Avenue in the Hermosa neighborhood of Chicago. From an early age he developed an interest in drawing.

In mid-1918, he attempted to join the United States Army to fight the Germans, but he was rejected as too young. After forging the date of birth on his birth certificate, he joined the Red Cross in September 1918 as an ambulance driver. He was shipped to France but arrived in November, after the armistice. He drew cartoons on the side of his ambulance for decoration and had some of his work published in the army newspaper ‘Stars and Stripes’.

Disney moved to Hollywood in July 1923 at 21 years old. Although New York was the center of the cartoon industry, he was attracted to Los Angeles because his brother Roy was convalescing from tuberculosis there, and he hoped to become a live-action film director.

The brothers set up ‘Disney Brothers Studio’, and Walt, along with animator Ub Iwerks, developed the character Mickey Mouse in 1928. Walt’s original choice of name was Mortimer Mouse, but his wife Lillian thought it too pompous, and suggested ‘Mickey’ instead. Mickey Mouse proved highly popular, Walt even providing the voice for his creation in the early years.

Yet leading into World War ll, Walt Disney Studios was on the verge of bankruptcy. While the studios had entered the early 1940s with major profits from films like ‘Snow White’ which had seen high revenues, Walt Disney had a tendency to use all profits from released films towards the production of new ones. In 1941, with the release of ‘Fantasia’ this policy led to severe economic loss within the company. Walt Disney spent four times more than his planned budget on the production of Fantasia which totalled about $2.8 million. However, Fantasia did not receive the attention Walt Disney thought it would.

Other films like ‘Pinocchio’ also failed to bring in the profits Disney predicted because the war in Europe had prevented European movie-goers from seeing the film, minimising the studio’s foreign revenue.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own