The Brennans of Galway, Tennessee and Jarrow

The assistance of the following is gratefully acknowledged
Mary Brennan, Wilfred Brennan, Willie Brennan, Jerome Hanratty, Bonita Martin, Kim McGee, Bob Stutzman and Marie Utton

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This is the story of three families - or, to be more precise, one family with three main branches. It begins in 1858 in the far west of Ireland.

Cur, County GalwayThe Griffith Valuation of 1858 reveals that Patrick Brennan Snr, my great (x3) grandfather, was the tenant of a house and land in the townland of Cur in County Galway, near to Clonbur at the northern end of Lough Corrib. This was no vast estate - it measured 6 acres, 1 rood and 20 perches, with an annual rateable value of £5. In all, a total of 15 tenants held land in Cur - 9 Coynes, 3 Joyces, 2 Cains and 1 Brennan. Their landlord was the Earl of Leitrim. Cur is near to that part of Connemara known as 'Joyce Country', but on this evidence 'Coyne Country' would be more appropriate.

By the time of the next valuation Patrick's son, Patrick Brennan Jnr, is also recorded as a tenant of a house and land, extending to slightly larger dimensions - 10 acres, 3 roods, and 30 perches. This valuation book also records a massive reduction in the rateable value of the properties. Patrick Snr's had fallen from £5 to 10 shillings, and Patrick Jnr's was valued at £1 5s.

We have no firm information regarding the origins of Patrick Snr. According to oral tradition he originally came from Kilkenny, and took part in the rising of 1798, in action supporting the French forces under General Humbert which landed at Killala Bay in Mayo. After this was suppressed he moved to Galway.

Patrick Jnr was born in 1830/1, and around 1855 he married Margaret Kerrigan, born in 1835/6. No records exist of their births or their marriage, however the baptism of their first child John was recorded at Clonbur on 2nd May 1856. His godparents were Philip Kerrigan and Bridget Joyce. Michael, my great-grandfather, born in 1859/60, may have been their second or possibly their third child. No record exists of his christening, which is surprising since the christening of his sister Mary, born in Cur in 1861, does appear in the Clonbur church records. Her godparents were Philip Keragan (sic) and Mary Brennan. The child does not appear to have survived, as another daughter, born in 1866, was also given the name Mary.

Patrick Jnr had three brothers that we know of - Michael (born 1820), Martin (born 1828) and Joseph (born 1841).

Michael (born September 1820) emigrated to the United States in 1851 and was joined in 1852 by his wife Bridget (neé McGown - born February 1835). They settled in the township of McEwen, in Humphreys County, Tennessee, not far from Nashville.

The earliest land records show that the area in which McEwen is located was claimed in 1832 by James C. King, who obtained a grant of 35,000 acres from the state of Tennessee for the price of 35 cents per acre. He was known as a landgrabber, and was later forced to sell the land because of bankruptcy. In 1842, Frederick Knapp and James Neale of New Orleans bought a large tract of land with the intention of raising sheep, and brought with them a number of herdsmen, most of whom had very Irish names. In 1849 a travelling Dominican priest, Fr Aloysius Orengo visited this small Catholic community and under his leadership a Church was built, about two miles north of the present town. In 1855 the church was moved to its present site and a school was commenced. Over the next few years the Irish community grew as labourers moved in to work on the railroad between Nashville and Memphis. One of the civil engineers for the railroad company, a Mr McEwen, evidently impressed the populace as they began to refer to the town by his name.

When the Civil War began in 1861 the two groups working on the railroad from opposite ends were about to meet up at McEwen. To guard this strategic link the Union army set up a camp at Yellow Bank Trestle. Throughout the war Humphreys County was occupied by Union forces, although it had voted 1042 to nil for secession on June 8th, 1861. The area saw a lot of guerrilla action by Confederate forces, and in July 1863 there was a full scale attack on a Union storage depot in Johnsonville which resulted in the destruction of 95,000 tons of supplies and the capture of 150 Union soldiers before the Confederates retreated in the face of Union reinforcements.

grave of Michael Brennan
- McEwen, TennesseeWe do not know exactly when Michael and Bridget settled in McEwen, however the 1881 census records that all of their children were born in Tennessee. This suggests that they were there during the conflict.

