Above: William Brennan, left, and Sean McMenamin, point out some items of interest in the Irish Center’s library to Irish Ambassador Michael Collins.
Frank Hollingsworth, a board member of the Commodore Barry Arts and Cultural Center, recalls a time when William Brennan was a guest at Villanova for a ceremony celebrating the digitization of the Commodore John Barry papers.
About 25 people were there, including the chairman of the board of Ireland’s County Wexford, Lori Dillard Rech, president of Independence Seaport Museum, and Villanova President Father Peter M. Donohue.
One by one, guests were invited up to the dais to give a brief talk about the historic event. When Brennan was asked to say a few words, Hollingsworth recalls, he stood up and offered these comments: “I think just about everything that can be said has been said. I don’t have anything additional.”
And then, Hollingsworth recalls with a chuckle, Brennan sat down.
Ironically, there was probably no one in the room who knew more about Barry than William “Billy” Brennan. His knowledge of Irish history, and in particular, the story of the Irish in Philadelphia, was encyclopedic, rivaling that of the late Dennis Clark. He was a keeper of the flame.
Brennan passed away July 28 at the age of 83.
This born and bred resident of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill neighborhood has been described as an “amateur” historian, but whatever academic letters after his name that he might have lacked, he was widely regarded as an expert’s expert—and not just Irish history, but the history of baseball and boxing.
Aside from his reputation as a historian, Brennan was deeply involved in the Barry Club, more commonly known as the Irish Center, from its earliest days. He was well-known and highly regarded within the Philadelphia Ancient Order of Hibernians community. He was valued as the kind of volunteer who couldn’t and wouldn’t say no.
Perhaps not surprisingly, he was a driving force behind the library at the Irish Center.
The center’s president, Sean McMenamin, a longtime friend, shared Brennan’s passion. He helped bring the library to fruition, around 1970.
Brennan had compiled a collection of books relating to Irish history, both abroad and here at home, and he and McMenamin were on the center’s labyrinthine second floor, looking for a place to build and install a bookcase.
“We figured we’d find a closet somewhere,” McMenamin recalls. In the middle of that maze was a hidden room over the center’s Fireside Room, and they made a hole to check it out. “Whoever made the ceiling over the Fireside Room did a good job. They made it structurally so you could put a floor in. We opened a hole in the wall with a box of books and we had a vision. We could see the potential.”
Which is precisely what they, with other volunteers, did, hauling plywood sheeting up the winding stairs from the Fireside Room. They installed a door. They placed carpeting on the floor. Someone installed a drop ceiling with lighting. Another volunteer built display cases. And then they started the process of creating the center’s library.
“Billy continued on with a friend, and the thing that really got a lot of stuff going was the Bicentennial Eucharistic Congress in 1976,” McMenamin says. “He was instrumental in putting together an Irish cultural exhibit. Billy wanted to make sure we were part of American history, emphasizing how the Irish were involved in American arts and culture. He researched things that were done by Irish immigrants dating back to the Declaration of Independence. We evolved from there.”
Brennan’s thirst for Irish history, McMenamin says, stemmed from his relationship with his grandmother, Mary Agnes O’Neil, who raised him. “That was what drove Billy,” says McMenamin. “He got stories from his grandmother about how things were. He understood what happened during the burning of the churches (during the Know-Nothing Riots of 1844). He had a lineage of people who passed these stories on to him. From stories his grandmother told him, Billy felt that the Irish from the Devil’s Pocket (an enclave adjacent Schuylkill) were not recognized. He would want to be sure that the Irish got their share of recognition.”
His appetite for details was insatiable. The more he learned, the more he wanted to learn, the more details he picked up, the more missing pieces of the puzzle he assembled. “He was involved in genealogical research when that kind of research was hard to do. He was kind of like a detective,” McMenamin says. “Give him a challenge and he would quietly take off. He was a Renaissance man. He could go toe-to-toe with anybody on the street. He could talk to the Irish ambassador, and the ambassador would look at him with awe. He was probably one of the most interesting characters I knew in my lifetime. He had no personal agenda. He was a guy who understood our history and just wanted to keep it flowing.”
In his eulogy, brother-in-law Tom Walsh echoed McMenamin’s sentiments, and observed that Brennan’s interest in history could be incredibly granular, extending beyond the big picture of Irish history. “Ask him for a question about Schuylkill,” Walsh said, “and be prepared for an interesting lesson. Bill was proud of his home turf and his lifelong church, St. Anthony’s.”
His love for Schuylkill also expressed itself in a drive to save homes in the area threatened by a proposed expressway through the area.
Brennan’s reputation as a historian endeared him to many organizations, including the Cavan Society, which asked him to research its own history.
Brennan himself had no siblings, Walsh recalled, but through his wife Mary (nee Hughes) “he had a host of relatives with Mary’s brothers and sisters in Ireland and her sisters in Philadelphia.”
Walsh recalled a slew of honors: The Delaware Valley Irish Hall of Fame, the Joseph Montgomery Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the United Irish Societies of the Delaware Valley.
In a later conversation, Walsh noted that Brennan was “a quiet guy, when it comes down to it. But anyone could come to him with a question, and he would dig into it and do research into it, and people loved him for that. He felt proud that people would come to him and ask him questions. He wanted to do a thorough job for them. For Billy, every ‘i’ was dotted and every ‘t’ was crossed.”