The Ford Center regularly conserves a variety of family documents, many of which have interesting familial and historical connections. In the case of one recent Ford Center project, a church document illustrates the intertwined story of a family of Irish immigrants and the colorful history behind one Nebraska town.
An 1898 document commemorating Nellie Brennan’s First Communion in O’Neill, Nebraska, was brought to the Ford Conservation Center by her family for treatment. The certificate had been damaged over the years; the paper had accumulated surface dirt, was discolored with stains in many places, and had torn into several large pieces. As a result, treatment required numerous steps to make the document whole and preserve it for the future.
First, the torn sections of the document were cleaned to remove as much surface soiling as possible. Next, the document was cleaned through a washing process. Over time, chemical changes occur in a paper that often causes acidic degradation, which can manifest as overall yellowing or brittleness. Washing paper helps to release some of these acids and impurities, improving the paper’s strength and color. The colorful printing and hand-written inks on the Communion certificate were tested for stability before any washing occurred.
Following washing, the pieces of the document were carefully realigned and adhered to a piece of heavy-weight Japanese paper with a water-based adhesive. This step, called lining, made the certificate whole again and provided stable backing support for the document. Once the lining step was completed, visual disturbances in the paper along the torn edges drew attention to where small amounts of printed media had been lost when the initial damage occurred. Despite being stable, the tears were still visible and distracting.
In these cases, conservators often do inpainting with various media types, such as watercolors or acrylic paint, to improve the appearance. For the communion certificate, dry pigments were mixed to approximate colors in the original document.
The repaired tears are much less visible after careful color matching and inpainting with dry pigments. A conservator’s goal is not to hide repairs but to blend them in better with the surrounding tone of the paper and media.
Paper losses in the certificate, like the large missing piece at the right center, were repaired with toned ‘paper fills’. These ‘paper fills’ make the document more structurally stable, especially when large areas of the original paper are missing.
Following treatment, the document is cleaner and structurally stable. It is easier to read and can be safely handled and enjoyed by the family for generations to come.
More about Nellie Brennan
Ellen Claire Brennan (“Nellie”) was born on November 23, 1886 in O’Neill, Nebraska, the daughter of Irish immigrants Neil Patrick Brennan and Margaret Keyes Brennan.
Nellie’s Donegal-born father arrived in North America in 1867 and quickly joined the Fenian Brotherhood, a transatlantic political-military organization dedicated to the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland. In 1870, under the leadership of “General” John O’Neill, Neil Brennan and his Fenian comrades crossed the Vermont border and invaded British Canadian territory. The aim of the raid—remembered as The Battle of Eccles Hill—was to incite a rebellion on Irish soil or otherwise pressure England into relinquishing its control of Ireland. The operation was a calamitous failure; Canadian farmers held off the Irish militia until US Marshals arrived to break up the invasion and arrest many Fenians for violating US neutrality laws. In 1874, General O’Neill and Neil Brennan set aside their revolutionary aims and led a group of Irish immigrants to Nebraska, where they settled what is now the town of O’Neill, the state’s official Irish Capital. Neil Brennan was O’Neill’s second registered citizen; he operated a prominent hardware store in town, routinely raised funds for charitable and political causes related to the Irish diaspora, and served as First Lieutenant in the Nebraska State Militia. In 1894, Governor Lorenzo Crounse honored him with the rank of Colonel.
Nellie grew up in “Brennan Park,” the home that Neil and Margaret built for her and her seven siblings. She was a fine painter and excelled in school. She later married Edward S. Donahue and they had four children: Thomas, who became an attorney in Chicago; Edward (Ted) who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and later retired as a Captain from the US Navy; Dr. Francis (Frank) Damian Donahue, who practiced general surgery in Omaha for over 30 years; and Margaret Ellen (Nell) Donahue who was a nun in the Benedictine Order and taught art history and music at several colleges in the Washington, D.C. and Virginia areas.
In 1920, Nellie gave birth to her fourth child, Nell, and shortly thereafter died as a result of complications from that childbirth. In honor of Nellie and her family, eleven of her descendants proudly bear the names Ellen or Brennan, including Jack Brennan, born May 2023. Her family also celebrates Nellie’s memory by keeping and displaying works of art she created and other documents pertaining to her life.