Michael opened a dry goods store in the town, and also owned some land. He and Bridget had 14 children in total, but only six of these survived infancy, namely Ellen (born 1857), Mary Ann (1860), Bridget (1866), Michael Joseph (1868), Maggie (1871) and Patrick (1873). Ellen married Pinckney Octavius Wilkie, a railroad superintendent (born in 1848 at Catawba North Carolina), on 13th February 1879, and Mary Ann married Thomas Dannahir on 15th November 1881. Michael died in 1903 at the age of 83. In 1907 the town of McEwen was incorporated and Michael Joseph Brennan became Secretary and Treasurer. Bridget was still alive, aged 85, at the time of the 1920 Census, and two single children were living with her - Maggie and Michael Joseph (who had taken to calling himself Bud). Bridget died in 1923 at the age of 88. The last record we have of the family dates from 1939, when Michael J Brennan signed a witness form in support of the claim of Mrs Fannie Walsh to a Civil War widow's pension. This may seem somewhat implausible, but her husband, Patrick Walsh, had been 36 years older than her, born in 1840, and therefore quite capable of serving in that war. Fannie was his second wife, and they married in 1905 when he was 65 and she only 29.

In fact, at the time of writing (2005), the last surviving Confederate widow, Maudie Celia Hopkins, is still alive. The last surviving Union widow, Gertrude Janeway, died in January 2003.

Michael and Bridget are buried in adjacent graves in St Patrick's cemetery in McEwen, and close by is the grave of Pinckney and Ellen Wilkie, and three of their children who died in childhood - James Francis (aged 14), Annie (aged 3 months) and Mattie (aged 3). The grave of Patrick Walsh and his two wives is also close by.

Nine letters survive from the Tennessee branch of the family. Most are from the young Bridget to her cousin Michael, in Jarrow, dated between 1880 and 1882. Two contain pencilled notes from her father, in particular one in which he asks after his brother Martin and expresses the wish "That he would leave that place and come out here at once I would attend to him". After the Civil War life in McEwen must have been relatively uneventful, although in 1877 a certain Mr John D Howard, better known as Jesse James, rented a farm in the neighbourhood, no doubt causing a few tongues to wag.

The author, Willie Brennan and Monica - Cur 1996Despite his elder brother's pleadings Martin did not follow him to America. He remained at Cur, taking over Patrick Jnr's tenancy in 1863, and Patrick Snr's in 1864 (probably on his death). In 1886 he took over a house and 7 acres from Stephen Joyce, and in 1896 the valuation book carries an annotation "Thatched new house built for his son, former house used as office". The plot in question was the one formerly leased by his brother Patrick. In 1921 Martin was succeeded by two of his sons, Patrick and Joseph, who were still recorded as the tenants in 1941. The land then passed to Patrick's eldest son, also named Patrick, and eventually to the present occupier, Willie, who is the great-grandson of Martin.

Returning to the main thread, in 1871 Patrick Jnr and Margaret were living in Tullymore, to the north of Clifden. A son, Patrick, had been born in 1869/70, and another daughter, Bridget in 1871. Bridget was christened in the parish of Ballynakill on 20th November, but when Margaret, who was illiterate, registered the birth on 29th December she was unable to recall the exact date. The registrar evidently made his own estimate from Margaret's information, with the result that Bridget's official date of birth is 6th December - two weeks after she was baptised!

Margaret appears to have had a recurring problem with dates, as this was not the only error she made when registering her children. Margaret junior was registered as having been born on 3rd May 1874, but she was baptised on 26th April. Her sister Sarah's registered birth date is 19th January 1878, but she was baptised on 30th December 1877. The baptismal register gives their birth dates as 18th April 1874 and 22nd December 1877 respectively.

Some time after the birth of Bridget the family moved to North-East England and settled in Jarrow. Patrick obtained work as a general labourer. A daughter, Margaret, was born at 206 High Row on 18th April 1874. In common with many Irish immigrants of the time they had difficulties with the spelling of their name, and the child was registered as Margaret Brannen (and Margaret Brannon in the baptismal register). A further daughter, Sarah, was born at 201 High Street on 22nd December 1877, and registered as Sarah Brannan. Patrick was now working as a bricklayer's labourer.

By the time of the 1881 Census the family had moved to 13 Stanley Street. This was a street notorious for its overcrowded lodging houses, peopled almost exclusively by Irish immigrants. For example Michael McLaughlin's lodging house consisted of Nos 30 - 36 Stanley Street, and housed his own family of six, 2 servants, and 53 lodgers! Patrick Brannen (sic) was once again described as a General Labourer, as was Michael. The other children were still at school. It is from their ages at the time of this census - 50 and 45, that we can begin to deduce Patrick and Margaret's dates of birth. In addition to the family members No.13 Stanley Street housed another six lodgers, one of whom, Michael Welsh, was a cousin to Patrick. Another lodger was the ill-fated Coleman Joyce who, according to the Shields Gazette, had been attacked with a poker by Martin and Charles Coyne on 29th August 1880. Living close by at 17 Stanley Street was Patrick's younger brother Joseph, his wife Mary (nee Coyne, born 1839), daughter Mary (born 1872) and nephew Patrick (born 1860).

The Census record throws up an apparent error. Michael (born 1859), Patrick (born 1869) and Bridget (born 1871) are recorded as having been born in Ireland, but Mary (born 1866) has her place of birth given as Jarrow-on-Tyne. The baptismal records of St Bede's Church confirm that this is correct. Mary was born on 24th July 1866 and baptised on 29th July. It is unlikely that the family would have had the means to take a holiday in England, and suggests that Patrick first emigrated to Tyneside around 1863, when he gave up his tenancy at Cur, and then returned to Ireland before 1869, before emigrating for a second time prior to 1874.

Our next encounter with the family is in 1887, when Michael married Sarah Kelly, the daughter of Patrick Kelly. Michael had by this time become a bricklayer and was living at 17 Cambrian Street, Jarrow. The wedding took place on 3rd January 1887 at the Catholic Chapel in Bedford Street, North Shields.

Patrick and Francis KellyPatrick Kelly business cardPatrick Kelly (1830 - 1893) and his parents were among 3600 tenants evicted from the Mahon Estate at Strokestown in Roscommon in 1847. This led to Bishop Browne of Elphin writing an open letter of denunciation to the Earl of Salisbury which was published in the Freeman's Journal on 29th April 1848. Patrick's family is listed in this letter, a copy of which is displayed in the Famine Museum at Strokestown. By that time Major Dennis Mahon had already paid for his sins, as he was assassinated on 2nd November 1847. His killers were never caught, though two men were hanged for the crime. Patrick settled in North Shields, learned the trade of a boot and shoe maker, and married Frances Davis (1830 - 1902), with whom he had 14 children. In 1851 he opened a shop at Clive Street, North Shields, and as the business expanded opened further premises, including a shop in Market Square, Jarrow. Sarah, who had her own dress-making business, used to help out in the shop on occasions, and it is possible that she and Michael first met there.

On her mother's side Sarah was descended from a line of seafarers. Her grandfather, John Davis (1806 - 1845) sailed from North Shields on a variety of vessels including colliers and whalers. He met his end in 1845 when shipwrecked off the Moray Firth on a voyage from Liverpool to Berwick. His father, also named John (1774 - 1808) met an equally salty, though more swashbuckling fate. While serving on HMS Emerald during the Napoleonic Wars he took part in an attempt to seize a French schooner, L'Apropos, at anchor in Vivero harbour. They met with strong resistance, and in the end satisfied themselves with setting fire to the schooner and blowing her up. Sadly John was numbered among the 9 English casualties.

A remarkable photograph has survived which shows Patrick and Francis Kelly with 10 of their 14 children, together with spouses and some grandchildren in the back yards of 40 Nelson Street. It can be viewed by following this link.

Michael and Sarah's first child was born at 30 Cobden Street, Jarrow on 1st February 1888 and was named Michael Ignatius. Their second child was a daughter, Cecilia, who was born in 1890. Later the same year Michael's sister Mary married Patrick Holden, a labourer, on 27th August in St Bede's Church. Mary's home at the time was 64, Cambrian Street, Patrick being resident at no. 17. They took up residence in Castletown, Sunderland, where a son, John, was born in 1891. In the census that year they were recorded living at 89, Castle Street East, Hylton. There appears to have been a mass family exodus to Castle Street East. Mary's brother Patrick was also living there with his wife Catherine, lodging at no. 40, and her parents Patrick and Margaret Brennan were at no. 59. Margaret junior and Sarah were still living with their parents, and the household included four lodgers.

Sarah Brennan and family By this time Michael and Sarah were occupying 3 rooms at 49 Albert Road. He was still described as a bricklayer. Their life at the time must have seemed nomadic to Sarah, as one year later they were living at 25 Richard Street. Their third child was born there on 7th September 1892 and was named Wilfred.

Michael and Sarah had another five children - a daughter, Margaret Mary, born in 1895, another daughter, Frances, in 1897, a son, Henry Joseph (Harry) in 1899, and two more daughters - Sarah Mildred (Millie) in 1901, and Rosalie in 1904. The adjacent photograph shows Sarah in 1895 with Michael, Cecilia, Wilfred (in a dress) and baby Margaret.

Michael's sister Margaret married at St Bede's, Jarrow on 7th April 1896. Her husband was John Naughton, and the witnesses were William Carr and Sarah Brennan. William and Sarah themselves married at St Bede's on 4th January 1899. They had four children - Mary, William, Sarah and Margaret.

The family makes an appearance in Ward's Directory for 1897/8, where a Patrick Brennan, labourer, is listed as living at 56, Cambrian Street. This was Patrick senior - although his son Patrick lived at the same address he had become a bricklayer, like his elder brother Michael.

At the time of the 1901 Census Patrick senior and Margaret were still living at 56, Cambrian Street. Also living with them were Mary Holden (by now widowed) and her children Alexander aged 4 and Mary aged 2. Margaret Naughton's marriage had also been short-lived; John Naughton was killed in the shipyard two weeks after their marriage. The 1901 Census records her as a widow, keeping a general dealer's shop at 57 Albert Road, with her 6 year-old niece Winifred Holden as companion. She later married Michael Joyce, with whom she had four daughters - Nancy, May, Peggy and Winnie. Margaret and Mary's brother Patrick had suffered the same fate as their husbands, dying at 56, Cambrian Street on 30th August 1898, at the early age of 28. The cause of death was pulmonary tuberculosis, a notorious killer at the time.

Patrick junior's early death was tragic in that he left a young family. He had married Catherine Carnan at St. Benet's, Sunderland on 21st January 1891. The witnesses were his sister Mary Holden and a James O'Neil, who was lodging with Patrick senior. Catherine Carnan was from Scotland, having been born on 19th August 1871 at West Calder, Midlothian. Their first child, Sarah, was born at Castletown on 12th February 1891. At some point the family moved to Scotland, though the location of their Glasgow home is unknown. Three more children were born: John in 1892 at West Calder, Patrick in 1894 at Carnwath (a nearby village), and Maggie in 1897. The 1901 Census for West Calder records a Sarah Brennan aged 10, John Brennan (8), Patrick Brennan (6) and Maggie Brennan (3) living with their grandfather Patrick Kiernan aged 58 and his son, (also Patrick) aged 28. It is likely that these are the children of Patrick junior - Kiernan and 'Carnan' are the same name. Where was their mother? The census also records a Kate Brannon aged 27 working elsewhere as a domestic servant, but she is recorded as single. She could be the mother, however the most likely explanation is that she had also died from the same illness which claimed her husband

Margaret Brennan nee KerriganPatrick senior also ended his days at 56 Cambrian Street, dying from heart failure on 23rd March 1903. His funeral took place at St Bede's on the 27th. Both the Parish register and his death certificate record his age as 59 which would make his date of birth 1844. This is completely at odds with the 1881 census, according to which he was already 50, and the 1901 census which records his age as 78! The latter is certainly a clerical error as he was still apparently working as a bricklayers labourer at the time.

