Those We Lost: recent Irish-American passings


Robert Degen

Robert Degen, a former club musician who held a claim to authorship of the popular song and dance “The Hokey Pokey,” died on November 23, his 104th birthday, in Lexington, Kentucky. The song’s origins are long disputed, with credit usually given to Larry LaPrise, who recorded “The Hokey Pokey” with the Ram Trio in the late 1940s. Robert Degen’s version, “The Hokey Pokey Dance,” was copyrighted in 1944, years before the LaPrise recording. A similar song called “Hokey Cokey” or “Cokey Cokey” was popular among English and American soldiers in England during World War II and attributed either to Northern Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy or London bandleader Al Tabor. Some Roman Catholics claim that the song derives from the words “hocus pocus” and was created by 18th-century Puritans to make fun of the Latin Mass.

Robert Degen was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1905. He performed as a full-time musician prior to World War II and in the 1920s was a member of the Scranton Sirens, a jazz group that once featured Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. His son William told The New York Times that Degen did not copyright any other songs and wrote “The Hokey Pokey Dance” with friend Joe Brier.
Degen is survived by his wife of 74 years, Vivian, sons William and Robert, a grandson and two great-grandchildren.


Roy E. Disney

Roy E. Disney, the nephew of company founder Walt Disney who helped to breathe new life into the brand, died at age 79 on December 16th of stomach cancer, in Newport Beach, California. He was the last member of the founding family to work at the entertainment conglomerate formed by his uncle and his father. Growing up as a test audience for films like Pinocchio, Disney began his career as an assistant film editor on the television show Dragnet before he joined the Disney company to work on nature documentaries in 1953.

He became known for his steadfast resolve to maintain the company’s originative principles and direction, leaving the company in 1977 and again in 2003 over disagreements with top executives. In 2005, Disney became director emeritus and a consultant and held both titles for the remainder of his life. He spent nine years on the Fantasia 2000 project, a sequel to the revolutionary 1942 film. Walt Disney had envisioned a sequel but died before he could complete it.

Roy Disney was also an achieved sailor, setting records for offshore yacht racing on the Pacific Ocean. He maintained a vacation home at a castle in Ireland, where his ancestors lived before emigrating to the U.S. He is survived by his wife, Leslie DeMeuse Disney, as well as his former wife of 52 years, Patricia Dailey Disney, and four of their children. Sixteen grandchildren also survive him.

Donal Donnelly

Irish actor Donal Donnelly, renowned for his work in Irish roles on the American stage and in film, died on January 4th in Chicago at age 78. His son Jonathan reported the cause of death as cancer. Donnelly was best known for his roles in plays by Brian Friel and in the John Huston film adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead.

Donnelly was born in Bradford, England, where his father, James, of Northern Ireland, worked as a doctor. They moved to Dublin (his mother, Nora, was Irish) early in Donnelly’s childhood. He attended the Synge Street Christian Brothers School in Dublin, known for producing actors, and worked at the Gate Theater in Dublin in the beginning of his career. In the 1960s, Donnelly came to America and first gained his American audience in the 1965 British comedy The Knack . . . and How to Get It. In 1966, he earned a Tony Award nomination for his work in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! on Broadway. From there Donnelly continued a string of well-received Broadway roles, and had small parts in high-profile movies and television shows.

He is survived by his wife of 45 years, Patsy Porter, a dancer whom he met during the London run of Finian’s Rainbow decades ago, and sons Jonathan and Damian, both of Chicago.


Brittany Murphy

Actress Brittany Murphy, who starred in numerous hit movies and television shows in the 1990’s and 2000’s, died at age 32 on December 19 after going into cardiac arrest in her home in Los Angeles. She was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Murphy’s father was the Italian-American mobster Angelo Bertolotti and she was raised by her Irish-American mother, Sharon Murphy, in New Jersey and later Los Angeles. Her parents divorced when she was two. “My mother and uncle’s last name is Murphy and it’s the name I’ve always used all my life,” she told Ireland’s Sunday Tribune in an interview to promote her 2005 movie Sin City. “My family is very Irish. They give Murphy sweatshirts out to everyone when we go somewhere. We have the emblem from Murphy’s stout put on the sweatshirts like a family crest.”