John Brennan’s remarkable life tells the story of Newport’s last 7 decades, of its proud Irish heritage, and about the self-made men and women – from Ireland and other countries – whose tenacity and courage helped build something beautiful in the country they adopted and cherished.
Born just outside of Sneem, County Kerry, Ireland, John grew up on his family’s modest dairy farm – cutting, stacking, and selling turf in the mornings before school, and selling it by horse cart to people in several nearby towns; tending to the family’s animals with his seven brothers and sisters; and walking with no shoes seven miles to the one-room school, so far away that he had to run home at the end of the day to get back before dark.
It was a demanding life in the family’s two-room thatched stone cottage, heated by the fireplace where they cooked. John used to say that, yes, it was hard labor and a lot of sacrifice, but it was filled with love, music, and dancing. Everyone around, it seemed, could play the fiddle or melodeon.
One Saturday, as a 12-year-old, he packed the cart high with turf he’d cut and dried himself, and headed out with Bill, the family’s horse. He worked all day in the rain, going town to town, house to house, until he sold all the turf. After dark, bone tired, he climbed up on the cart, told Bill to head home, curled up in the seat and covered his own head with his jacket. An hour into the journey, Bill stopped, John peeped out, and saw something in the road. Jumping down, he picked up a fist-sized roll of money tied with a string – a miracle!
When he got home at midnight, soaked to the bone, he awakened his father to give him this fortune. “You found it on the road?” he said. “That means IT’S NOT YOURS! So take it back. Right now. And give it to the police.”
Incredulous, young John got back on the horse, rode the three hours back in the dark to the police. A month later, he received a letter from an old woman from Waterville thanking him for returning her life savings, which she’d dropped in the road while rushing home in the rain. Tough love from his father built John’s character, he said, and always made him think twice about the effect of his actions on others, about what was right and wrong.
There was little opportunity in Ireland in those days, and every family watched their children leaving the poverty-stricken farms in search of work in London, Australia, America. At 17, John took his drive and indomitable spirit to London at the end of World War II, with his brother Bert, where they shared a small room. He worked as a doorman in night clubs, as a bookmaker’s runner rushing around with bets on the horse races, driving double-decker buses for London Transport, and then was selected by the London Underground to be part of the elite SWAT team dispatched into the subway tunnels to damaged tracks, which had to be replaced in the seconds between trains. He and his brother saved and sent what they could home to their father – an exciting time for a young man whose work ethic and energy knew no bounds.
Then, devastatingly, Bert was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The doctors and treatments swept away their life savings. John, who’d already lost his mother to cancer when he was 6, took on the care of his brother and supported them both.
Once, taking a ferry across a stormy English Channel to visit his dad in Kerry, with everyone with a cheap ticket was relegated to sit out on deck, getting seasick over the side, he met Mary McCarthy, a young and very seasick London nurse also from County Kerry. They vowed to meet again, on a particular day and time a month later, back in London, under the Jubilee Clock at Victoria Station.
The two married in London and had their first child, Bernadette. Still working full time for the London Transport, John partnered with an old friend from Dublin, Paddy Flynn, and the two started their own business renovating and building homes, 11 in all, the beginning of his career as a builder.
John’s ambition and talents were boundless, and the American Dream beckoned. He talked Mary into emigrating. She and Bernadette went first, moved to Newport, and into a room of a nursing home where she’d secured a nursing position. John finally finished and sold the last London house, hid his bicycle and tools in a hedgerow, and flew to Boston. If things didn’t work out in America, he thought, he’d come back and find them. They may still be there.
Here in Newport, John was hired as maintenance manager of the homes at Commodore Perry Village in Middletown. Mary worked as a nurse. He loved to remember how he could go into a bank here and borrow money to buy a house that needed renovation and get that money on faith and a handshake – halcyon days for young entrepreneurs. They bought a big, dilapidated house on Mt. Vernon Street, moved in, and started working every night to renovate it into five apartments. When it was still a workspace, they’d rent out floor space during the Jazz Festivals. Stories from the parties and music sessions in that house were legendary, and every year festival goers would still knock on the door to ask if they could spend the night.
