OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY© Christopher Earls Brennen
``No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us,
there's always a thread of grace.''
From an early age, my parents impressed upon me the uniqueness of our family name and, by implication, fostered a sense of superiority over the other residents of our village. No other family in the Irish telephone directory spelt the patently Irish surname of Brennen with an ``e'' rather than an ``a'' as the penultimate letter. And to this day this continues to be the case, though many such spellings occur in the United States due to Ellice Island carelessness.
The ``unique'' spelling needed an explanation and the story (which seemed to be embellished with every telling) was that my great-grandfather, Bernard Macaulay Brennen, had actually been a Frenchman and therefore quite superior. He had reputedly emigrated from Brittany to Ireland in the middle of the 1800s. After acquiring an Irish wife, Susan Dorothea Quin, in Cork he had settled in the small village of Donaghmore, County Tyrone. My father enjoyed recalling this French ancestry for it gave him not only an excuse for the otherwise Catholic surname but even a degree of superiority over his Protestant neighbours. The story was that Bernard had changed from some French name that was similar to Brennen in order to fit in better but wanted to leave a contrast with the common Irish Catholic name, Brennan. How my father and his family managed to get away with such an unlikely story still boggles my mind.
Bernard and Dorothea Brennen
The story of Bernard's later years has more solid historical backing. He and Susan were modestly successful as the local school teachers in Donaghmore. They became pillars of the local Protestant community and Bernard became an elder in the local Church of Ireland. His seemingly Catholic surname, which would otherwise have caused him to be deeply suspect, was explained away by his French origins. These also explained the French waistcoats he wore and the cigarettes he smoked (the locals smoked pipes, cigarettes being still regarded as a foreign custom). Thus Bernard and Susan lived a comfortable village life. They had a large family of twelve children, seven of whom lived to maturity. One of these was my grandfather, Cecil Brennen.
Many years later I embarked on a project to construct our family history. A key part of that effort was an attempt to find my great-grandfather's actual origins. With some clues provided by the older members of my family in Ulster, I was able to locate Bernard and Susan's marriage certificate. The wedding took place in Kinsale near Cork on July 5, 1874, and certified the bond between ``Macaulay Brennenn'' and Susanna Dorothea Quin. My great-grandfather's father is listed as Edward Brennenn. Here it needs to be noted that when one peruses these old records from the 19th cent, it is very clear that some Christian names were definitively Protestant and some were clearly Catholic. Thus the religious affiliation can be quite accurately gauged by either the forename or surname. Both Bernard and Edward were Catholic names. And so we can immediately recognize in the name ``Macaulay Brennenn'' an effort to disguise my great-grandfather's probable Catholic origin. The first name is given as the robustly Presbyterian ``Macaulay'' and the odd ending to the surname strongly suggests the beginning of the French legend. Later he gave up on Macaulay for he was otherwise always known as Bernard. But the odd end to the surname remained.
Later, I was able to find the earlier marriage records of two of Edward Brennan's daughters, Anna and Eliza Jane. These weddings took place in the village of Taughblane about halfway between the towns of Hillsborough and Dromore in County Down, Northern Ireland. Eliza Jane's marriage in 1863 was witnessed by her brother, "Bernard Brennan". This seems to clearly indicate Bernard's geographic origin. No effort was made to disguise the Irish name Brennan. No pretense was possible in his own home village. The fact that both sisters were married in an Anglican church, St. John's Kilwarlin, is not as significant as one might imagine today. In those days only marriages conducted in the established church were recognized by the government and persons of all religious persuasions bowed to that imposition.
And so it became clear quite early in my research that Bernard (or ``Barney'' as he would have been known in his native culture) had perpetrated an elaborate but fairly harmless fraud in order to further his ambitions. Clearly he was a bright young man of very humble origins. Further research in the church records of St.Patrick's Church of Ireland in Donaghmore revealed another part of the story. It appears that Bernard was able to obtain a junior teaching position in a small private school in Donaghmore at quite a young age and began to rise in the estimation of the local community. He must have portrayed himself as Protestant for he was also appointed to some position of responsibility in St.Patrick's congregation. Indeed his name appears as signatory to several entries in the vestry minutes. He must also have accummulated some savings for just a few years later he left Donaghmore and moved to the big city of Dublin.
In Dublin, he somehow managed to enroll in a teacher training course for the new system of "National Schools" which the government was trying to establish in order to provide a measure of regulated primary education to the children of Ireland. How he supported himself during this time is unclear. But he took advantage of his new surroundings in several other ways. Dublin society in the middle of the 1800s had a natural affinity and admiration for everything French and so Bernard acquired some French affectations, in particular a liking for French fashions and for the French habit of cigarette smoking. There he also met the woman he was to marry for Susanna Dorothea Quin was also in Dublin training to be a teacher. Shortly thereafter Bernard and Susan were married in her home town of Cork.
Bernard and Susan must have returned to Dublin shortly after their marriage for in 1875 their first child was born at 14 Lower Wellington Street, presumably their residence. On the birth certificate Bernard lists himself as Macaulay Brennan. But that stay was very brief for in 1876 they moved back to Northern Ireland, and, after brief assignments in two rural National Schools, he was appointed the master at the National School in Donaghmore. No doubt the positive impression he made during his previous stay there helped to gain him the position that he was to hold for the rest of his career. And so it was that they prospered in Donaghmore. They raised a talented and successful family, suffered through the premature deaths of a number of children but lived an otherwise comfortable life in that small community. In surviving photographs, Bernard is a portly, bearded figure of clear authority and Susan seems the very essence of respectability. They are both buried in marked graves in the small graveyard surrounding St.Patrick's Parish Church in Donaghmore.
But the story does not end there. Indeed what had been the curious and dubious legend of my ``French origins'' came back into my own life in a very real and important way. Just before I went to university I fell in love with a beautiful young woman by the name of Doreen Kerr. Doreen came from a large family who owned a tailoring business in the market town of Dungannon. Stoutly Protestant, the family was presided over by the patriarchal figure of William Robert Kerr, Doreen's grandfather. He and his wife Mary Matilda lived in a home above the family business in George's Street, Dungannon. Several years later when Doreen and I wished to marry, I was required to seek William Robert's permission to marry his grand-daughter.
And so it was that one evening, I made my way through the lonely streets of Dungannon bound, with some sense of foreboding, for George's Street and an audience with William Robert Kerr whom we referred to as ``the old boy''. Soon, I found myself alone in the formal living room with the old boy, who had been given some forewarning of the nature of my business. The meeting did not get off to a good start. He asked me my name and I spelled it out placing excessive emphasis on the penultimate letter. The emphasis was completely lost on William Robert whose concern was reflected in his furrowed brow. He then asked me about my father and I proudly recounted my father's medical career and tried to convey some impression of his standing in the admittedly small village of Magherafelt. He then asked about my grandfather. I could tell him little about Cecil for he had passed away when I was very young. Finally, in desperation I remembered that my great-grandfather had come from Donaghmore just a few miles away. As I described what little I knew of Bernard, William Robert's face suddenly cleared and brightened. Now animated, he leaned forward with a smile crossing his face and said with relief and pleasure ``Oh - you mean the Frenchman''. I was home and dry after that.
And so the legend made me an accepted member of the Kerr clan. And in this instance the legend proved stronger than the truth. One wonders how often that is the case in human affairs. Legends, once born, have a life of their own particularly when they serve an important purpose for those who recount them. So I ask myself whether or not it was appropriate or useful for me to seek out the truth. I fervently hope that it was useful though I find it hard to become 100 percent convinced.
Last updated 10/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen