Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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In the depths of the Second World War, Major General Emmet Dalton, former comrade in arms of Michael Collins and decorated hero of the battle of the Somme, made his way into the Ritz Hotel in blitz-weary London. Therein he met Lord Milton, heir to the Earl of Fitzwilliam, who introduced him to a tall man with bright red hair called Brendan Bracken. As someone with a keen eye on military intelligence, Dalton knew that Bracken was one of Winston Churchill’s most constant supporters, as well as Minister for Information in the wartime cabinet.

However, he also knew another aspect about Bracken’s past that few others were aware of.

‘Brendan and I know one another of old,’ he remarked as they shook hands. ‘We were schoolmates in Dublin.’

If he expected Bracken to pump his hand with warm recognition, he was to be disappointed. Bracken feigned not to know what Dalton was talking about.

As a cold shadow struck the group, Dalton took stock of the situation.

‘If you don’t remember me, Brendan, I bloody well remember you and those corduroy trousers which you wore, day in, day out, until you stank to high heaven. The smell is not out of my nostrils yet.’

Dalton’s account of meeting Bracken is among many anecdotes in Charles Lysaght’s definitive biography, ‘Brendan Bracken’, published in 1979, which tells the unlikely story of the Catholic Irish tearaway who rose to become London’s answer to Josef Goebbels at the height of the war. As Lysaght puts it, he was ‘the most significant native Irishman in English political life since Edmund Burke.’

Everything about Bracken’s ascension to the upper ranks of the British Empire was unlikely.

Joseph Kevin Bracken, his father, was a fiery, physical force Fenian from Templemore, Co. Tipperary. Known as JK, the elder Bracken was a stonemason and sculptor who was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood after a visit to the USA. He was also one of the seven co-founders of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in Thurles in 1884 and later became a key supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell.

However, as a monumental sculptor, JK’s principal client was the Catholic Church and so, in the interests of commerce, he found himself obliged to support the priests in their denunciation of his fellow nationalists. Such kow-towing went down poorly and he narrowly avoided being murdered by his former allies.

In 1902, JK relocated his family to Ardvullen House, Kilmallock, Co. Limerick. However, he succumbed to cancer in 1904, leaving six children by two wives.

Born on 15 February 1901, Brendan was JK’s second son by his second wife Hannah Ryan, the ‘hot-tempered’ but apolitical daughter of a prosperous merchant farmer from Borrisoleigh.

In 1908, four years after JK’s death, Hannah moved to Dublin with her four small children, as well as two increasingly hostile stepdaughters. They initially lived on Iona Drive, Glasnevin, then moved to North Circular Road, from where young Brendan walked to St. Patrick's National School, Drumcondra.

In 1910 he transferred to O'Connell School, the Christian Brothers School on North Richmond Street. The school had an intense nationalist ethos and among Bracken’s many schoolmates were the aforementioned Emmet Dalton and future Taoiseach Sean Lemass but nationalism was not on the agenda for the carrot-topped mischief-maker from Tipperary.

Bracken’s teachers conceded that he had ‘brains to burn’ but his outrageous conduct and incorrigible scruffiness was to drive them and his mother to the brink. He was an absolute menace to the neighbourhood, chopping down trees, popping hoses through open windows and turning the water on, catapulting pebbles at the window of the parish priest’s house. At his stepsisters wedding in 1913, he pinched the celebrant priests hat and ran away.

Pranks aside, he was an enterprising boy. When neighbours went on holidays, the 13-year-old offered to keep an eye on their bikes for a fee. Once they had gone, he rented out the bikes to others. His stepsisters also paid him to assist with their nocturnal breakouts from their home.

The young Bracken spent most of his earnings on newspapers, which he read voraciously. He produced his own version of a newspaper in his copybook and then charged people for the privilege of reading it. He also stood outside church and sold a news-sheet to his neighbouring parishioners who were thrilled and startled in equal parts to see the content comprised of gossip all about themselves. Mrs Bracken, the source of many of these tales, was mortified.

Brendan was also head of ‘Bracken’s Gang’, an unruly group who were constantly fighting the Manor Street Gang. After one such scuffle, an opponent nearly drowned in the Royal Canal and the Dublin Metropolitan Police gave Mrs Bracken a warning.

Exasperated, she sent her son to board with the Jesuits of Mungret College near Limerick, where he was soon ranked as ‘quite the cheekiest boy’ to attend the school. He made few friends although one teacher said he could have ‘charmed the birds off the trees’. He subsequently ran away and stayed in a series of hotels in Foynes and Rathkeale, under a false name, before finding work at a newspaper office in Limerick where he acquired a briefcase and a bowler hat.

