By Kathy McGee Burns
When you look into the eyes of Billy Brennan, you can see his passion for Ireland. It manifests itself in different ways. It can be fiery when he talks about injustice or teary when he relates the fate of the hunger strikers.
He is the bard … no, not a poet, but a keeper and teller of the history. And while he’s telling the story, you can almost reach into those eyes and see a Druid priest or a tartan-shawled warrior. Billy is an unsung rebel.
When I met him to do this interview, he showed me, so proudly, treasures, tributes, and triumphs gathered from years of dedication. He literally has hob-nobbed with the best; Lord Mayors (Gerald Goldberg), Crown Princes (Harald of Norway), Presidents (Mary Robinson), Taoiseachs ( Jack Lynch, Charles Haughey, Brian Cowen ), Gerry Adams, Frank Rizzo—the list goes on.
His resume is made up of years of volunteering. He’s been President of many organizations; member of even more. He is a lecturer, writer, editor, historian, librarian and contributor. As quickly as I learn of these achievements, Billy hands me a stapled list, four pages long, of some 132 names, all people he needed to thank for his success.
Billy Brennan is a Schuylkill man, born and bred, fiercely loyal and proud of it. He is the son of William and Sarah Bingham. His Dad died when he was 5 years old and his Mom, like so many women of her time and circumstances, had to work. His Grandmother raised him. Billy lights up when he talks about her. Mary Agnes O’Neil was a strong influence in his life. When she spoke, it was law. He told me of a story when he and his friends came upon joke books put out by PM Whiskey concerning Pat and Mike jokes. He came home laughing and telling Mary Agnes about it. She said, “No, Billy, they’re laughing at us.” This was an awakening to him.
Billy’s Grandmother died on his birthday and after spending 81 straight days, sitting in the hospital at her side, his spirits were low and depressed. He decided to go to the Irish Center. Lo and behold, he met Mary Agnes O’Neil’s gift to him, Mary Hughes. Six months later, they were married. Mary, a slip of a woman, Tipperary born, is a genuine, unpretentious, beautiful person infused with a strong sense of faith. The Brennans are now married 47 years. Sadly, they had the task of burying their only child, Neil William, in 2006.
Sean McMenamin, a long-time friend, places Billy Brennan in the same category as Dennis Clark, one who has preserved the history of the Irish in Philadelphia. He speaks for the generations who lived the tough times of the Depression up to the present days. Sean marvels at Billy’s search for the truth in history. He evokes a vision of Ireland that is comprehensive, not prejudiced to one view. His understanding of the evolution, pre-famine, times of the Troubles, immigration, even the Peace Accord is captured better than anyone’s. Billy presents the truth no matter where it falls. He is willing to see both sides.
Will Hill, President, AOH, Div.80 calls Billy Brennan “our very own history detective. He has unearthed, donated and documented an eclectic tribute to the Irish and their contribution to the world.” Frank Hollingsworth, who spends Tuesday night with Billy, says,” When he is asked a question, you can hear the wheels in his brain moving; his internal inter-net comes up with the accurate answer.”
Billy’s own words sum up his story, “I have many hobbies, but my first love is Ireland. I have devoted most of my adult life to the cause of Irish freedom and culture. An Irish Library was always my dream, and because of 132 people and organizations who donated their time, physical labor, funding, books and their moral support, the dream came true”.