The 1901 census also reveals that Patrick senior's brother Joseph was by now deceased; living at 41 Princess Street were a Patrick Coyne and his wife Mary, together with two daughters (Bridget and Catherine), 8 lodgers and a Mary Brennan, described as mother-in-law to the head of the household. This Mary was Joseph Brennan's wife, her daughter having married Patrick Coyne at St Bede's on 10th September 1888.

It is not precisely known when Michael commenced employment at the Gas Works in Jarrow, but he evidently came to the attention of the management as a natural leader, and by 1899 he had been appointed Foreman and was living at 9 Salem Street. He appears in Ward's Directory for the year. In those days the main tool for man-management was willpower, backed up by the ability to use one's fists, and since Michael held a position at the Gas Company for the next thirty-six years he could not have been lacking in either. One anecdote which survives serves to illustrate the point: Michael had a black man (possibly an Arab) working for him whose life was made hell by the other men, one in particular. Michael took him to one side and told him to give his persecutor a bloody good hiding, adding that if he didn't, then he could expect to receive one himself - from Michael. The story goes that the black man took the advice, and Michael conveniently didn't see a thing.

The frequent moves continued. By 1910 Michael had become an owner-occupier - of 43 Harold Street, and it was here that his young family made the transition to adulthood. A number of photographs survive from this period.

Wilfred BrennanIn 1914 the war to end all wars - or so they thought, broke out in Europe. Wilfred joined the Northumberland Fusiliers as a trumpeter. The regiment was part of the 50th Division which comprised three infantry brigades - the 149th (Northumberland), 150th (York and Durham) and the 151st (Durham Light Infantry). The 149th Infantry Brigade landed in France on the 21st April, 1915, and without any preliminary war experience or time even to get the atmosphere of the front, they were thrust into the second battle of Ypres. Over two successive days they were required to counter-attack an enemy greatly superior in numbers, overwhelmingly superior in artillery, and elated with the success of the first recorded gas attack. Wilfred was gassed during this battle, but survived, and progressed to become a gunner with the 5th Durham Howitzer Battery of the Royal Field Artillery. In 1918 he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner to the Royal Air Force. He unsuccessfully applied for training as a pilot, being rejected on the grounds of poor eyesight. Remarkably this did not prevent him from becoming an observer in the RFC, and he saw service in the R.E.8 reconnaissance aircraft, ending the war with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in the newly-formed RAF. He had served a total of three years and 5 months, and for this he received the princely sum of £22 10s. in the form of a war gratuity together with the Victory and British War Medals and the 1914-15 Star. He also had to fight for some of his back pay!

Margaret Brennan, Michael's mother, had died at 21 Princess Street on 30th April 1916. Her death was registered by her eldest daughter Mary, by now Mrs Holden. The death certificate throws up a mystery in that it records her age as 72, making her year of birth 1844. This is unlikely, as she would have been only 12 at the birth of her first child! In the 1881 census her age was 45, making her year of birth 1836. This is a far more reasonable proposition and means that she was 80 when she died.

Mary reported the deaths of both of her parents, and it is interesting to note that in each case the supposed year of birth was 1844. I suspect that she did not know the correct date, and simply made what she thought was a reasonable estimate. In 1920 Mary emigrated to the United States with her youngest daughter Mary, aged 20, to live with her eldest daughter Winnie, by then Mrs Hight, living at 24, Chester Street, Boston. They arrived at Ellis Island on 24th July 1920 aboard the steamer Baltic from Liverpool. One interesting statistic recorded in the Ellis Island records is the height of each immigrant. Mary (elder) was only 4' 10"; her daughter was 5' 5"

Towards the end of the Great War the family received news that they must have been dreading - the young Harry Brennan had been tragically killed at Steenwerck in Belgium on 11th April 1918. A letter from his closest colleague to his mother illustrates the futility of the Great War, especially one passage where the writer seeks to comfort Sarah by assuring her that in a counter-attack later in the day "Poor Harry was most certainly avenged that night". He had been considering entering the priesthood before being called up, and vengeance would have been the last thing he would have wished for.

