We all have varying motivations for climbing our family tree, and it is not unusual to begin the search after the death of a loved one. Who are we, where did we come from, and what in our genes makes us the person we have become? How much is nature and how much is nurture is a common question.
After my father died, I realized there was so much more to him that I never asked about because I never considered the mortality of him. “Someday I would ask,” was the thought that I kept pushing to the back burner until one day, it was too late.
So I spent a year beginning to learn about genealogy research. I hit the library, read books, and found ancestry.com. Then it dawned on me that while Dad could no longer answer my questions, my mother was still around for me to pump her for answers to questions about her family. So I put the brakes on researching my paternal branches and moved onto my mother’s family.
I wanted to know it all, but I also hoped, deep down, that I would find a president, king, or brilliant inventor hanging from a branch. Don’t kid yourself, genealogists out there! Isn’t there just a small part of you that would love to stumble upon a famous cousin?
It turned out that Mom’s family has a B-list famous leaf—an Irish inventor of a torpedo which was used by the British military in defense of its harbors for many years. He was not an Einstein or Alexander Graham Bell, but he did make a noteworthy contribution. His name was Louis Brennan, from Castlebar in County Mayo Ireland.
As the unofficial family historian after the death of my aunt, I now had possession of a Brennan Bible. There were a few holes in my tree that I was unable to fill until I went to the Castlebar website, where I located the name of a local historian and tour guide named Brian.
Castlebar is a small town, and as such, Louis was a local legend. Brian graciously sent me photos of the Brennan family grave, which contained the remains of the missing members of the Brennan family, and included translations from Gaelic to English. That was not the end of the story by any means.
I learned that while Louis had become a wealthy man as a result of his torpedo, after the government funding for some of his other inventions ceased, he used his own money to invest in future projects. Sadly, he died in 1932 as a result of an accident in Switzerland and was buried in an unmarked grave in London along with his wife and two of his children.
As a result of years of painstaking work by a committee of locals from Castlebar, a new grave and monument marking Louis’ final resting place was planned. The ceremony was set to be presided over by Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Edna Kenny.
Although Louis was the father of three children, he had no grandchildren, so when I reached out to Brian, I became the token relative representing the family. Many emails and Facebook messages were exchanged, and eventually, I received an invitation in the mail.
Still, I was skeptical. Was the grandeur of the event exaggerated, and was it really going to be attended by both dignitaries and the press? My husband and I had no expectations, deciding, at worse, that we were going on a trip to London. We were instructed where to stay and what to wear, and when we arrived at the hotel, we were greeted with a warm welcome by an eclectic group from Castlebar.
We visited the church and gravesite the day before the ceremony, so we were able to view the plaque on the church wall and the beautiful headstone in private, “before the arrival of the crowds the next day.” I was told that I would be one of five individuals saying a short prayer after the homily by the presiding monsignor. Fortunately, this surprise honor was sprung on me with little time to get nervous. (I had always been of the belief that I would prefer to be eulogized rather than give the eulogy since I feared public speaking of any sort.)
When we arrived at the church the following day, I was delighted to see that a bagpiper was part of the ceremony. Apparently, no details were omitted. No Irish memorial service would be complete without the presence of a bagpiper.
My husband and I were directed to our seats—row 1—along with the Irish Prime Minister, Brigadier General Paul Fry of the Irish Air Corps, and Ireland’s UK ambassador, Daniel Mulhall. It was, to say the least, more than we ever anticipated.
The ceremony included two readings from the Bible, a homily by Monsignor Egan, and a lovely tribute by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. The service concluded with the Lord’s Prayer and singing of the Irish National Anthem, both in Gaelic, followed by the laying of the wreaths on the grave.
While at the gravesite, there were many photographs taken, many of which, included us. We were introduced to Mr. Kenny, and when he learned I was originally from New Jersey, he immediately spoke of The Boss—Bruce Springsteen. That was a conversation to make my family and friends back in New Jersey proud!
Until that day, I thought that the best party I ever attended was New Year’s Eve 2006 in Times Square. However, that celebration has now been eclipsed by the festivities at Flannery’s Bar in Wembley, where the reception after the ceremony was held.
The final surprise of the day was when I was presented with a lovely Louis Brennan Memorial plaque from the Castlebar Memorial Committee, which was handed to me by the Irish Prime Minister. Afterwards, there were many informal speeches, much laughter, tears, and the singing of several Irish songs by everyone in the bar. It was a day I will remember forever. So the moral of the story is that you just never know where your genealogy research will lead you. (For more details and pictures visit An 82 Year Old Wrong Finally Corrected.)
Then I turned to researching Dad’s story.