Brendan Bracken is one of the least known but most intriguing Irish personalities in history, writes Adam Shaw
A Dublin exhibition detailing the life of one of Ireland’s most mysterious figures has been extended due to popular demand. ‘Churchill and the Irishman’, hosted by the Little Museum of Dublin, is an intriguing collection of memorabilia surrounding Tipperary-born Brendan Bracken. A man who turned his back on his homeland, weaved a web of lies and held unmatched influence over Britain’s most famous Prime Minister, he does not get the coverage, whether good or bad, that he deserves.
His story – which is one of the strangest and most fascinating of the 20th century – is available for exploration until October 2. Born in rural Ireland in 1901 and growing up in Dublin as the son of a prominent Fenian and founder member of the GAA, Bracken was set-up to be as Irish as can be.
Throughout his life, however, he was described as, among other things, Polynesian, Jewish, Polish, Australian and British. It was the last of these that meant the most to him and, as a result, given the history between Britain and Ireland, he was forever isolated from his country of birth.
It started with a three year venture in Australia, when he was sent by his mother with £14 in his pocket to go and live with his cousin. Here, moving between various teaching roles, he developed a penchant for education, social mobility and occasional dishonesty.
“He was never reliable and can only be described as a fantasist,” said Jonathan Aitken, who met Bracken and lived in his famous 8 Lord North Street residence.
After a brief stint in Liverpool (where he secured a teaching post after posing as an Australian four years older than he was), Bracken set about taking on the British establishment. He embellished his name, introducing himself as Brendon Rendall Bracken, gave his age as 15 when he was in fact 19, and sought admission to Sedbergh, a public school in Yorkshire. In keeping with the unruly nature of his childhood, he only completed one term. But it mattered not, for he now carried the important title of “a public school boy”.
He built his stock up further by entering publishing and establishing a group of high-quality newspapers including the Economist and what would later become the Financial Times. He lived in a Westminster townhouse, employed a butler, a cook and a chauffeur and became a collector of fine art. He remained an unattached bachelor and leapt from one party to another telling tales of the rich and famous he had met at various gatherings.
“He was wonderful company, a great raconteur, full of charm and armed with plenty of good jokes – in that sense he possessed typically Irish traits,” Aitken said. He was said to be the inspiration for the social climbing colonial Rex Mottram in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited.
Bracken entered politics in 1929, when he was elected as MP for North Paddington, utilising the female population vote since, a year earlier, the passing of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act had granted suffrage to all women aged 21 and over. Potentially damaging rumours spread that he was a Polish Jew, and, considering this an even greater insult than his actual heritage, disclosed the details of his birth.
However, he made sure to play up his “Britishness” by releasing an accompanying statement which read: “Mr Bracken is British by birth and comes of a long succession of generations of British stock without any intermixture of foreign blood.” Potential scandal avoided, he cosied up to Churchill, forming what he described as “a party of two”.
“Churchill stayed with Bracken throughout what are known as his wilderness years and it became the centre of the anti-appeasement movement, which was not a very fashionable cause at the time,” Aitken said. “I came across a letter sent to another society lady from Lady Pamela Smith which read: ‘Went to Brendan’s house again. Would have been a lovely evening but, once again, Winston was there pacing up and down that huge drawing room, boring us all by telling us that Germany was going to rearm!!!!’
“But were it not for this group and the fierce opposition to European dictators, we would have lost the Second World War.”
Their relationship should not be undervalued; Bracken had untold influence over the dealings of Britain’s wartime leader and was at his side throughout his political career.
A great spin doctor; he knew exactly how to handle the press and acted as the ideal spokesperson for Churchill’s government. He was also extremely effective. He played an important role in Churchill’s election victory in 1940 and masterminded the cover-up of his stroke 13 years later.
It was his personal relationship with the Prime Minister, however, which is his greatest legacy. Brave enough to stand up to him when it was in their best interests and compassionate enough to reel him in when he got worked up, Bracken was the perfect foil for Churchill.
“He stood by him through thick and thin and was by his side throughout,” Aitken explained. “He arranged for him to stay in Lord North Street because he knew Churchill couldn’t afford a house in London.”
His life, unsurprisingly, can be summed up as one of contradictions. On a superficial level, he was an Irish Catholic who served in an iconic British government. But he was also a man who achieved all he wanted yet still remained unsatisfied. He was honoured with a viscountcy but, as he entered his 50s, became melancholic and feared he would die young and without legacy. Oesophageal cancer claimed his life in 1958. A heavy smoker, he passed away aged 57.
One could argue he was right about dying young, but he was wrong about not being remembered. In his youth, he was a delinquent notorious for fabrication but, as he grew older, he became an upstanding man who enjoyed fine literature and prided himself on employing high standards.
One thing that was clear was his strained relationship with Ireland, though this was not a one-way street. He concealed his Irishness to further his ambitions and was an outspoken critic of Eamon de Valera and other Irish political leaders. But he was also likened to a Jew in Hitler’s government for his unspeakable decision not only to forsake Ireland but to actively seek a position in the British establishment.
Things might have changed now in terms of Anglo-Irish relations, but through this exhibition at the Little Museum, visitors can glimpse into the past through the existence of a truly extraordinary character.
‘Churchill and the Irishman’ runs until October 2 at the Little Museum of Dublin.