In 1918 Wilfred Brennan married Margaret Rooney, the third daughter of John Rooney who farmed Lake House Farm in Jarrow. They met at a picnic in Diebald's Field in Jarrow. They set up home at 130/132 St Paul's Road, buying the property in February 1920 for the sum of £50. In 1921 they moved to Bilton Cottages, and then later to Lake Terrace. My father, their third child, was born in Foxhole Dairy which was located behind Lake House Farm. After being demobbed from the RAF Wilfred made several attempts to become a tenant farmer himself, and in partnership with his father-in-law. He received some assistance from a former comrade in arms, Colonel Charles Brims, who promised to do what he could to help him find a farm. Unfortunately the exchange of correspondence ended in June 1924 with Charles Brims reporting no success in his endeavours. During the 1930's he also investigated the possibility of creating a golf course on land at Hedworth, but was unable to raise the necessary backing. A letter from the Harton Colliery records this short-lived venture. After John Rooney gave up the farm lease in 1925 he and Wilfred went into business as haulage contractors, moving to adjacent houses in Tweed Street. Among the drivers employed were George Rooney, John's son, George Shields, his son-in-law, and Bennie, George's brother (and later landlord of the Lord Nelson in Monkton Village). My father can remember accompanying one of the wagons on the North Shields ferry and being made to hide under a sack to avoid paying his fare - was this an early attempt at cost control, or a driver having fun with a small boy?

Diebald's Field was named after Robert Dyball, an itinerant from Norfolk who lived in a horse-drawn caravan with his wife Zipporah. The field was near to the Robin Hood public house.

By far the largest contract secured by the business was for the transport of bacon from ships in the Tyne to the Midlands. Unfortunately this contract landed the business with bad debts which reduced it to insolvency. At the time Jarrow Council were about to embark on a major project replacing outside privies, and Mr Rea, owner of Rea's Cafe and also a haulage contractor, urged Wilfred and John to carry on until this came through. They decided instead however to place the business in receivership. Wilfred "got on his bike" and went down to Falmouth to work in the naval dock yard. In 1930 the family moved to 14 Dilston Terrace. He had found work as a plumber with Jarrow Council.

The same year his father Michael was listed in Ward's Directory as "Weighman, 29 Field Terrace." There are gaps in the records, so it is not clear precisely when he took up residence at 74 Bede Burn Road, his last address, but the family were living there in 1936.

Michael spent most of his later years sitting alone in the kitchen at No. 74, reading the Irish newspapers and smoking his pipe. A hard man in his youth, age must have mellowed him somewhat, since his grandchildren learned to take liberties. A favourite question was "Grand-dad, when you were a boy how often did you go to the bog?". Michael, unaware of the nuance in the question, would come out with an answer that was guaranteed to send them into stitches. Their version of ping-pong involved trying to get the ball to bounce off Grand-dad's bald head. And whenever he leaned forward to spit into the fire (which he did quite often) several small boys would do the same, with much suppressed giggling. Michael died on 7th December 1938, and his wife Sarah, who had succumbed to Alzheimer's, followed him shortly afterwards on 29th January 1939. They were spared the terror and disruption of the Jarrow bombings which are described elsewhere on this site.

Wilfred and family moved to 12 York Avenue in 1940. He continued to work for Jarrow Council and became a Foreman Plumber. He had an active mind and had experimented with many things - early radio, linnet breeding, brewing (and distilling), and also dabbled with cine photography. Some of his films have survived and short extracts can be viewed on this site. He died in May 1955 at the age of 62 and is buried in Jarrow Cemetery

In researching this history of the Brennan family I have made contact with some far-flung branches of the family. Martin Brennan had many descendants, who, apart from Willie, live mostly in England and Australia, and I have exchanged information with some of them. The descendants of Patrick Brennan (senior) were also numerous. His son Michael's children live mostly in England, with some in Canada. Mary Holden and her surviving children settled in the United States, Patrick junior's children in Scotland.

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Rowlands Gill
revised and updated July 2005

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