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Newark, New Jersey, seemed cloaked in mourning on May 16, 1930. The sudden death two days earlier of City Commissioner William Joseph Brennan Sr. had eclipsed even the economic disaster enveloping the city in the early months of the Great Depression.
Thirty-eight years had passed since Bill Brennan arrived by steamship in the United States at the age of twenty, just another poor, anonymous Irish immigrant. An estimated forty thousand citizens—equivalent to 9 percent of the city's entire population—lined up through the night for a chance to enter the rotunda of City Hall, where his body lay in state. Standing vigil nearby was an honor guard of labor, police, and firemen Bill had led as head of the stationary firemen's union and during four terms as city commissioner. The next morning, six police horsemen and a marching band led off the parade of two thousand political, business, and union leaders accompanying the hearse. Three New Jersey National Guard airplanes dipped low overhead, dropping flowers on the mile-long funeral cortege. Throngs of somber onlookers lining Broad Street lifted their hats as the hearse passed by on its way to St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Seated in a carriage behind the hearse was William J. Brennan Jr. The younger Brennan, twenty-four, had rushed home by propeller plane from Massachusetts, where he was finishing his second year at Harvard Law School, when it had become clear that his father would not survive a sudden bout of pneumonia. But he had arrived too late to say goodbye to the man who, for decades to come, would dominate his view of the world and the course of his career.
In life, Bill, who stood nearly six feet tall, had overshadowed his still boyish-looking namesake, five feet eight, in every way. Brennan's classmates at Barringer High School teased in their yearbook that the commissioner's son got by thanks to “Dad's reputation” and predicted his ambition was “to follow dad.” Brennan had dutifully taken his father's advice and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and then Harvard Law, an Ivy League pedigree that far outshone the six grades of school Bill had completed. Brennan, soon to begin his first summer job as a lawyer, probably could not have imagined as he looked out on the massive funeral procession the extent to which he would exceed his father's professional achievements as well. Bill, however, had always expected nothing less from his oldest son.
William J. Brennan Sr. had bloomed late, his first quarter century in Ireland and America filled with far more failures than successes. Born on December 26, 1872, in Roscommon, a poor rural county on the border between central and western Ireland, about fifty miles north of Galway, Bill was the oldest of six children of Patrick Brennan, an illiterate tenant farmer from the tiny village of Cloonshanville, and Elizabeth Kelley, of Leggatinty, an equally small nearby town. Patrick Brennan had “married into” the Kelley farm, moving there and eventually taking over the tenancy. Bill's grandparents likely made do with a couple of cows, sheep and pigs, and some hens, just enough for them to survive the Irish potato famine that devastated Ireland a quarter century before his birth. Bill's parents, born just after the famine, stuck it out in Ireland even as millions of others fled.
Life for Bill, as for his ancestors before him, did not extend much beyond the nearest town of Frenchpark, where farmers gathered on Friday market days to sell animals and produce and to exchange gossip. Bill, who attended primary school intermittently when he was not helping his father on the farm, decided he wanted out. At the age of sixteen he traveled to England to work as an apprentice in an uncle's pottery business at Longton, Staffordshire, near Newcastle. Bill lasted only three years in the position before concluding that neither England nor his uncle's business was for him. In 1892 he set out for the United States. Family lore has it that he landed first in Boston, although Bill ultimately chose Trenton, New Jersey, as his destination.
Trenton, capital of the nation's pottery industry, was a natural choice, given his apprenticeship in the trade. But Bill's timing could not have been worse. The Panic of 1893 soon plunged the nation into a deep depression. Trouble in the pottery industry had started even earlier. Orders dried up, and factories-including the Maddock plant where Bill worked-shut down. With little education and no skills other than in pottery, Bill next followed the path traveled by earlier waves of Irish immigrants in New Jersey: manual labor. He found a job as a laborer on a gravel train on the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and quickly worked his way up to brakeman on the Lehigh Valley Railroad, although he soon lost that job too, during a strike in 1893. The victim of economic depression, free trade, and a broken strike in just his first months in America, Bill's loyalties would forever lay with the workingman.
Leaving Trenton in the summer of 1894, Bill headed to Newark, a brawny industrial boomtown fifty miles to the north. Although the city was overshadowed by New York, its more cosmopolitan neighbor just a few miles to the east, Newark's civic boosters exaggerated only slightly when they claimed its factories built every product sold in the United States. Downtown, smokestacks dominated the skyline above factories producing everything from beer and chemicals to patent leather and hoisting engines. Webs of telegraph wire and trolley cables ran above its cobblestone streets.
Newark seemed a place of limitless possibilities to immigrants like Bill, who boosted the city's population by a third, to 246,070, during the 1890s. With its population and industry growing rapidly together, however, Newark was also a place of considerable squalor. Nowhere did opportunity and poverty entwine more than in the industrial section of town along the Passaic River known as Down Neck, or the Ironbound, a reference to the railroad lines surrounding the neighborhood. Succeeding waves of new arrivals crowded into dilapidated houses adjacent to the neighborhood's many factories.
By the time Bill arrived in Newark, the children of the Irish immigrants who had first come to the city in large numbers during the famine era had begun to ascend toward middle-class respectability. Bill had to start at the bottom, right alongside the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. He laid tracks for the B. M. Shanley Company, then converting streetcars from horse to electric power, and shoveled coal at a licorice factory, a job that made him detest the taste or even the smell of licorice thereafter.
Then, around the dawn of the new century, Bill finally found steady employment at the forty-acre riverfront P. Ballantine & Sons brewery. As a stationary fireman, Bill worked inside the brewery's power plant, where enormous coal-fed boilers belched out the steam powering all the chutes and slides, fermenting vats, and mashers from which poured barrel after barrel of lager. Watching the boiler pressure gauges and repairing them when they broke put Bill in the middle of the boiler-room hierarchy, above the coal shovelers yet below the operating engineers who supervised the power plant. Coal dust filled the air. Temperatures rose well above 100 degrees in the summer. Still, Bill surely preferred the smell of beer to licorice. He enjoyed the camaraderie among the mostly Irish stationary firemen and may have had one of his coworkers to thank for introducing him to his wife.
Family accounts differ about how Bill, handsome, with wavy dark-red hair, met his slim dark-haired wife, Bridget Agnes McDermott. One version of the story suggests that Bill boarded at the same house on Plane Street in Ne...