Bracken could evidently not be tamed. His mother, who always kept an emotional distance from him, was now alarmed by reports that the boy was becoming increasingly interested in Republicanism. She arranged for him to go to Victoria, Australia, to live with her cousin Tom Laffan, a priest.

He arrived in 1916 and remained in Australia for four years, during which time he wandered far and read extensively, particularly when a gracious Brigidine nun let him roam in her extensive library.

It was in Australia that he began to invent stories about his past, claiming, for instance, that he had studied at Clongowes.

In the latter half of 1919 he returned to Ireland and found his mother, remarried to another Laffan cousin, living at Dollardstown, Beauparc, near Navan, Co. Meath. Sadly he was not hailed as the prodigal son but instead became embroiled in a bitter family row.

Bracken about-turned and moved to England where he very deliberately began the process of blanking out every aspect of Irish nationalism and Catholicism from his past. He found work as a teacher in Liverpool where his Australian accent must have come in useful, given that anti-Irish feelings were running rife with the War of Independence in full-flow.

He made enough money to enrol himself as a pupil at Sedbergh, a boarding school in Cumbria, where he claimed to be a 15-year-old Australian (he was 19) who had been orphaned when his parents died in a bush fire. Although his headmaster strongly suspected a grand fib, he was permitted to stay on and continued to study literature and history with aplomb, emerging as a perfect example of a British public school boy, albeit with an Australian twang.

His Irish past was all but forgotten as he advanced into the world of newspapers, becoming an editor for the London publishers Eyre and Spottiswoode.

He made his mark by commissioning articles from politicians such as Mussolini and Churchill whom he first met in 1923. The two became great friends but even Churchill claimed to know little of Bracken’s origins, once describing him as ‘a brilliant young Australian of quite exceptional powers and vitality’. Bracken was one of the few people who could shake Churchill out of his periodic fits of depression, the ‘Black Dog’ as he called it. Strange and unfounded rumours would circulate that Bracken was Churchill’s illegitimate son.

In 1929 Bracken was elected Conservative MP for the London constituency of North Paddington.

Stanley Baldwin, the party leader, described him as Churchill's ‘faithful chela’, the Hindustani word for disciple. Bracken was certainly a key figure in helping Churchill survive his years in the political wilderness but he was also a powerful figure in his own right. In 1928 he headed up a group who helped Eyre and Spottiswoode to acquire control of the Financial News, forerunner of the Financial Times, as well as the Banker, the Investors' Chronicle, and 50 % of The Economist.* He also founded History Today.

Arguably the seminal moment in Bracken’s career came when he masterminded Churchill’s succession as Prime Minister in 1940. Having ascertained that the Labour party would back him, he convinced Churchill not to support Lord Halifax, his only rival for the leadership.

Bracken helped Churchill move into 10, Downing Street, for which he was rewarded with a position on the Privy Council, or inner circle. When concern was expressed at his lack of ministerial experience, Churchill wrote to the king: ‘He has sometimes been almost my sole supporter in the years when I have been striving to get this country properly defended.’

Bracken went on to serve as an exceptional and pragmatic Minister of Information from 1941 to 1945. A spin-doctor par excellance, he also held his own against Churchill when need be, opposing the Prime Minister’s attempts to curtail freedom of the press, including the BBC. He also pointedly condemned de Valera and ‘those lousy neutrals’, maintaining that people of Irish stock living overseas were heartily ashamed of Eire’s wartime attitude.

After a brief spell as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1945, he was ousted along with Churchill in the post-war election. He devoted his remaining years to criticizing the dismantling of the Empire.

In early 1952 he was elevated to the peerage as Viscount Bracken, of Christchurch in the County of Southampton. He never used the title or sat in the House of Lords.

Bracken never married. He had some brief but fruitless courtships with society women. He was probably homosexual although Lysaght maintains there is no conclusive evidence for this.

The chain-smoker died from throat cancer on 8th August 1958. He was 57 years old, unmarried and without children. The viscountcy died with him. ‘Poor, dear Brendan’, wept Churchill.

Despite his Catholic upbringing and the efforts of a nephew who was a Cistercian monk, he refused the last rites. ‘The blackshirts of God are after me’, he told a friend, but they would have no success. He decreed that his ashes should be scattered on Romney Marsh. On his deathbed he asked his chauffeur to burn all his personal papers. As such, much about the man remains a mystery. And that is precisely what he wanted.

With manifold thanks to Charles Lysaght.

* In July 2015, Bracken was back in the spotlight with the sale of the Financial Times, one of his flagship newspapers, to Japanese media firm Nikkei for £844 million.