John and Mary would buy another old run-down house, move in, and set to work every night to make it beautiful, then either sell it or rent it and move on. Their son Mark was born, and the family moved to Middletown to settle down, into the house of an elderly couple who needed nursing care.
All was right with this new American world of opportunity, which rewarded hard work. They developed good friends with other Irish families who had moved to the States. There were Irish dancing lessons every Sunday after church; they enrolled Bernadette and Mark at Cluny School with its country fairs, violin lessons, and strict Catholic education. Life was good, until Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Devastated upon her death, John threw himself into his work, always keeping his young children very close – continuing their family tradition of summers in Ireland to spend time with cousins and grandparents. By then he was building and selling new homes in Rhode Island, business was thriving, he won several massive Navy construction and painting contracts, and had a full-time crew of more than 20 men.
He had Bernadette and Mark driving from the age of 13, working for him before and after school, figuring out the payroll every week, delivering paychecks, and driving the truck to JT O’Connell’s lumber yard on Long Wharf, then out to the job sites with the day’s supplies.
He finished the family house they’d started building in Kerry and promised himself that he wouldn’t marry again for 10 years, so he could give his children stability and undivided love, a promise he revealed to no one for two decades.
Then, almost 10 years later to the day, he met Suzanne Rose, and began a whole new, and happy life. He always feared he wouldn’t find true love again but found so much joy in his 44-year marriage to Suzanne, who was beautiful, well educated, an accomplished schoolteacher, and who shared his love of Ireland; he was so proud of her. Their years together were filled with rewarding work, and travels to Turkey, London, Egypt, Italy, Canada, and all over the United States. They got a little runabout to enjoy the water, bought a condo in Ibis Isles, Palm Beach, and loved their winters together in the sunshine.
John loved coming back home to Newport just as much and liked driving around town in his blue RAM truck every day. Until recently, you’d always see him heading to Home Depot, or to one of his apartment houses or businesses – to fix a faucet, install a new hot-water heater, whatever needed doing. In his later years, he ended every day by stopping out to his 15-acres on Mitchell’s Lane, parking his truck near the pond and stone bridges he’d lovingly maintained for 50 years, and taking a walk to watch the ducks and the seasons; it was his favorite place.
A strong, passionate, generous man, with a great sense of humor, he could outwork and out-lift anyone, of any age. The men who worked for him admired and trusted him and loved hanging out and raising a glass with him. Self-made and self-taught, work to John was lifeblood and joy, and he measured people by what they contributed to this life, how they treated others, and what they were trying to accomplish.
He was his father’s son, living by a high ethical code in everything he did; this he also instilled in his own two children – one who grew up to be a jet pilot, the other a magazine editor – both of whom also partnered with him on all his business projects, and who considered him to be their best friend.
John wasn’t ready to leave this earth when he did. Still robust and sharp as a tack, he had much he still wanted to do and to see! But pneumonia contracted during this serious flu season was too formidable a foe. He died peacefully on December 27, 2022 – at the home he built in Newport. The people he loved most in the world were at his side, holding him close – his beloved wife Suzanne Brennan, his daughter Bernadette Bernon and her husband Douglas, his son Mark Brennan and his wife Gina, and his cherished granddaughter Hannah Noel Brennan, who is an actor in London. She always loved telling her Gramps which Underground subway lines she was using to go here and there. He could still remember them all.
A Mass of Christian burial will be held to celebrate John’s extraordinary life on Thursday, January 5, 2023, at 10:00 am at St. Mary’s Church in Newport. The burial will be private.
In lieu of flowers, donations in John’s memory may be made to the Museum of Newport Irish History, 648 Thames St, Newport, RI 02840, www.newportirishhistory.org.