Catherine and Thomas Brennan

This is a story about my Irish grandparents who I never had the privilege of meeting. What I am about to share with you is gleaned from conversations with my father and some of his siblings, as well as family letters.

My grandmother was Catholic and my grandfather a Protestant. They both grew up in Caledon, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, a small village on the border between North and South.

A truly scandalous situation indeed…my grandmother’s family disowned her and wanted absolutely nothing to do with her and the local Catholic priest, on hearing that she was dating a Protestant lad, slapped her face.

As strange and foreign as the above may seem to us, in the North of Ireland relationships between Catholic and Protestants are still strained.  In fact, there is still a division in towns and cities, in that there are suburbs for Catholic folk and suburbs for Protestant folk. Having said that, there are organisations that are trying to bridge the divide by integrating parks and the like.

My father, in a letter to one of my cousins, said: “as a family we went through hard times, namely; The First World War (1914 to 1918), the Easter Uprising in 1916 and the stress of living on the border, as well as the coal strike, culminating in the Second World War.”  

Postcard from Grandfather to Grandmother during World War 1

My grandfather, having fought in the battle of Somme, suffered severe chest infections due to the use of mustard gas. Before and after the war he worked in the Woollen Mill.  At times, much to the disappointment of my Grandmother, he would spend his wages on drink. To be fair, I don’t believe anyone realised the devastating effect that war had on the psyche of the young men who were sent off to fight.

            “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

            -only the monstrous anger of the guns.

            Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle 

            Can patter out their hasty orisons.

            No mockeries now for them, no prayers nor bells;

            Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, 

            The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells……” 

Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth written during World War 1, gives us a small glimpse into the horror they lived through and experienced.

My grandfather and family

Consequently, my grandmother got a job as a weaver in the same Mill,  the older brothers each earned extra money by doing casual labour, while my father and one of his sisters got the younger siblings ready for school, prepared their breakfast and then tidied up before going to school themselves. My Grandparents had 11 children (two died in infancy) and my grandmother, in later years, adopted her eldest grandson. All in all they brought up 10 children.

By all accounts my grandmother was a well-liked and a highly respected member of the local community. However, she was not to be messed with and no-one dared disrespect her or her children.  One day, one of the youngest children ran home to tell my granny that the teacher was busy beating one of the older siblings.  She was so outraged, with her wet washing in hand, she stormed into the classroom, smacked the teacher around the ears for daring to beat her child instead of teaching him.

My grandmother, Catherine (right) and my godmother, Beatrice (left)

One of my Uncles moved to Manchester where he joined the Fire Department. During this time he had a love affair with a young woman, who fell pregnant and had a baby boy.  My grandmother on hearing this took a ferry to the United Kingdom, fetched the wee one and took him home to Ireland.  My father and his siblings doted on him, in order not to bring “shame” on the family; the story was that my grandparents adopted this little chap because “his parents were killed in a building that had collapsed”.  We all believed this story, all of us, that is until said adopted uncle decided to tell the truth.  He told us a fascinating story, when he was about three years old his biological grandmother and mother paid my grandmother a visit, they had come to fetch the little one. 

This angered my grandmother, who went to fetch the local magistrate, this is how the events leading up to his adoption panned out: my grandmother asked the magistrate to spell it out carefully, so that everyone present would understand, she was not handing the child back, instead she wished to adopt him, there and then she got the magistrate to draw up and fill out the adoption papers, she got the two women to sign to the effect that they were consenting to my Grandparents adopting him.  She then, in the presence of the magistrate, sent the two of them off, instructing them never to darken her door again or to make contact.  He was her son, she fetched him when he was a tiny baby and he was staying with his Irish grandparents and that was the end of the story.

I was thirty years old when the truth about the circumstances about Noel’s real story was made known.    This led to a long and painful discussion with my Dad; I asked him why he lied to us?  My father made it very clear that children born out of wedlock, in a very conservative country like Ireland where the relationship between Catholics and Protestants was strained and troublesome could and would only spell disaster for the child; therefore it was in everyone’s best interest to make up a story. 

I have the utmost respect for my Grandparents. I am so sorry I never got the meet them, particularly my grandmother. I identify so strongly with her, her kindness, generosity of spirit and above all her feistiness.  

My grandmother (Catherine), my father (Fred) and her youngest daughter (Mary)

Speaking of my grandmother, there was an alcohol ban in the North, Catherine decided that the best remedy for Thomas’s chest ailment would be a little shot of whiskey.  She travelled to the next village (on the South side of the border) to buy a little nip.  As she disembarked from the train in the North, the Garda stopped her, searched her bag and found the whiskey.  She took the bottle from the Garda, opened it and in front of them drank the whole lot, one shot. Oh my lovely funny, feisty grandmother.

Tonight, I am going to look up at the stars, and raise a glass to Catherine and Thomas, who in defiance of the state and the church never got married.

I long for the day when Ireland is united, that Catholic and Protestant folk set outside their differences and find each other and live in peace and unity.

In closing, listen to John Gary’s Irish love song ♥️🇮🇪🎶

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  • Sanette Cavallari

    A marvelous read that takes one on an experience through the most interesting lives lived ! Unstoppable !

  • Michelle

    As always Gail, you have written such an interesting post. You have a fascinating family history.