OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY© Christopher Earls Brennen
Don Pedro:`` .... for, out of question, you were born in a merry hour''.
Beatrice: ``No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born''.
From ``Much Ado about Nothing'' by William Shakespeare.
My father, Wilfred Macauley Brennen, spent most of his boyhood in the midst of the vast expanse of row upon row of red brick tenements that supplied the essence of the ship-building and linen-manufacturing industries of a grimy and sprawling Belfast at the beginning of the 20th century. Throughout the world some infinitesmal fraction of the youth who are born into such urban poverty manage to escape upwards. My father's escape was, I believe, due to the same providence that characterizes so many of these fortunate ones. Namely a combination of genetic accident plus a mother with driving familial ambition and a cast-iron belief in relentless formal education. It was not until I had passed the age of twenty that I located the small terraced house in which my father spent his formative years as the second of six children of Cecil and Anne Brennen. He was christened Wilfred Macauley Brennen to commemorate an uncle who died young and his mother's favorite poet. From an early age he was inculcated with a belief in the uniqueness of his family, a belief that he duly passed on to his own children. No other family in the Irish telephone directory spelt the patently Irish surname with an ``e'' rather than an ``a'' as the penultimate letter. To this day this appears to be the case. The story of the family name and the way in which that story grazed my life is described in an earlier chapter.
Cecil and Anne Brennen about 1945 Wilfred and Muriel Brennen wedding in 1939
So the soot and grime of the burgeoning industrial city of Belfast provided the backdrop to my father's youth. He rode a precarious train of merit scholarships first to a reputable Belfast grammar school, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where he seems to have studied mostly Latin and Greek and then later to Queen's University, Belfast where he studied medicine. Any interruption in the merit scholarships would have meant relegation from these elite institutions since he had no other means of acquiring the necessary financial support. No doubt this contributed to the single-minded determination that drove my father for the rest of his life. But he was not just a bookworm. Despite his small stature he was a good rugby player and captained his school's team when they won the Ulster School's Cup in his final year. He also enjoyed participating in the regular theatrical productions that the school opened to the public. In the audience for several of these productions, a young teenage girl sat with her father. She took special notice of the handsome young man playing Cassius.
My mother was the youngest daughter of an upper middle class family and lived her early life in the comfortable surroundings of the Upper Malone Road, Belfast. Her father, John Earls, had become the principal of Belfast Technical College and, therefore, a significant figure in Belfast society. He was a member of the board of governors of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and felt it his duty to attend their public theatrical productions. My mother's mother, Mary Arnold, was a wistful beauty who is difficult to separate from her tragedy. Indeed, in her early teens, my mother was to be torn from her comfortable surroundings by a devastating double tragedy. First her mother developed a thyroid condition and was sent to Glasgow for treatment. There she died at the young age of 48. This loss and the agonizing uncertainity that preceded it were traumatic for my mother. And she had barely recovered from this loss when her father died unexpectedly during an appendectomy. For the few remaining years of her immaturity, my mother lived with her unmarried aunt, Anne Earls for whom she had a special, lifelong affection. My mother tended ``Aunt Anne Earls'' in her last years.
Despite all these problems my mother graduated from Victoria College, Belfast, and therefore arrived at Queen's University by a more elite route than my father. My mother's sister, Irene, the subject of a later chapter, also arrived at Queen's about the same time. A mutual interest in drama led my father to an acquaintance with Irene and through her with my mother. Though Irene moved on to a degree and a career that included a stint as a member of the Northern Ireland parliament, my mother's university education foundered on an inability to conquer Latin.
James & Margaret Earls & family about 1893. John & Mary Earls about 1928
My parents were married under the penumbra of the second World War and I was born about two years later, four days before Pearl Harbor. I have some vague recollections of the terraced house at 6 University Terrace, Belfast where I spent most of the first four years of my life. It is probably only through the reminisences of my mother that I recollect sitting huddled under a cast-iron table (called an Anderson table) whilst Belfast was being bombed by the Germans. The naval refitting yard in Belfast Lough was an important strategic target for them though this hardly accounts for the phosphorus incendiary bombs that rolled off the high pitched slate roof of our house to burn themselves out harmlessly on the road outside our front door. Shortly thereafter my mother and I were evacuated to a cottage in the country while my father remained to practice his craft in the war zone.
Fortunately he was too old to be called to active service. His youngest brother Cecil did, however, join the British Army commandos at the age of eighteen and was involved in the landings at the Anzio beachhead in Italy. There he was caught in a German/American crossfire, riddled by machine gun bullets and knocked unconscious by an anti-personel mine. Last seen hanging from a barbed wire fence he miraculously survived to spend the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Cecil was one of the heroes of my youth for these exploits though I always felt uncomfortable with the consequences for he returned from the war to become a Presbyterian minister.
In 1943 my brother Michael joined me in the world. He remained my companion throughout my youth despite the usual childhood fights that seem no more than a superficial testing ground to me now. Michael and I faced the same juvenile wars, revelled in the same escapades and, later, tasted the same first touches with the opposite sex. But I race ahead again. When we were three and one respectively my father was recruited by the village of Magherafelt, County Derry to come and build a hospital to serve that rural area. He was to start with the 100-year old remains of a workhouse and a number of Nizzen (Quonset) huts constructed during the war. As a part of the deal the village would arrange to fix up a large Georgian manor-house on its outskirts for my mother and father to live in. And so, in 1945 we made the move to Magherafelt. My first definite recollection is of the huge trucks into which all the things I knew in life were being unceremoniously stacked, a most troubling development. But I also remember running at full speed through the marvellous grounds that surrounded our new home. In retrospect, it was a glorious place in which to grow up and when I think of it today, a lump still forms in my throat.
Moving to Magherafelt: I am in the lower right
In the summer of 1946, my second brother Colin was born. I dimly recall the sense of reassurance I experienced when my mother returned from the hospital. There she was in her dressing gown, amazingly unchanged by the horrendous contortions to which, I was led to believe, she would be subjected. Colin grew smaller in stature than my robust brother Michael. Being, in addition, three years younger meant that his inevitable lot was to struggle in our rather large wakes for most of his life. It is to his great credit that despite this considerable burden he carved out an individuality of his own.
The fields and forests around our house and the village of Magherafelt formed the playground of our youth. We built castles in the sky and ramshackle tin huts in earthen corners by crumbling stone walls. We roamed the drumlin-rolling fields as fleet-foot Robin Hoods secure in our mastery of the natural environment. We knew every hawthorn bush and barbed-wire fence, knew every cowshed that could serve as a castle and climbed the walls of abandoned quarries resonating with celtic mystery. And nearly always we returned in time for tea. We explored the ragged edges of our fear and daring. The threat of the slightly alien groups of Catholic boys we rarely faced head on, preferring to keep our make-believe world free of the nastiness we sensed in the adult community. Once or twice we were cornered, forced to fight back-to-back only to sense at that moment when the final punch or kick, the coup de grace, was to be delivered a certain fundamental humanity that would deflect the blow. And we sensed this not only in ourselves but also in the total strangers with whom we rolled in the mud. Strangely we would never admit to such feelings but would insist especially to our friends that the final outcome was some sort of arranged surrender or truce. In such fashion did we build within ourselves the barriers we felt were necessary to survive in the society that had spawned us, barriers it would take many years even to dent in later life.
Market Street, Magherafelt.
Last updated 8/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen